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On the twentieth anniversary of Watergate, a recently discovered diary reveals a similar conspiracy four decades earlier
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
“I opened the door and then turned to receive one of the greatest surprises of my life. The room was absolutely empty.”
Although both Howell and Foster pursued successful civilian careers, Lewis Strauss, alone among the clearly implicated participants in the O’Brien break-in, went on to much greater fame and power. By the late 1930s he had become a well-known philanthropist. Nine months before Pearl Harbor he took a leave from Kuhn, Loeb to use his business skills on behalf of the Navy. He soon became a rear admiral; after the war he served as a commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1954 he helped bring about the downfall of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had opposed the hydrogen bomb, when the physicist was brought before a security hearing. Strauss had tried to pick a “hanging jury” to hear the case, may even have bribed one of the judges, and secretly arranged with the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, to have the agency wiretap Oppenheimer’s and his attorneys’ phones. Strauss passed on the wiretap information to the AEC prosecutor—certainly a, breach of ethics and possibly a violation of law.
The clear evidence on Strauss in this 1930 conspiracy, the strongly suggestive evidence on Richey, and the disturbing implications about Herbert Hoover serve as useful reminders that Watergate had powerful antecedents.
Of course, the biggest difference between Watergate and the James J. O’Brien case, the ineptitude of O’Brien aside, is that Nixon got caught. If, in fact, Hoover was involved in 1930, then both Presidents broke the law. Yet what is so ironic is that if there had been no Watergate burglary, Nixon would have finished out the remainder of his term, and, very likely, the course of history would have been changed. Hoover, on the other hand, didn’t even need to get caught. He was soundly defeated at the polls anyway, and the conspiracy of 1930 became just another footnote to history.