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J. Edgar Hoover

The Justice Department

Hoover worked at the Library of Congress for five years while attending night school at George Washington University. He received a law degree in 1916 and went on to earn a master's degree in law before passing the bar exam (a test to determine suitability to practice law in a state) in 1917. In July of that year, three months after the United States entered World War I (1914–18), Hoover obtained a draft-exempt position with the Alien Enemy Bureau of the Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ would be his only employer in a Washington career exceeding fifty-five years.

The Palmer Raids

America was affected by a series of severe social conflicts following World War I. Skyrocketing prices, nationwide strikes, revolutions throughout much of Europe and signs of a serious threat from radicals at home created a sense that the nation was under attack. Passage of both Prohibition (Eighteenth Amendment, making alcohol illegal) and Women's Suffrage (Nineteenth Amendment giving women right to vote) in 1919 reflected a change in the national character.

The fear of communism and political conspiracies ran high, in a phenomenon called the "Red Scare" from the association of Soviet communism with the color red, later a prominent color of the Soviet Union's flag. The perceived threat of a communist menace escalated in 1919 with a series of bombings against leading politicians. Public outcry reached fever pitch on the evening of June 2, 1919, when a number of bombs were detonated within an hour of each other in eight eastern cities, including Washington, D.C. One bomb partially destroyed the home of newly appointed attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936).

With President Woodrow Wilson preoccupied with the World War I peace treaty and bedridden by strokes, the nation's problems fell under the jurisdiction of the attorney general. New to his position, Palmer depended on the advice of his employees. He assembled a new General Intelligence Division (GID) at the Department of Justice with responsibility for investigating the strength of radical political organizations in the United States.

Palmer recruited J. Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and appointed him chief of the GID. By the fall of 1919 Hoover reported that radicals posed a real threat to the U.S. government. He advised drastic action be taken against a possible revolution. Under intense pressure from Congress and the public, Palmer clamped down on political dissent and agreed to deport many alien (foreign) radicals. Because the peace treaty had not yet been signed, Palmer decided that he could make use of extraordinary wartime powers under the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Espionage Act of 1917.

These acts made it a crime to interfere with military forces or promote the success of enemies of the United States. Palmer and Hoover orchestrated a series of well-publicized raids against any socialist supporter deemed capable of carrying out terrorist acts.

The "Palmer Raids" were conducted in over thirty cities nationwide with the arrests made by members of the Justice Department along with local police. The raids came without warning and focused on aliens rather than citizens whenever possible. Thousands of suspected radicals were arrested, most without proper arrest warrants and held without trial for up to four months. After investigation of each case by the Labor Department, the majority of those held were released.

In December 1919 only 248 of those arrested were actually deported. They were placed on a ship called the Buford bound for the Soviet Union. The public lost interest by the spring of 1920 as further terrorist attacks failed to materialize. By the fall when a bomb exploded on Wall Street, most American's considered the attack to be an assault by a deranged individual rather than a socialist conspiracy.

With many of America's youth at war, the DOJ was understaffed and Hoover's rise was rapid. He was placed in charge of a unit in the Enemy Alien Registration Section and by 1919 was appointed chief of the new General Intelligence Division (GID). He was special assistant to attorney general and presidential hopeful A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936). At the age of twenty-four, Hoover was given responsibility for directing a newly formed section to gather evidence on revolutionary and politically radical groups.

Earlier, while working at the Library of Congress, Hoover had mastered the Dewey decimal system (a numbering system for cataloguing library books) with its classifications and numbered subdivisions. Hoover decided to use that system as a model to create a massive card index of people with radical political views. Over time 450,000 names were indexed. Detailed biographical notes were written on the 60,000 he considered the most dangerous.

From these lists Hoover directed the arrests of suspected radical communists who were caught in the dragnet of the so-called "Palmer Raids" (raids in over thirty cities on aliens known or suspected of being political radicals resulting in thousands of arrests; see sidebar). From the court records in subsequent trials, Hoover also added to his files the names of hundreds of lawyers who had been willing to represent radicals. Hoover stands next to a map of the United States that shows his FBI agents throughout the country designated by numbered markers. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

His firsthand investigation of American and foreign communists, along with the intelligence files he began gathering, made him the government's first expert on domestic communism.

The Palmer Raids had the desired effect of reducing membership of the American Communist Party. Hoover was rewarded by being promoted to the post of assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) in 1921. At that time the BOI employed mostly law school graduates and accountants and had limited power in law enforcement. The agency's main function was to investigate criminal violations of federal law.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawJ. Edgar Hoover - Born On Capitol Hill, The Justice Department, The Palmer Raids, Hometown Advantage