Oral History Interview with
Agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1934-41; Chief Investigator for the Truman Committee (U.S. Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program), 1941-45; Chief Investigator for the Warren Commission on Organized Crime (State of California), 1948-50; and Assistant Counsel and Chief Investigator for the Kefauver Committee (U.S. Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce), 1950-51.
Harold G. Robinson
March 6, 1971
by J. R. Fuchs
See also Harold G. Robinson Papers finding aid
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened October 1971
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Harold G. Robinson
March 6, 1971
by J. R. Fuchs
FUCHS: What was your job?
ROBINSON: I majored in accounting, and at the time that I was in the FBI they used me on quite a number of, shall we call them "technical surveillances," that was the polite term.. You can figure out what they are.
My 220 pounds don't fit very good around the crossarm on a telegraph pole up there, particularly when it's icy; and an occasion came up where they called me and said the telephone man had been around, he saw the duplicate wire and they were wondering whether he suspected anything. So, I told them to go back up where I had put the jumper on and look around the bottom of the telegraph pole, and if there were footprints, there had been somebody up the pole, and if someone had been up there he'd have found it. So, they called me back and said, "Yes, it was pretty well tromped down and get over and get it out." Well, that pole had about an inch and a half of ice and sleet on it. It wasn't too bad going up, but after you get up
there you start figuring, "How the hell am I going to get down? At my discretion."
So, I wrote out my resignation. I felt that all of this work was confidential, nobody even mentioned it in any official reports of any kind. And I originally entered the Bureau as an accountant and when you put me back on accounting work where a report goes across the supervisor's desk now and then, it can probably take care of that salary deficiency that I was suffering. I was the man that nobody knew. So, they didn't quite see it that way, so I quit.
FUCHS: What year was that?
FUCHS: What year did you start with the FBI?
ROBINSON: ‘34. I ran the radio station to Hamburg, Germany. We fixed up the radio station that operated to Hamburg for a year and a half, that later became the theme of Confessions of a Nazi Spy -- no, The House on 92nd Street, that's the movie. I got fifty dollars a month from the Gestapo for serving as a sort of a double agent.
So, in any event, naval intelligence wanted me to come in and I went down and talked to them; and there was a question about my accumulated annual leave. The FBI was right at the peak of operation and they wouldn't talk about how much overtime you put in, never mind the
annual leave. So, it piled up. And the Navy said, "Well, of course, if you come in on a commissioned basis, it will be transferred; a civilian appointment is considered rather temporary in the Navy and your accrued annual leave won't transfer. I said, "It's nice knowing you fellows."
So, I went back to Justice at Ninth and Constitution and walked in to see Assistant Attorney General Tom Dodd, who is now United States Senator. I had worked on the Atlantic City National Bank cases with him years back when he was Special Assistant. Just as I went into Justice, Hugh Fulton came down in an elevator and he said, "Robby, you're just the guy I'm looking for. I hear you quit the Bureau."
And I said, "Yes."
"Well, I just got a call from Bob Jackson upstairs, the Attorney General, and I've got to go over to Capitol Hill and see some junior Senator from Missouri, I think his name is Truman or some such name as that. And where are you going to be tonight?"
And I said, "I'll be at the Raleigh Hotel."
FUCHS: How did he know you?
ROBINSON: Oh, hell yes. Fulton was a -- well, we go back
to the Associated Gas and Electric Company. Three hundred and eighty-two subsidiary companies. I analyzed one ledger account for one year and there were fourteen other agents besides me. Three hundred and eighty-two companies. You start with a transaction in the Rochester Electric and end up out in the Manila Electric, or all over. The company was put together by this accounting genius Howard Colwell Hopson. After working on it over a long period of time in the old Park Row Building across from the Woolworth Building there on lower Broadway, we submitted a report. Jake Rosenbloom who later went over with Dewey, said, "This is too big for our judicial process. In other words, I am supposed to unravel all of these corporate transactions to the point where I understand them, and then present it in a manner so that the twelve good men on that jury -- I'm supposed to communicate that to them, and it can't be done. This case is just too big for our judicial process."
He had a point. I'd hate like hell to have to be a prosecutor and try to orient the jury on what was involved in that case. It was too complicated. So, they appointed a fellow from Cravath, deGersdorf, Swaine and Wood, that big law firm in New York, named Fulton; and he came in and he called a staff meeting
of all the agents and said, "This is quite a report you've got here."
"And I'll tell you what we're going to do about it. We're just going to forget it."
And with that he threw the report over his shoulder into the waste basket. Well, there goes our labor of love for about twelve months and we were very much incensed.
He said, "Just don't get excited, here's what I'll do. I'll make you a promise. You go out and get me the answer to just one simple question. How much did he get? If you will do that then I will assure you that someone's going to end up in jail."
Well, this is Fulton's strong point. I think he's "the greatest" on cross-examination of anybody I ever knew. He'll lead you out to the end of a limb and then cut the limb off. Other Senate committees borrowed Fulton to cross-examine fellows like General [Brehon B.] Somervell. You've got to be sharp on your feet in order to be able to tackle that martinet general.
We went out and got the answer; Howard Colwell Hopson ended up in jail. We worked together on the William Fox case and the Fox Theatres case and the
Judge Davis Case; corruption in office, and the Martin T. Manten case in the First District of New York, he was convicted of misconduct in office. So, there were a lot of cases that I had worked with Hugh.
FUCHS: You as an FBI agent?
ROBINSON: I as an FBI and he as Assistant Attorney General. or a Special Prosecutor. So, he called me at the Raleigh Hotel that night, and he said, "Well, Robby, it looks promising, but there are a couple more things I've got to run out. You're going to be in town tomorrow?"
I says, "Yeah."
"Well," he says, "I'll tell you, this proposed committee is going to investigate the waste in defense spending in the hopes that by doing it concurrently with the program you can eliminate some of the waste. During the previous World War it had the Graham Committee who developed reams and reams of testimony on how not to run a war, and that's all it accomplished. But on the theory that you don't park your car by a fire hydrant when you see the cop on the corner, the fact that the committee's in being," he said, "it has its possibilities and it's not going to get into any military strategy, which was a mistake they made during the Civil War. But," he said, "Bob Patterson was a former Federal Judge in the Southern
District. We've had cases before him, he's now Undersecretary of War. Jim Forrestal of Dillon Reed, used to be with the Cravath firm, he's now Undersecretary of the Navy. I think if we get to an understanding with those two people, and convince them that this is not a witch hunt, that we want to do an objective, constructive job here, we can make it. I'm going to see them tomorrow." So, that's how this thing got started and our first effort was in camp construction. We were building camps at that time for soldiers. Manpower was short. I told General Somervell at one time (he was Constructing Quartermaster General at that time), I told him the story about the mental institution. They had a need for a storage building and they couldn't get it in their state budget, so the superintendent went through the inmates and he screened out probably ten of them that were a little more rational than the others, and then he did another screening and he picked the one outstanding out of the ten as sort of a foreman. And they started building the building and he stopped out there to see how they were going along. And the fellow who was nailing on siding, he'd dip in his apron and pull out a nail and throw it over his shoulder.
After about six or seven nails went over his shoulder, he'd get one and he'd drive it in. And the foreman went over to him and he said, "What's the idea throwing all those nails away?"
He says, "Some stupid guy put the head on the wrong end."
The foreman says, "You dumb bastard, those are for the other side of the building."
So, Somervell says, "That is what I've been building these camps with. That's what I've got." He says, "You've taken all this manpower in the country, and anybody can go down to Sears Roebuck and buy a saw and a square, not that they know how to use them, but they know how to buy them, and then he'd go over and apply for union membership and you're building camps. That's what I've been building camps with."
So, from there we went to ordnance plants and they sent me down to Memphis, Milan, Tennessee, just outside of Jackson, and about the same time I arrived in town, Investigator McTigue, I think his name was as I recall it, from the House Military Affairs Committee, arrived in town. And I called back to Fulton and I says, "Well, I don't know whether this is going to be a rat race, but this is Cliff Davis' home territory and he doesn't want any big scandal in his
FUCHS: He was who, Cliff Davis?
ROBINSON: He was a Congressman from Memphis.
Now, the Commercial Appeal was pushing. So, I said, "The way I got it sized up, I'll just mark time until they have their big clambake, Rotary luncheon and motorcycle escorts, and leave town, and I'm bound to have anything that they have and the Commercial Appeal is only too happy to give it to me because they know I'll do something with it; and if we come up with more than they came up with, then their faces will be red."
He said, "That's good strategy."
So, I sat back and the Commercial Appeal made the Pulitzer Prize for that expose.
FUCHS: The year, do you recall the year that it was?
ROBINSON: No, but I have a clip here about it. I was staying at the Peabody Hotel and had a call Sunday morning -- these are the little colorations I think that you want as to the man. Got a call about seven thirty in the morning.
I said, "Yes, sir."
"This is the chairman."
I said, "Oh, Senator, where are you?"
He says, "Downstairs in the lobby. Now, I thought it was a nice day, how far is this ordnance plant from Memphis?"
"Oh," I said, "about sixty miles up country."
"Be just a nice drive. We're going to have hearings on it tomorrow and I want to know what it looks like in the flesh."
So, I came down and we had breakfast, and started up country. As we were going along, we got talking about one thing or another, and I said something about how I liked to get out in the backyard and dig and do a little gardening here and there and he says, "You and I both Robby. You know, Margaret's got one more year at the Denver School of Music [or the Colorado School of Music, wherever she was going]. I'll get that out of the way, and just give me one pair of Headlight overalls and I'll be happy back on the farm."
He didn't want that White House. He wanted to finish his term as a Senator and go back home. So, we got out there and drove all over the project and came back.
I like to make sure that my witnesses are going to be available when the hearing starts. It's embarrassing as hell when you try to call a witness and he isn't there, he's "chickened out" or something
Well, these are all Army employees. You recently heard what happened to Fitzgerald, the cost analyst on the Navy overrun on the F-105. He isn't there anymore. The services say that they don't do any recrimination, but you're talking to a guy that saw it in its early years. They most certainly do. So, like a condemned man, you give him his last big meal. I said to these boys, "When you get to Memphis call me and I'll check you in and make sure you're going to be on deck the following morning." So, they'd call me and of course, we had to have a snort here and there, or as the Senator used to say, "A little bourbon and branch water."
And they come up to my room. Brewster and Truman went out to some affair, I believe it was. So they come back in about 9:30, 10 o'clock, and by that time the witnesses going to the execution the following morning were a little bit boisterous in my room. As Senator Truman and Brewster came down the hall Brewster is a teetotaler, he doesn't even drink coffee -- and they hear the laughter and a little noise in my room and, "Isn't that Robby's room?
Truman says, "No, I think he's two doors down the hall."
He knew it was my room. How can you hate a
guy like that?
When we started off on the Committee, there was an article that appeared that was put together by the Committee staff on the work of the Committee, and it appeared in the American Magazine. After it was published -- of course, it appeared over Truman's byline -- the American Magazine sent a check down, and as I recall it was thirty-five hundred bucks to pay for that article. Truman sent it back and said, "I didn't write it, it was written by the staff."
The American sent the check back to Truman, and said, "We published it, the people liked it, and we want to pay for it." Just as simple as that.
So, he came to me and said, "Robby, you know you've run undercover funds before, and there are a lot of times that something will come up that you want to buy information or something and you can't get it through the disbursing office, with all their regulations, so take this check and open a special ac