John Edgar Hoover
John Edgar Hoover served from 1924 to 1972 as the director of the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI). During his long tenure, Hoover built the FBI into a formidable law enforcement organization, establishing standards for the collection and evaluation of information that made the FBI an effective crime fighting agency. However, Hoover's reputation was tarnished by his collection of damaging information on prominent politicians and public figures for his personal use, and by his aggressive investigation of CIVIL RIGHTS leaders and left-wing radicals.
Hoover was born January 1, 1895, in Washington, D.C. Following graduation from high school, he turned down a scholarship from the University of Virginia, electing to stay home and study law at night at George Washington University. In 1916 he received a bachelor of laws degree. In 1917 he added a master of laws degree. Upon graduation from college, Hoover joined the U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT.
Hoover started in a minor position, but his intelligence, energy, and mastery of detail were quickly noticed by his superiors. By 1919 he had risen to the rank of special assistant attorney general. During these early years, Hoover first became involved with the suppression of political radicals, assisting Attorney General A. MITCHELL PALMER in the arrest and deportation of left-wing ALIENS. In 1919 he was appointed
chief of the department's General Intelligence Division (GID), a unit designated by Palmer to hunt down radicals. Within three months Hoover collected the names of 150,000 alleged subversives. Armed with this information, federal agents conducted nationwide dragnets, arresting more than ten thousand people. Critics argued that these Palmer Raids violated civil liberties. Nevertheless, thousands of persons were deported. By 1921 the GID had nearly half a million names of persons suspected of subversive activities.
In 1924 Hoover was appointed acting director of the Bureau of Investigation (BI), the fore-runner of the FBI. The BI was a weak agency, hampered by limited investigatory powers, the inability of its agents to carry weapons, and the swelling of its rank with political appointments. After several scandals revealed the extent of the BI's problems, Attorney General HARLAN F. STONE appointed Hoover to clean up the agency.
Though only twenty-nine, Hoover met the challenge head-on. He began a thorough reorganization of the bureau, imposing strict discipline on his employees. Hoover's goal was to establish a professional law enforcement agency of unquestioned integrity. Between 1924 and 1935, he introduced a series of innovations that changed national law enforcement. Hoover established a national fingerprint collection, the first systematic database that federal, state, and local agencies could use to match fingerprints at crime scenes with those on file at the bureau. He also created a crime laboratory, which developed scientific procedures for obtaining forensic evidence. Finally, Hoover made a point of changing the character of his agents. He established a training academy for new agents, who were selected on the basis of their qualifications, not on their political connections. Agents were required to be college educated and to maintain the highest standard of personal and professional ethics.
As the agency became more professional, its jurisdiction increased. In 1935 President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT signed crime bills giving agents the authority to carry guns and make arrests, and in the same year, the bureau officially became the FBI. During the 1930s Hoover moved from internal reorganization to external promotion of himself and his agency. The gangster era, from 1920 to 1935, ended in the arrest or killing of well-publicized hoodlums such as John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde. Hoover and his G-men were celebrated for these exploits in newspapers, radio, newsreels, and Hollywood movies, establishing Hoover as the nation's leading crime fighter.
Again, the FBI was celebrated in the news media and popular culture, this time for tracking down Nazi saboteurs and spies. With the end of World War II and the beginning of the COLD WAR with the Soviet Union, Hoover directed his efforts at rooting out Communist subversives. Harkening back to his early work with Palmer, Hoover's zealousness for this task led him to make alliances with the House Un-American Activities Committee; anti-Communist politicians such as Representative RICHARD M. NIXON, of California, and Senator JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY, of Wisconsin; and members of the news media who were eager to print Hoover's inside information.
During the 1950s Hoover concentrated on anti-Communist initiatives, ignoring calls to investigate the growth of ORGANIZED CRIME. He published Masters of Deceit (1958), a book that articulated his views on what he perceived to be the Communist conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. He established the FBI's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to disrupt the U.S. Communist party and to discredit its members through informants, disinformation, and anonymous letters and telephone calls. He also enlisted the cooperation of the INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE to conduct selective tax audits of people he suspected of being Communists. Critics of Hoover argued—and continue to argue—that he went beyond law enforcement in these efforts, using so-called dirty tricks to undermine the reputation of persons he believed to be subversive.
Despite these charges Hoover remained a powerful federal official. His use of wiretaps on phones, and of other forms of ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE, provided him with a wealth of information on the private affairs of many prominent political figures. Hoover shared some of this information with his political allies, but much of it remained in his private files. Over time many politicians came to fear Hoover, who they believed might have incriminating information about them that could destroy their political careers. Armed with these files, Hoover enjoyed immense power in the 1950s and 1960s.
With the birth of the modern CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, Hoover discovered what he considered another subversive group. He became convinced that MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., was a pawn of the Communist conspiracy. He had agents follow King and record sexual encounters in various hotel rooms. King's SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE offices were wiretapped and burglarized by the FBI many times, all in the hope of finding information that would discredit King. Though Hoover's efforts proved futile, they demonstrated his ability to use the FBI as his personal tool.
During the 1960s Hoover also had the FBI investigate the KU KLUX KLAN and other white supremacist groups. The same techniques used against King and other alleged subversives were also employed against right-wing radicals who threatened physical violence. And with the growth of opposition to the VIETNAM WAR in the 1960s, Hoover targeted war protesters.
Presidents LYNDON B. JOHNSON and Richard M. Nixon allowed Hoover to serve past the mandatory retirement age. During his last years, Hoover was criticized for his authoritarian administration of the FBI. Agents who displeased him could be banished to an obscure FBI field office or discharged. Perhaps most troubling was his refusal to investigate organized crime with the same resources expended on politically subversive organizations.
Hoover died May 2, 1972, in Washington, D.C.
Gentry, Curt. 1991. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets. New York: Norton.
Powers, Richard G. 1987. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press.
Wannall, Ray. 2000. The Real J. Edgar Hoover: For the Record. Paducah, Ky.: Turner Pub.