Hoover, J. Edgar (1895–1972)

J. Edgar Hoover, first head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is recognized for the creation of the first nationally organized federal crime bureau, begun in 1924. Since his death in 1972, Hoover’s actions with regard to civil rights and liberties have come under greater scrutiny. But many scholars have come to believe that despite his questionable reputation, Hoover’s actions reflect more of who he was and his own personal principles than any kind of malevolent or vindictive motive-driven man that his public may have seen him to be. Nevertheless, whatever his motivations, as director of the FBI he often had very little regard for the civil liberties of American citizens.

Hoover’s career began during World War I, when he was hired by the Justice Department’s Enemy Alien Bureau to help process the arrest of enemy aliens. After the war, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer put Hoover in charge of investigating radicals. He was a key player in the red scare and the Palmer raids of 1919–1920, which led to the arrest of thousands of socialists, labor organizers, aliens, radicals, and social reformers. Subsequently, Palmer and the Justice Department were discredited because of their massive violations of civil liberties, and the Radical Division of the Justice Department was shut down. Hoover, however, stayed in the Department and moved to the Bureau of Investigation in 1922. Attorney General Harry Daugherty appointed Hoover assistant to the director of this new bureau. Daugherty, friend and ally to then-President Harding, was impressed by Hoover’s knowledge of the president’s political opponents, and his use of this information to gain favor and advance his position. Hoover introduced to Daugherty his knowledge of communist infiltration in America, of which Daugherty was unaware at the time. By impressing government officials with his foresight and expertise in international intelligence, Hoover was able to gain continual attention within the department that would increase in status and power.

Hoover’s rigid character and stringent principles set the pace and standards for a then less than upstanding Justice Department. Staff included Jess Smith, Edward McClean, and Gaston B. Means who were each involved in private dealings and illegal practices that included payoffs by underground alcohol distilleries and drug traffickers. Deception ran rampant throughout the department, including special agents with questionable loyalties to both Germany and Great Britain.

Hoover’s first task was to rid the department of questionable characters, who he reasoned were a detriment and liability to the bureau’s work and reputation. Hoover’s talents of persuasion and tact enabled him to successfully rid the office of dubious characters like Means, who in addition also posed a threat to his own position within the bureau.

Hoover’s first recognizable accomplishment and service to the department was the arrest of Edward Kleagle Young Clark, the person responsible for the organization and success of the Klu Klux Klan in Louisiana. Hoover had received word from journalist John M. Parker of a secret visit in 1922 from New Orleans Mayor Paul Wooton to Attorney General Daugherty with a note pleading for protection from the Klan. Daugherty had dismissed Wooton’s repeated calls. With the growing threat from white supremacists and little support from the local police force, domestic violence and murder increased through out New Orleans, and Wooton was desperate for help. At least six individuals from the police force had been identified as being members of the Klu Klux Klan. Citizens were being forced to vacate their homes under the premise of racial cleansing; individuals were being beaten, whipped, and brutally murdered; and the number of KKK members was growing. Hoover was anxious to increase his authority and expand investigations. Allegations against the Klan included violating authority and law. In addition, Hoover was intent on putting an end to the contempt he saw from law enforcers. Interestingly enough, Hoover himself was not opposed to the idea of white supremacy. He was, however, outraged by the challenge to authority that he saw taking place among the organized leadership and members of the Klan.

On May 10, 1924, Hoover was promoted to the position of acting director of the Bureau of Investigation. From this point on, Hoover would reorganize the department into a national crime-fighting organization. Early successes would include the arrest of highprofile criminals like Charles ‘‘Pretty Boy’’ Floyd, ‘‘Machine Gun’’ Kelly, and Robert ‘‘Big Bob’’ Brady. Hoover deftly made the bureau’s agents into heroes as they sought out famous criminals. As an example, bureau agents were hired to kill John Dillinger on a street in Chicago in July 1934. In 1935, the Bureau was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation with Hoover as its director. From the 1930s on, Hoover worked especially well with the media—including the movie industry and later television—to ‘‘sell’’ the FBI to the American people as the protector of American values and culture. Films included James Cagney’s The G-Men (1935), the Jimmy Stewart film The FBI Story (1959), and the television series The FBI (1965–1974), starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., which all served to make Hoover’s organization seem to be above politics and incorruptible. In fact, of course, Hoover was always deeply involved in politics, leveraging his information to gain power within the federal government, and using his agency to suppress those he feared or hated, whether they were communists, Nazis, or civil rights leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hoover’s principles and work ethic stood out as unsurpassed in stringency and severity, demanding from his staff a rigid compliance with bureau regulations. Hoover’s orders to his agents elicited both a fear and certain control that had never before existed in the bureau. Agents with questionable backgrounds were immediately dismissed, new candidates were required to have degrees in law or accounting, and members of the Bureau with associations to those who posed any threat to Hoover’s position were investigated. Work was conducted like clockwork. Memos and correspondence were triple checked for accuracy. Field offices in other states were modeled on the Washington hub, with parallel routine and conduct down to the physical appearance of each office. Hoover was systematic. Orders were carried out without question and the outcomes were beyond comparison to any federal investigative agency that had existed thus far.

Hoover’s own personal character was reflected through his work conduct. He expected nothing less from his staff than that which he required of himself. Hoover’s belief in authoritative control reflected what would soon brand him to be a hero. America was indebted to him for ridding the country of hoodlums, mobsters, and bandits. Hoover brought to the bureau a new perspective in undercover detective work.

The economic and political climate of the 1930s brought with it uncertainty and distrust. Fascist infiltration became an increasing concern in the minds of Americans who worried about an attack on the heartland. Hoover targeted Nazi groups that were developing bases of support in America, particularly the Bund, under investigation for possible espionage and trading of American intelligence secrets with Nazi Germany. Hoover immediately took action, wire tapping phone lines and positioning secret agents to sever and dismember the party. Hoover proclaimed fascism to be an even greater concern than that of communism, saying that it targeted the very foundation upon which this country was built. Hoover’s actions led to the eventual deportation of members of the Bund, including German-born Americans. This action was subsequently shown to be questionable and without legitimate evidence. Backed by President Roosevelt’s growing paranoia over enemy invasion, Hoover was free to exercise whatever tactics he believed necessary to address the issue and alleviate the country’s growing concerns.

With the onslaught of the Depression and the decline of the economy, the United States was in a state of near collapse. The crime rate increased while the reality of war and Germany’s attacks on Poland, Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, and Denmark ensued. Although the federal law passed in 1934 made wire tapping a felony, Hoover reasoned that its usefulness in uncovering international espionage made it legitimate. President Roosevelt reaffirmed Hoover’s decision, sending him a memo expressing his gratitude and appreciation for the bureau’s continued efforts and support in protecting America’s interests. Subsequently, Hoover was praised for raising an estimated $3,488,000 to continue the Bureau’s investigations of international intelligence, sabotage, and the uncovering of German and Japanese spies.

December 7, 1941, marked a national date of infamy for Americans. On that day Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the United States declared war against Japan and Germany. In the 1930s, Hoover and the FBI investigated Nazis as well as communists and leftist radicals. He gathered information of the arrest of Axis sympathizers, and helped secure arrests immediately after the United States entered World War II. Although notorious for his lack of sensitivity to civil liberties or the rights of minorities, Hoover opposed the Japanese internment on the grounds that the FBI had already arrested or neutralized any potential Japanese saboteurs or spies. Thus, Hoover felt that the relocation and internment camps were unnecessary. However, he did encourage illegal wire tapping inside the relocation centers, and supported secret agents to uncover possible harbored information.

By this time, Hoover had gained a public reputation for his encroachment of civilian privacy, and for good reason. During Roosevelt’s administration, in 1942, Hoover suspected First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of having communist ties. His distrust for her led to an investigation. She was alleged to be having an illicit affair with the charismatic radical Joseph Lash. While on a trip to Chicago, Eleanor’s hotel room phone line was tapped. The fabricated evidence, planted recordings of Lash and Eleanor, was revealed and was dismissed by the president. However, Hoover’s aggressive tactics continued, and in January 1942 he authorized what came to be known as ‘‘black bag jobs.’’ This tactic, of allowing agents to break into homes legally and conduct surveillance, intruded on the privacy of citizens under the auspices of federal business.

The 1950s held much tension across America as racial segregation and civil rights were brought to the forefront. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, an African-American woman was arrested for refusing to ride in the back of the bus. A seamstress and one-time secretary to the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), her actions precipitated a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. This led to one of the first major movements that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would lead for civil rights.

Hoover was reluctant to accept racial equality and made known his feelings to FBI staff members. Hoover was concerned over the growing power of African Americans across the country. He was decidedly against racial intermarriage; holding to his own standards and biases, he sided with whites who were intent on continuing the practice of segregation.

The United States was in a period of high anxiety, in part due to the growing hostilities with Russia, fear of communism, and the danger of a nuclear attack. The country was on high alert and every effort to pursue those suspected of involvement with communism was taken. Hoover also saw this as an opportunity to discredit the civil rights movement and African-American leader Martin Luther King Jr. by tying him to the threat of communism. Hoover used King’s close association with Stanley Levison and Levison’s hiring of Jack O’Dell to tie him to communism. Hoover’s investigation found that O’Dell had ties to the Communist Party; King was then portrayed as a threat to national security.

Obsessed with tying King to communism, Hoover became enraged by Dr. King’s questioning of bureau’s misconduct and behavior. As King told reporters: ‘‘One of the great problems we face with the FBI is that the agents are white southerners.. . . To maintain their status . . . they have to be friendly to the local police and people who are supporting and promoting racial segregation.’’

Wanting to rectify the situation, and prevent further information from leaking to the press, Hoover phoned King. The African-American leader was reluctant to respond and did not answer phone calls. Enraged by the lack of respect to authority that King exhibited toward Hoover, this slight encouraged the director to pursue King and his followers using tactics and threats harmful to both his reputation as a religious leader and activist. In Hoover’s eyes, King needed to be brought to justice for the communistic influence and lies and deceit he was spreading to Americans.

Hoover was successful at influencing Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the president about the potential ties to communism that King had through O’Dell. Both Kennedy and the president tried persuading King to stop communications with O’Dell, but without success. Hoover ordered King’s and Levison’s phones tapped; many conversations were recorded.

On August 28, 1963, King delivered his speech on Capitol Hill to a quarter million people. The success of King’s declaration was nationwide. Millions of Americans across the country listened while King called for equality, uniting citizens with the fundamental understanding of King’s vision. In an attempt to soothe Hoover’s wrath, Assistant Director Sullivant wrote a memo to the director stating: ‘‘We were completely wrong.. . . I believe in the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday.. . . We must mark him now . . . as the most powerful Negro in the nation.’’ On October 10, 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy gave Hoover the permission to tap King’s private home. Throughout the following years, Hoover would continue to tie King with communism, and would use whatever methods available to him, illegal or otherwise. Hoover also tried to smear and destroy King’s reputation by taping his private moments, including his extramarital relations. For Hoover, King was an enemy of America, like the communists or the Nazis, and thus he was prepared to use any means, fair or foul, to destroy his reputation. This is some evidence that Hoover was going to threaten King with making this evidence public, in order to force King to commit suicide.

By this time, Hoover’s reputation was in sharp decline. With the media publicly denouncing his actions toward Reverend King, and Hoover’s reputation for privacy encroachment, Hoover was struggling for balance. As Time Magazine wrote: ‘‘J. Edgar Hoover has many old foes . . . has made many new ones.. . . [U]ndoubtedly there will be pressure on the White House to boot the old fellow out of his job.’’

The 1960s and early 1970s brought new voices and issues, ranging from Black pride and the Black Panther Party, to young militants in the antiwar and civil rights movements, and the Watergate break-in, all of which the FBI targeted for investigations, among other activities. Hoover’s reputation had fallen from grace with attendant cover-ups, sabotage, political blackmail, illegal surveillance, and invasion of privacy, and blatant deception. On May 2, 1972, America’s ‘‘watchdog’’ was dead. Hoover’s private secretary had fulfilled her last instructions by the director and destroyed all personal files containing dark secrets ranging from black bag jobs and hired killings to itemized reports on royalties and paid vacations. Later material began to resurface, and Hoover’s activities were reexamined; disturbing facts still concern historians today.

Despite his flawed reputation, Hoover wanted to create a Justice Department that would protect the American citizens from what he viewed as criminal activities. Many scholars have come to believe that his obsessions corrupted an otherwise respectable law enforcer. Hoover’s flaws and greed for power cannot be denied, yet his performance for ridding the department of disloyal staff and carrying out government orders was stellar. He has been commended on several occasions by various presidents, and his greatest legacy to the United States is the FBI.

MARIA STILSON

References and Further Reading

  • Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
  • Hack, Richard. Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Beverly Hills, CA: New Millenium Press, 2004.
  • Summers, Anthony. Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1993.

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