May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
On the twentieth anniversary of Watergate, a recently discovered diary reveals a similar conspiracy four decades earlier
Lawrence O’Brien, the head of the Democratic National Committee at the time of the Watergate break-in, was not the first O’Brien burglarized on behalf of the GOP. Forty-two years earlier James J. O’Brien, a suspected Tammany Hall ally and two-bit blackmailer, was the target of another Republican administration. In 1930, however, the burglars were drawn not from the CIA and disgruntled Cuban émigrés but from American Naval Intelligence. The mastermind behind this conspiracy was a millionaire friend of Herbert Hoover’s who was an officer in the Naval Intelligence Reserve and claimed to be acting under the President’s authority.
The main evidence for this strange story, so reminiscent of Watergate, appears in the recently uncovered diary of Glenn Howell, who in 1930 was the director of Naval Intelligence for the New York City area. Howell was no stranger to break-ins and espionage against his fellow citizens. In his 1930 diary he speaks confidently of infiltrating and spying on Communist cells and then arranging for break-ins and the theft of their files. But one particular job made him nervous.
On May 21, 1930, Howell met with the financier Lewis Strauss—Hoover’s friend, who was a lieutenant commander in the Naval Intelligence reserve—and Strauss told him that James J. O’Brien, a former New York City policeman who had been dismissed from the force in 1908, was planning to publish documents embarrassing to Hoover. Strauss said the President wanted to see what O’Brien had, and had authorized him to “utilize the services of any of our various secret services” to find out. Also present at this meeting was Lt. Cmdr. Paul Foster, who was both Strauss’s friend and Howell’s predecessor as head of local Navy Intelligence. Foster, a Medal of Honor winner in Mexico in 1914, had resigned from the Navy the year before and entered business, possibly with Strauss’s aid.
Here is Howell’s account of the meeting and the events that followed.
May 21, 1930
I left at four for the offices of Kuhn, Loeb and Company at 52 William Street, where Paul Foster and I had an appointment with Lewis Strauss. It is an extraordinary thing that he wants of me, and I think that I am reasonably safe in setting this down here with the understanding that whoever may chance to read these lines will keep his mouth shut until the passage of time makes silence unnecessary.
Now a book which has obtained a heavy circulation this year is The Strange Death of President Harding, an astounding—if true—set of charges preferred by one of the former White House detectives. There was probably a lot in Mr. Harding’s life that would not bear the light of day.
Now Lewis Strauss is a millionaire. He is married to the daughter of the Loeb of Kuhn, Loeb and Company. He is a partner in this noted banking firm. Another partner is William Wiseman, head of the British Intelligence Service in America during the World War and supposed by our people to have continued his activities here for an indefinite period after the close of the War. Sir William and Strauss are intimate friends. And Strauss is a lieutenant commander in our Naval Intelligence Reserve.
Now when Paul Foster had my job he believed in Strauss unreservedly. So do I—with certain reservations. However, when he asked Paul and me to this conference this afternoon I agreed to come with considerable curiosity.
Here is the problem.
But before I begin I must note down Strauss’s connection with Mr. Hoover.
Strauss was Mr. Hoover’s private secretary at a dollar a year when Mr. Hoover was serving in charge of Belgian Relief Work, and he is a close personal friend of the President. Four times in recent months I have noticed that Mr. and Mrs. Strauss have been guests at the White House over weekends. They are evidently close friends of the Hoovers.
The existing situation is this:
During the Presidential Campaign of 1928 [the Democratic candidate] Al Smith and [John J.] Raskob, his campaign manager, hired a man named O’Brien to collect some documentary dope on Hoover, drag out some written evidence that there were unsavory episodes in his past. However, what O’Brien collected and gave to Smith and Raskob was evidently valueless, for they used no mud during the campaign. For that matter neither did the Republicans.
It now seems that O’Brien didn’t give to Smith and Raskob the worst he got. He is again in the pay of Tammany and is in an office in the Salmon Towers, evidently preparing to publish these letters or whatever the documents are. [Smith’s friend William F.] Kenney owns the Salmon Towers, with Salmon, and Kenny is very thick with the Tammanyites.
Strauss told me that the President is anxious to know what the contents of these mysterious documents are; that he has no fear of them; but that he merely wants to know what they are about so that he will be in a position immediately to rebut them as soon as they are published, since prompt denial and rebuttal are the only things which can properly scotch such accusations.
To Strauss has been entrusted the job of finding these documents and arranging for a secret look at them by one of the President’s Secretaries—probably Larry Richey.… And Strauss is authorized by the President to utilize the services of any one of our various government secret services. So, belonging to the Naval Intelligence Reserve and knowing me, he decided to ask me to do this job. It is my function to arrange matters so that Strauss and Richey can have a look at these documents without their possessor knowing it.
I am going to tackle it, of course, but it’s a devilish awkward job, and I may very readily find myself in a hell’s brew of trouble. Doggone this turning up at the eleventh hour of my regime! I’ve been flirting with enough legitimate danger without walking out and sticking my head into a noose. Besides, the chances are very strong that I shall fail in this task. People with valuable secret papers don’t usually leave them out to be found.
My funds for this are unlimited.
Back to the office for an hour. Then into dinner clothes and to the Biltmore.…
May 28, 1930
At half past four Paul Foster and I met Lewis Strauss for another conference, and I made my decision as to how I shall go after those papers. My private dislike of Mr. Hoover has nothing to do with my duty to the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, and I am very desirous of getting to the documents in question.
Home for dinner and a long evening of three-handed bridge. …
June 25, 1930
I think that it is now time to log the developments of the Hoover case, closed today as far as I am concerned by the decision in Washington to drop it for the time being.
To get into the mysterious offices in the Salmon Towers was really not so hard. It took, however, a little manoeuvering.
I went there with my detective, [Robert J.] Peterkin [a subordinate of Howell in Naval Intelligence], to the floor of that building on which the office was located, the sixteenth. I had my eye on the Mac Mee Photo Company’s office, next door to that of O’Brien. By good luck, just as we arrived in the corridor the O’Brien was bowing a caller out of his office. I not only had a good look at the O’Brien but I saw past him into a spacious, comfortably furnished room with padded office chairs, and rugs on the floor, and pictures on the wall.
As soon as the O’Brien’s door was closed Pete [Peterkin] and I entered the Mac Mee office, where we had an interview with Mr. Meehan, president and manager of the firm. I had had Meehan thoroughly looked up and knew that he was all right. Then after a little talk with him, I was entirely satisfied that I could take him into my confidence to a certain extent. So I established my identity to his satisfaction, asked if he desired to do his country a patriotic service, and upon his eager affirmative told him that in this building were working the agents of a foreign government against our own United States. I explained to him that it was essential that I get at the files of these foreigners and that I probably would need to photostat some papers.
Mr. Meehan offered me the facilities of his office to do the photostating and agreed to install Pete as a salesman in the office and to give him a key so that he could have access to it at any time—day or night.
This happened on Thursday. Pete spent that night and the next day studying the place to dope out the best time to make our entrance to the O’Brien office. He got a soap impression of the door lock, and Bob Murray [apparently of Naval Intelligence] made us a key.
The following Monday morning, early, Pete and I went in. It was shortly after dawn, and we had been waiting several hours until the building was absolutely quiet.
It was with a beating heart that I inserted the key, turned the lock very quietly, opened the door, let Pete ease in, then slipped in myself, shut the door with care, turned the key in the lock on that side, and then turned to receive one of the greatest surprises of my life.
The room was absolutely empty. There was not a stick of furniture in it. Mind you, Thursday, we had seen past the gentleman being bowed out of this place a handsomely furnished office. We had been keeping an off and on watch on the place since then. And here on Monday morning—four days later—we find the room entirely bare! Pete and I looked at each other with open mouths and then with one accord shook with quiet laughter.
We examined the place. There wasn’t a clue of any nature. And when we left the Salmon Towers half an hour later we were none the wiser.
Then began an extensive investigation. Certain facts were easily established. The hegira took place Friday morning. That eased my mind, for it proved that my investigation had no connection with the flight. It could not, for not a soul in the world knew my plans except Peterkin. So it was pure coincidence.
Through the telephone people I traced the lawyer [Justin] Campbell, in whose name the Salmon Towers office had been. He has re-established himself in an office in the Lincoln Building, but it is small and he is now alone.
But what had become of O’Brien remained a mystery until the other day. All we could find out was that on the day of the flight trucks drove up and took everything away during a two hour period when Pete was absent from the building. No, nobody knew what address they moved to. No, there was no forwarding address for their mail. Nothing. Just a blank. They had covered up beautifully. But not quite.
Pete’s persistent though careful questionings finally got results. He found a freight man who had been casually hired for a special trip with a table they had forgotten to put on their trucks and had remembered afterward. Sure he remembered the address. It was so and so Greenwich Avenue.
His memory was correct. We found the O’Brien living there in the 4th story, furniture and papers complete but giving every appearance of having fallen on evil days. We shadowed him for a bit and then I came to the conclusion that no President of the United States need be afraid of a ham-and-egger like this O’Brien.
I told Lewis Strauss that my opinion was that the O’Brien has been these many months stringing along Tammany with the tale that he had the goods on Mr. Hoover. I believe that Tammany provided him with office space and facilities for preparing a book. I further believe that Tammany finally called him for a showdown and that the result of this showdown was the throwing out of Salmon Towers of the O’Brien—on his ear.
All these beliefs I duly retailed to Lewis Strauss, who transmitted them to Larry Richey who informed the President who told Larry to tell Lewis to tell me to call off my watch and to consider the case closed.
So closed it is, and that’s that.
Whether or not President Hoover actually authorized Howell’s mission remains unclear. Strauss emphasized the President’s commitment to the venture, but conceivably the financier, as Hoover’s loyal friend and political supporter, was acting without his knowledge. There is, however, some strong, indirect evidence that Lawrence Richey, the President’s confidential secretary, not only knew about the venture but even was an instigator. The evidence consists of two letters from Strauss to Richey describing the investigations, one dated June 9, 1930, and the other, undated, from a few days later. This in turn suggests—that is an acceptable inference—that President Hoover himself may have been involved.
Richey apparently had a taste for this kind of thing. He would later be suspected of carrying out other “dirty work” for Hoover and the GOP. At one point, in May 1933, Attorney General Homer Cummings warned the Roosevelt cabinet that Richey was directing an effort to penetrate the New Deal to gather embarrassing material. And decades later, in 1957, Richey turned over seventy-eight names to the FBI for checking—apparently in connection with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and presumably at the secret behest of Hoover himself.
On June 17, 1930, Strauss was in Washington, D.C., and he met with Richey at the White House. It is likely that they discussed the O’Brien case; the President may have been present. Strauss’s appointment book noted Hoover as being there, but Hoover’s own calender listed a cabinet session at the time. After he had returned to New York, Strauss, acting on White House directions—or so he told Howell—called off the surveillance on O’Brien. The case was officially closed. This early, almost laughable, Republican conspiracy was over, and the evidence about it would not surface for more than five decades.
But O’Brien’s obsession with Herbert Hoover was by no means over. Obviously trying to milk his meager findings for all they were worth, he turned up again in the news in 1932, when he sued a fellow blackmailer, one John Hamill, for publishing The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover, or Under Two Flags, which used material that both men had gathered but that only O’Brien had paid for. The book accused Hoover of having defrauded mine investors (”racketeering in the billions“) and of having failed to save the life of a British nurse from a German firing squad. The litigation dragged on for a year, during which time Hamill, under threat of libel, repudiated his own book and O’Brien published a similar volume, Hoover’s Millions and How He Made Them. Just a few weeks before the defeated Hoover left the White House in 1933, a New York court dismissed the case of O’Brien v. Hamill on the grounds that both “were guilty [through their books] of attempting to deceive the American public,” and therefore neither merited any legal relief in their bitter dispute.
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.