J. Edgar Hoover

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J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) was the aggressive director of the FBI and its predecessor for nearly a half century, 1924 to 1972. Besides fighting crime with modern methods, Hoover was a staunch opponent of Communism, and his FBI became the chief agency for tracking down enemy espionage.

Hoover was a glamorous bachelor who dated Hollywood actresses and society figures and was often seen in public. Hoover was demonized by liberals, upset by his linkage of Communism to revered liberal heroes like Martin Luther King; they falsely charged he was a cross-dresser and homosexual.[1]

Conservatives admired Hoover for his use of modern scientific methods to stop crime and upgrade the technical skills of police departments across the nation. Due to his tireless efforts during the Cold War to stop domestic terrorism, American Communism never recovered as a political or social movement. Hoover became an American icon as the man who created and led the FBI for a half century of depression, world war and cold war. He prospered so long through fierce determination, self-confidence, close attention to details, a gift for public relations and an ability to convey his vision of American values regarding patriotism, civic duty, fighting corruption, and strengthening the home, school, church and traditional moral values.


John Edgar Hoover was born in Washington, D.C. to well-educated, low-ranking government officials. He graduated from public schools, and, skipping college, earned law degrees at night from George Washington University in 1916 and 1917. He was a lifelong Presbyterian, but always worked well with Catholics and Jews. In 1917 he went to work for the Department of Justice (DOJ), which expressed the prevailing Progressive Era emphasis on scientific efficiency and professionalism. Hoover promoted this philosophy throughout his career, As an administrator of alien enemy matters, he dealt with detention or parole for citizens of Germans and Austria who violated the World War I Alien Enemy Act.

After the war, he moved up to assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, a liberal Democrat. Hoover became effective head of the General Intelligence Division, where he worked with state and local officials to collected information on radicals. Hoover and his staff compiled data (using index cards) on 450,000 potential radical aliens by 1921. He orchestrated the federal arrests of 6000 radicals who sought to overthrow the government, and deported 250 of the most dangerous aliens, most notably anarchist Emma Goldman.[2] In 1919 Hoover led what are called the "Palmer Raids;" it is more accurate to call them the "Hoover Raids."

Reviewing radical pamphlets calling for a violent overthrow of the U.S. government convinced him that Communists posed a significant danger to American values. He agreed with the Congress and courts that held that aliens seeking the overthrow of the government can be deported, and put it into action.

Crime Buster

As the nation reeled from the Great Depression, the news media (newspapers, newsreels, magazines and films) glorified a new breed of outlaw, the glamorous gangster. The standard script included a cops-and-robbers soap opera complete with blood, sex, death, money and amazing, hair-raising escapes. The media coined colorful nicknames for them -"Gentleman Johnny" Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, "Ma" Barker, Bonnie and Clyde, and "Baby Face" Nelson. The hapless cops were depicted as stupid Keystone cops (after the famous buffoons in the silent movies). Money from illegal liquor fueled the gangs, and provided fast cars that crossed state lines.

Only a national solution could solve the problem. Bank robbery became a federal crime and Hoover found the solution: scientific detective work by the best trained "G-Men" (government men). As Dillinger slipped out of one trap after another, the media speculated that Hoover might be fired for the failure. Instead, Hoover doubled the size of his anti-Dillinger squad and dubbed the outlaw "Public Enemy Number One," a moniker the editors loved. He also offered a $10,000 reward for information on Dillinger's whereabouts, and that brought immediate results. Hoover promised that G-Men would soon catch up with the rest of the nefarious bank robbers. Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed in Louisiana in May. In October, G-men gunned down Pretty Boy Floyd. In November they killed Baby Face Nelson in a gunfight that left two G-men dead. In January 1935, the G-Men cornered Ma Barker and her son Fred in a Florida and blew them away.

Only one Public Enemy was at large, Creepy Karpis. Hoover has been mocked because as a bureaucrat who never actually arrested anyone in April 1936 flew to New Orleans, where he could joined the team that nabbed Creepy; "Put the cuffs on him, boys," Hoover said.

The gangsters got their ballads and films, but the real winner of the war on crime was Hoover and his agency. At first the small bureau was little known. When it ended, Hoover and his renamed "Federal Bureau of Investigation" (1935) became iconic symbols of fighting crime, hailed in newspapers, radio shows, comic strips and James Cagney's hit movie G-Men. Thanks to Hoover, the media now lionized the good guys not the criminals.

Besides an organizational genius, he proved himself a master of the Washington arts, as he was able to convince the public, and Congress, that the FBI deserved more money, personnel and power. Increasingly he forged direct ties with the president in office, bypassing his nominal superior the Attorney General. By setting up services for local police, especially training programs in scientific methods and a national fingerprint database, the FBI built a solid connection with police departments across the nation.[3]

The FBI's headquarters, the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington D.C., was named after him in 1972.

FDR's domestic spying

In 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly directed Hoover to investigate and monitor the activities of American Nazis. Hoover provided information on the small numbers involved, most of whom were recent immigrants from Germany. Soon soon Roosevelt wanted reports on the prominent American conservatives who opposed his foreign policies. FDR leaked reports to his political friends to use in attacking conservatives. When the debate on intervention in World War II heated up in 1938, FDR had Hoover redouble his efforts, looking especially at the famous hero Charles Lindbergh, long an opponent of Roosevelt. Hoover found no evidence linking any of the conservatives to Nazi Germany.[4] FDR's supporters nevertheless smeared the isolationists[5] as friends of Hitler, fascism, totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, and even treason. Echoes of the false allegations were repeated against conservatives for decades, even today.[6][7]

After the Nazi-Soviet pact, Hoover began investigating US Communists. The Soviet Union responded by having the KGB's Section A for Disinformation and Active Measures fabricate disinformation smearing Hoover's character. Service A produced clumsily forged letters linking Hoover to the John Birch Society, and accusing him of pressuring a State Department employee to turn over information on suspected leftists.

The KGB leaked forged letters to left-wing gossip columnist Drew Pearson, two of whose legmen, Andrew Older and David Karr, were Soviet assets, and planted a disinformation story that Hoover was a homosexual.[8]


Hoover worked closely with all presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt and after, keeping track of political enemies of the presidents as well as threats to national security. During the Administration of President John Kennedy, the president's brother and Hoover's boss, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had the FBI wiretap Dr. King's phone on a trial basis due the fact some of Dr. King's associates had Communist tides; this was later expanded during Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency; which undermined King.[9]

Further reading

  • Breuer, William B. J. Edgar Hoover and His G-Men (1995) online edition
  • Fischer, Nick. "The Founders of American Anti-Communism," American Communist History 2006 5(1): 67-101 online in EBSCO
  • Geary, Rick. J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography illustrated by the author. 112p. (2008) reasonably good biography for middle schools, told in comic book style.
  • Powers, Richard Gid. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1987), the best scholarly biography, but with a liberal bias
  • Powers, Richard Gid and Daniel M. Finnegan. G-Men, Hoover's FBI in American Popular Culture (1983) online edition


  1. As historian Stanley Coben concludes, "No persuasive evidence exists of a homosexual relationship, despite sensational gossip to the contrary." Stanley Coben, "J. Edgar Hoover," Journal of Social History v 34 #3 (2001) 703-706, quote on p. 703; in Project MUSE. Only one disreputable witness ever claimed Hoover was a cross-dresser; no friend or enemy in 50 years noticed this trait. Claire Bond Potter, "Queer Hoover: Sex, Lies, and Political History," Journal of the History of Sexuality v. 15 #3 (2006) 355-38 in Project MUSE shows the myth was invented by the left to discredit conservatives, and notes also that "the fall of Joseph McCarthy hinged on liberals' use of homosexual gossip." Systematic refutation of the lie appears in the book by a harsh critic of Hoover, Alan Theoharis, J. Edgar Hoover, Sex and Crime: An Historical Antidote (1995).
  2. She had tried to murder a leading industrialist, but the pistol used by her accomplice missed the target.
  3. Kenneth O'Reilly, "A New Deal for the FBI: The Roosevelt Administration, Crime Control, and National Security," Journal of American History 69 (December 1982)
  4. Douglas M. Charles and John P. Rossi, "FBI Political Surveillance and the Charles Lindbergh Investigation, 1939-1944," Historian 1997 59(4): 831-847 in EBSCO
  5. A practice known as "brown smearing," "brown baiting" and "right baiting."
  6. Wayne S. Cole, Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932-1945 (1983) p. 530
  7. Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anti-Communism. (New York: The Free Press, 1995) ,163, 294-295.
  8. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (Basic Books, 2000) ISBN 0465003125, pp. 234-236
  9. Herst, Burton (2007). Bobby and J. Edger. pp. 372–74