The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


John Edgar Hoover
1895 - 1972


J. Edgar Hoover was appointed assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1921, and director in 1924; he was the popular (and then controversial) director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1935 until his death in 1972, at age 77.

J. Edgar Hoover was born into a Scottish Presbyterian family of civil servants in Washington, D.C. on New Year's Day, 1895; his mother called him Edgar from the day he was born. He was a leader of the student cadet corps in high school, and a champion debater. He taught Sunday school at Old First Presbyterian Church. His life-long guiding principles were formed early: he was convinced that middle-class Protestant morality was at the core of American values, and he harbored a deep distrust of alien ideas and movements that called those values into question.

Working days and attending school at nights, Hoover earned his Bachelor of Law degree with honors from George Washington University in 1916. He excelled in mock court proceedings. In 1917 he earned a Master of Law degree and got a job with the Alien Enemy Bureau in the Department of Justice, administering the regulations governing the hundreds of thousands of German and Austro-Hungarian aliens interned or supervised by the department. In response to a series of bombings in the spring of 1919, supposedly carried out by radicals, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer decided to concentrate on aliens, since they could be deported summarily and wholesale, without due process, and in 1920 he put the 24-year-old Hoover in charge of the operation. Within a short period of time, Hoover had written briefs arguing that alien members of the new American Communist and Communist Labor parties were subject to deportation under the immigration laws; planned a raid on the headquarters of the Union of Russian Workers; and put Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and 247 other "radicals" on a ship for the Soviet Union. A few days later, Hoover led a nationwide operation which arrested more than four thousand alien Communists.

While civil libertarians deplored the Justice Department's tactics and treatment of prisoners, Hoover had established his reputation as an organizational genius. In 1921, he was appointed assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation. Three years later, when the bureau had become known as "the most corrupt and incompetent agency in Washington, " Hoover was appointed Acting Director by a new Attorney General, Harlan Fiske Stone (later Associate Justice, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court). Hoover took the job under the conditions that he would tolerate no political meddling and that he wanted sole control of merit promotions. Stone agreed. Almost immediately, the new director instituted new personnel policies; he fired agents he considered unqualified, abolished promotions based on seniority, introduced uniform performance appraisals, and laid out strict rules of conduct (including instructions that forbade the use of intoxicating beverages, on or off the job). He established new lines of authority (all regional officers were to report directly to Hoover) and did whatever he could to create power for his agency. At the time, for example, the Bureau had jurisdiction over little more than car-thefts. Agents were not allowed to carry firearms until 1934, and they did not have the power of arrest. Law enforcement was a state activity, not a federal one. Gradually, Hoover professionalized the organization and freed it from the taint of corruption. He was a pioneer in the areas of personnel training, the use of scientific laboratory techniques, accurate reporting, and filing large volumes of material. By 1926, state law enforcement agencies began contributing their fingerprint cards to the Bureau of Investigation. Early on, Hoover laid the foundation for a world-class crime fighting organization.

During this period, Hoover still maintained his card file of over 450, 000 names of "radicals" and worked on building the bureau "his way, " but the agency slumbered through the violence of the Roaring Twenties. It took the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932 to convince Congress that there was a need for national legislation authorizing the Federal government to act against crimes of violence on other than government reservations; companion legislation between 1932 and 1934 augmented that authority, and the FBI (so named in 1935) was in business, chasing down the likes of Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker and her sons, and John Dillinger.

Hoover was famous for his successes in public relations, legend-building and image-making his Bureau into a Hollywood extravaganza, firmly entrenched as a mainstay of popular culture through films, comic strips, books, and carefully orchestrated publicity campaigns. The FBI and its director became dear to the hearts of the American people and Hoover himself became a hero of almost mythic proportions. But during most of the 1930s, Hoover was relatively obscure, merely the head of just one of several investigatory agencies. In the art of public relations, Hoover was the beneficiary of Franklin Roosevelt's Attorney General Homer Cummings, who between 1933 and 1937 developed a massive, multi-front public relations campaign to make law enforcement a national movement wholly dependant on public support for its success in dealing with the gangsters of the Depression era. When Cummings suffered political decline, Hoover now head of the nation's only national law enforcement agency adopted many of his methods, always looking for new public enemies to protect the nation against. In the coming years, these were to include Nazi spies, Communists, Black Panthers, the New Left, and Martin Luther King, Jr. As for law enforcement, Hoover mostly abandoned it altogether after 1936.

After World War II Hoover took from the growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union a mandate to prepare for domestic sabotage and subversion, and to round up Communists, siding with such anti-Communists as Richard M. Nixon and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. He pursued the investigation of Alger Hiss that discredited the domestic security policies of the Truman Administration; he uncovered the alleged atom spy conspiracy of Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (who were subsequently executed as traitors); and his Bureau provided the evidence for the Smith Act convictions of the top leadership of the American Communist Party (later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court).

During the late 1950s, Hoover developed a counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) to covertly harass the remnants of the American Communist Party. In the 1960s he extended the program to harass and disrupt the Ku Klux Klan, the black militant movement and the antiwar movements, particularly targeting the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society. Now into his 70s, Hoover extended his defense of "Americanism" with public attacks on Martin Luther King, Jr., and two attorneys general Robert Kennedy and Ramsey Clark. His tactic in all cases included illegal wiretapping and microphone surveillance.

During all these years, Hoover managed to overlook organized crime. Robert Kennedy became a thorn in Hoover's side when he demonstrated otherwise as assistant counsel on the Kefauver committee's investigations into organized crime. Hoover ignored political corruption and white collar crime. Most of his work was political, in two senses of the word. First, he target individuals, groups, and movements which offended his moral sense. Second, he collected compromising information provided by his agents on all sorts of public officials. The fact that he had such information in his personal files or was merely thought to have such information was enough to sway congressional votes in favor of FBI appropriations requests and to keep presidents from removing him from office, even long after mandatory retirement age. The perception of "such information" worked both ways, however. It was long thought that Hoover denied the existence of organized crime because certain Mafia figures had photographs and other documentation of Hoover's alleged and widely-believed homosexuality. However, nothing could be proved, as after his death, Hoover's secretary obeyed instructions that all his personal files be burned.

J. Edgar Hoover died in May, 1972, still the Director of the FBI, and became the only civil servant to be honored with a state funeral. Post-Watergate investigations of the FBI's abuses of civil liberties under Hoover and recent releases of FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act (including files his secretary missed) have destroyed Hoover's reputation. Recent scholarly works have asserted that Anthony Summers book (1993), exposing Hoover's homosexuality, was based on slender and dubious evidence. Other works have also shown the FBI's ineffectiveness in pursuing organized-crime figures had little to do with Hoover's vulnerability, but rather from his lack of accountability, his use of illegal investigative techniques, and his obsessive focus on his own political agenda. J. Edgar Hoover's methods contributed substantially to a culture of lawlessness in the FBI itself. Within a few years of his death, public opinion about Hoover had shifted to the point that his name by itself conjured up the image of a government at war with the rights and liberties of its citizens.


Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Born in Washington, D.C., the son of a low-level federal bureaucrat, Hoover earned a bachelor of laws (1916) and a master of laws (1917) from George Washington University. He was an assistant in the alien registration section of the Department of Justice during World War I, where he monitored alien radicals in what became a lifetime antiradical crusade.

Appointed head of the General Intelligence Division in 1919, Hoover continued to monitor radical activities, culminating in the series of deportation raids subsequently dubbed the red scare of 1919-1920. Because Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer purposefully exploited these raids to promote his unsuccessful candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hoover was untarnished by the public's subsequent reaction to revelations of the bureau's abuses of power, which focused on Palmer. Following Warren Harding's election, Hoover's administrative skills and diligence won him promotion to assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935), a post he held until appointed director by Attorney General Harlan Stone in 1924. Hoover held that post until his death in 1972.

A lifetime bachelor with few nonprofessional interests, Hoover devoted his considerable talents to furthering the power of the FBI. Having inherited an agency beset by scandal, Hoover moved quickly to restore public confidence by improving the quality of bureau employees and by ostensibly working within the limits of a powerful states' rights tradition. A more professional organization evolved and, responding to the seeming crime wave of the 1930s, the public came to accept the need for a federal law enforcement role. But while publicly opposing the creation of a national police force and emphasizing the limits to the bureau's responsibilities, Hoover remained committed to monitoring what he considered immoral and dissident activities. Because this was risky and contradicted his public posturing, the director proceeded cautiously and secretively.

Hoover's keen sense of public relations and careful cultivation of reporters, members of Congress, civic leaders, and conservative organizations won him a powerful constituency. An administrative genius, he devised sophisticated records procedures to preclude the discovery either of his authorization of illegal investigative techniques (break-ins, wiretaps, bugs) or the accumulation of derogatory personal information. Finally, Hoover willingly serviced the political and policy interests of presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon to obtain their issuance of secret executive directives expanding FBI authority. As a result, the bureau not only increased in size (from 890 agents in 1940 to 7,002 in 1952, and 10,000 in 1970) but became an autonomous agency operating independently of executive, congressional, or judicial oversight.

Hoover successfully neutralized demands for independent investigations of the bureau's conduct and his administration during his forty-eight-year tenure as FBI director. His power, however, moved Congress in 1968 to enact legislation requiring Senate confirmation of future FBI directors and limiting their tenure to ten years. Because Hoover's death coincided with the furor created by the Watergate affair, it marked the end of an era. Thereafter, Congress and the media became more vigilant in monitoring the powerful agency Hoover had helped forge and legitimize.











This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008