How J. Edgar Hoover Went From Hero to Villain

Five decades after his death, J. Edgar Hoover still haunts the FBI. His nearly 48-year reign as its director, from 1924 to 1972, has come to symbolize the dangers of a stealth domestic police-and-intelligence agency in an open society. Hoover is widely seen today as an autocrat who used secret surveillance and other illegal means to control politicians and infiltrate and disrupt domestic political groups in the service of his conservative worldview. No operation confirms this verdict more vividly than the FBI’s wide-ranging electronic surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr., which culminated in a threatening letter to King accompanied by tape recordings of romantic trysts—an effort designed to drive King from the civil-rights movement or induce him to commit suicide.

In her masterful, 732-page biography of Hoover, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, the Yale historian Beverly Gage carefully chronicles all of the major abuses committed by his FBI. She also shows that the prevailing image of Hoover as a “one-dimensional tyrant and backroom schemer who strong-armed the rest of the country into submission” is a distortion. Hoover emerges instead as a still-flawed figure, yet more team player than solo villain. He understood that his success depended on public approval, which he was adept at building. Just as crucial was high-level support for his actions (covert as well as overt), under liberal and conservative administrations alike, which he worked assiduously to secure. Hoover’s pragmatism helped curb, at various junctures, his dogmatism and extremist tactics.

Hoover was also significantly aided, Gage notes, by a mid-century consensus, which he reinforced, on the need to confront threats to the state—primarily Nazis, communists, and gangsters. When the aging Hoover targeted civil-rights activists, Vietnam protesters, and other 1960s radicals, he ventured onto much more contested political terrain. An appeal to nonpartisan principles could no longer justify his actions, especially after the bureau’s secret and often abhorrent methods began to leak. Within a few years of Hoover’s death, in 1972, his apolitical aura was gone, his reputation was ruined, and his organization’s credibility was destroyed.

[From the July/August 2002 issue: The FBI and Martin Luther King]

The subsequent reforms of the bureau—which made it independent of political actors, more beholden to law, and more transparent—sought to remove Hoover’s taint and reclaim public confidence. Yet the FBI in the Donald Trump era (not yet over) has been denounced as politically biased often enough to fuel worry about a crisis of legitimacy. First came the head-snapping denunciations of the bureau by different halves of the country when its director, James Comey, announced his decisions not to recommend prosecution in the Hillary Clinton email imbroglio, then to reopen the investigation 11 days before the 2016 presidential election, and then to clear Clinton two days before the election. Sharply partisan reactions to the bureau’s investigations of Trump’s many law-skirting and norm-defying activities have followed.

Gage’s penetrating account of Hoover’s career, especially his many long-eclipsed triumphs, offers a well-timed and sobering perspective as yet another institution in our fractured country struggles to maintain trust. Hoover worked hard—and successfully for many decades—to construct a bureau that was widely seen to embody nonpartisan vigilance. It’s an achievement that the modern, embattled FBI might envy.

In July 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer appointed the 24-year-old Hoover, who had worked in the Justice Department since 1917, to lead the Radical Division in the department’s Bureau of Investigation, as it was then called. There Hoover used his gift for collecting and cataloging masses of information to build dossiers on suspected anarchists, socialists, and communists. He also played a central role in the infamous peacetime roundup of thousands of foreign-born communists on January 2, 1920. The episode was the “greatest blunder of his young life,” Gage writes. Hoover was oblivious to due process, and his filing system failed: In addition to cases of mistaken identity, few of the arrested radicals were found to pose actual threats.

But Hoover did more than survive the blunder. In 1924, amid charges of corruption in the Bureau of Investigation, President Calvin Coolidge’s upright new attorney general, Harlan F. Stone, appointed him acting director of the bureau with orders to professionalize the organization, stick to the letter of the law, and end political surveillance. (Why Stone didn’t clean house is not explained.) Over the next eight years, Hoover worked to establish that he was a restrained technocrat who could be trusted. He improved the quality of agents (though not the variety: He hired only male lawyers or accountants). He also burnished his civil-liberties image, and built up the bureau’s technical expertise with a criminal-fingerprint clearinghouse, a cutting-edge forensics lab, and a crime-statistics division. The bureau’s relatively modest role in federal law enforcement during this era helped his mission. It was barely involved in the organized-crime problems that arose during Prohibition. Its agents were not authorized to carry guns, and it eschewed wiretapping, informants, and rough police tactics.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s arrival in the White House in 1933, Gage shows, changed everything for Hoover and the bureau. Following the repeal of Prohibition that year, the president consolidated all government detective agencies and put Hoover in charge. A string of new federal criminal laws, passed in response to a surge in violent crime, swelled the investigatory reach of the bureau (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935). Congress now authorized agents to carry weapons and make arrests. Urged by Roosevelt to “build up a body of public opinion” to support the bureau’s leadership in fighting FDR’s “War on Crime,” Hoover became a master at trumpeting FBI successes in the press and popular culture. (G-Men, a pulp magazine that included a Hoover speech per issue along with tales of his “famous cases,” was just the start.) Even as he criticized New Deal social workers and their ilk during public appearances, he also pulled off the feat of presenting himself and his agents as hyper-competent, nonpartisan New Deal professionals.

In 1936, Roosevelt invited Hoover back into the business of political surveillance—a fateful move. Amid widespread labor strikes and social protests, a president concerned about national security, and about his reelection, asked his FBI chief to secretly investigate “Fascism and Communism.” Hoover jumped at the opportunity. Roosevelt later authorized FBI investigations of other “subversives” before and during World War II. The scale of Hoover’s surveillance and infiltration of these groups remained secret. But after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the president announced that the FBI was pursuing spies and saboteurs. And Hoover told Congress that he was compiling “extensive indices” of individuals and groups engaged in “any activities that are possibly detrimental to the internal security of the United States.” When the FBI began to arrest Nazi and communist sympathizers, progressive and liberal critics decried the actions as an unacceptable return to Hoover’s dark days running the Radical Division.

Public concerns about civil liberties began to recede after the German invasion of France in June 1940. And Hoover, having learned his lesson in 1920, worked hard to legitimate his wartime actions. He cultivated relationships with ACLU and NAACP leaders and pledged fealty to their civil-rights concerns. He opposed the West Coast internment of Japanese Americans and investigated white southern lynchers. He arrested few political dissidents. By the final months of the war, Gage writes, Hoover was “a darling of the New Deal establishment, known as a protector of civil liberties and a vanquisher of Nazis, saboteurs, and race-baiters.”

This public judgment reflected Hoover’s firm control over what the world learned about the bureau’s activities. He made sure to keep secret its spying on the ACLU and NAACP even while he was buttering them up. Only a handful of people in the government knew of the bureau’s investigative reports, written at Roosevelt’s request, on the sexual practices of government officials as well as on the president’s wartime detractors (including isolationists, union officials, and civil-rights activists). Nor did the public know that the by-now-gargantuan FBI had prodigious surveillance capabilities that it would continue to exercise in peacetime.

After the war, Hoover’s main obsession was the threat of communism. Gage shows that in the 1940s and ’50s, Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government and civil society was real and serious. Hoover spoke out vehemently against the “diabolical plots” of the Communist Party. Yet he faced a trickier balancing act in securing public support for the bureau’s approach, and at first he found himself charged with red-baiting by many liberals and progressives. Hoover knew much more than the public did about the scale of the problem because he had access to supersecret intelligence programs that revealed clues about the identity of Soviet spies and details about Moscow’s relationship with the American Communist Party. The need to protect these programs sometimes kept Hoover both from convicting Soviet spies and from substantiating his public warnings about the Red Menace.

Senator Joseph McCarthy’s appearance on the anti-communist scene in early 1950, charging that 205 card-carrying communists were working in the State Department, proved an unexpected boon to Hoover. He was energetically tracking communists in secret. But he saw McCarthy, with his many unsupported allegations of communist infiltration, as “a loose-cannon threat to the anticommunist cause,” in Gage’s words. Among other things, McCarthy wanted the FBI to reveal secrets about communists that would have betrayed sources and methods. When Hoover resisted on the grounds that the information could be used to “smear innocent individuals” and foment witch hunts, liberals and progressives praised his professionalism and discretion. Dwight D. Eisenhower followed suit in his successful effort to destroy McCarthy in 1954 by invoking Hoover as the trustworthy anti-communist alternative. “In one of the most contentious political spectacles in American history,” Gage writes, “Hoover’s greatness emerged as the one point of consensus.”

McCarthy’s flameout was the crowning moment in Hoover’s three-decade effort to establish the FBI as an institution above politics that the public could count on to act responsibly in secret to keep the nation safe. Gage emphasizes the colossal skill required to maintain this image and the bipartisan support that went along with it. She also notes the “surprising degree of nimbleness and creativity” he showed in responding to shifting law-enforcement and national-security challenges. He kept his agents above reproach and his agency at the forefront of criminal and intelligence science. He shrewdly managed alliances with presidents and in Congress, and with the press. He was gifted at selective restraint—in declining to take actions that might jeopardize his political support, and in saying “no” when he thought presidential requests for secret political intelligence went too far. Not least, he kept senior executive and congressional figures generally informed about his invasive operations (though not so much about his legally dubious tactics) while keeping them secret from a public whose trust he counted on for his success.

In the 1960s, “the American consensus that had once sustained” Hoover fell apart “as the country split over issues of race and civil rights, ‘law and order,’ and the war in Vietnam,” Gage writes. Race relations, she shows, tripped up Hoover the most. He was a lifelong racist who nonetheless, starting in the ’40s and continuing into the ’60s, “mounted aggressive campaigns against the most extreme elements of the segregationist South, especially the Ku Klux Klan.” Hoover disliked lawbreaking and disorder, she concludes, more than he liked segregation. At the same time, she calls attention to Hoover’s significantly more extensive campaigns against civil-rights leaders and activists.

Hoover singled out MLK in particular, whom he considered “degenerate” and hypocritical. He had solid (though undisclosable) evidence that a close adviser to King, Stanley Levison, as well as the man who ran the New York office of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Jack O’Dell, had clandestine ties to the Communist Party. In July 1962, after Hoover distributed an anonymous note about O’Dell’s communist past to southern newspapers, King falsely downplayed O’Dell’s role in the SCLC and his knowledge of O’Dell’s communist leanings. The following year, Hoover persuaded President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to warn King off these men. But King demurred in the absence of evidence.

[From the November 1970 issue: The government and Martin Luther King]

Hoover waited until Lyndon B. Johnson had been elected, in 1964, to call King out, which he did a month after King had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Hoover bluntly told a women’s offshoot of the National Press Club, “I consider King to be the most notorious liar in the country.” His shocked aide urged him to take the remarks off the record, but Hoover encouraged the reporters to publish. He was itching for a fight, and he thought he had cause. Instead his remark turned out to be his biggest public blunder since his days in the Radical Division. A firestorm ensued. (A few days later, the FBI initiated its secret blackmail and rumor campaign against King, which of course would have caused a conflagration had it been known.)

The ever more discordant civil-rights movement, the New Left, Vietnam protesters, and Black nationalists had weak ties, if any, to the Soviet Union, and these “subversives” had broader public support than the dissidents the younger Hoover had once pursued. Yet as social order broke down, Hoover went after them all with public jabs and secret campaigns. Generating political consensus in this context was far harder now that his views about threats worth addressing were so much further from the mainstream. When the seamy secret side of the FBI’s methods began to leak out, his signature massaging of allies simply didn’t work.

The scale of Hoover’s electronic surveillance was becoming clear to the public by 1966. Its political thrust was exposed in 1971, with the release of documents that had been stolen from an FBI outlet in Media, Pennsylvania. They revealed for the first time that the bureau was monitoring, disrupting, and neutralizing left-wing activists. For “liberals and leftists,” Gage writes, that “marked the end of whatever was still left of Hoover’s reputation as the limited-state, good-government figure that they had once embraced and admired.” After Hoover died suddenly on May 2, 1972, he received “a grand spectacle of bipartisan tribute,” as Gage puts it, primarily for his earlier successes and long service. But after the shocking revelations of the 1975 Church Committee investigations into U.S. domestic-intelligence practices, he “emerged as one of history’s great villains, perhaps the most universally reviled American political figure of the twentieth century.”

James Comey kept on his desk in the director’s office a copy of the one-page October 1963 memorandum from Hoover to Attorney General Kennedy seeking permission to conduct the initial electronic surveillance of King. The only reasons cited were King’s belief in Marxism and his possible connections to communist influences. Comey made the memo the centerpiece of a seminar for new FBI recruits about the bureau’s cruel campaign against King, and often spoke about it with colleagues. “By remembering and being open and truthful about our mistakes,” Comey explained in his first memoir, “we reduce the chance we will repeat them.”

Comey’s FBI was a world away from Hoover’s. Reforms over the years have ensured that the FBI follows elaborate rules on investigations and electronic surveillance, and is subject to oversight by federal courts, executive-branch watchdogs, and congressional committees. The director’s term is limited to 10 years. And a powerful norm has been established that the FBI must maintain strict independence from the president, in appearance and reality, to preserve the bureau’s credibility when its investigations affect an administration’s interests.

Yet for all of that, the FBI cannot escape Hoover’s shadow and the suspicion that it wields illegitimate power—especially when it investigates senior political figures. The bureau made mistakes in its handling of Hillary Clinton’s email mess and of Donald Trump’s incessantly questionable behavior that cost it credibility. But we fundamentally misunderstand the quandary the FBI faces if we think that these investigations would have been viewed with much more confidence had it avoided those missteps.

The modern FBI lacks Hoover’s tools for managing its investigative legitimacy. Hoover sustained this legitimacy by, in essence, insulating the bureau from outside questioning that would have exposed its excesses. He did favors for presidents and other politicians, who backed him up in a pinch. The law-bound, post-Hoover FBI must (and does) operate at arm’s length from politicians. Adversarial eyeballs in the executive branch and in Congress, and a much less pliant press than in Hoover’s day, mean that secrecy is harder to maintain. These institutions scrutinize every mistake, many of which acquire outsize significance because they are viewed through the villain-Hoover lens. As recent events show, and as Hoover himself discovered, sustaining broad public support can be impossible in fractious times.

Public investigations of senior political figures obviously pose the most difficult challenge. Charges of politicization are inevitable, and the stakes could not be higher. Though Hoover spied on politicians, he never launched a public inquiry of a senior national figure, and would have done everything in his power to avoid that. Such a step would have undermined the political support that allowed him to pursue what he deemed real threats.

The reformed FBI can’t avoid such politically divisive investigations. It gets referrals from inspectors general and pressure from Congress and the press, and must follow attorney-general guidelines in assessing whether and how to proceed. And whatever decision the bureau makes, its response is unavoidably seen by half the country as political. This is not a recent development. Recall, for example, FBI Director Louis Freeh’s rocky relationship with President Bill Clinton. Watergate, which unfolded during the bureau’s transition away from the Hoover era, highlights how much has changed: The pre-reform FBI did solid work, aided by “Deep Throat” Deputy Director Mark Felt’s Hoover-esque political leaks. The bureau acted with broad (and probably unrepeatable) political consensus grounded in revulsion not just at Watergate, but at Vietnam and other executive-branch failures going back a decade.

The FBI has never been in a tougher spot than in the Trump era. Many Democrats haven’t liked the FBI since at least 2016, when they concluded that the organization was trying to elect Trump, who, just as wrongly, believed that the bureau was out to stop his election. The next five years of Trump’s relentless, unparalleled FBI-bashing drove Republicans in our tribal era into an anti-FBI frenzy. Democrats support the bureau today, but that is unlikely to last should the FBI present evidence of convictable crimes by Hunter Biden.

The FBI’s half-century effort since Hoover’s death to remove itself from politics was necessary and admirable. America needs a widely trusted, competent, and reliable federal law-enforcement and domestic-intelligence agency to keep us safe from ever-morphing threats at home and abroad. But as the FBI’s longest-serving director knew well, cultivating an apolitical ethos supplements, but can’t replace, having many friends in high places and controlling the secrecy system. The ghost of J. Edgar Hoover likely smiles at the irony that his beloved bureau has become too independent and too open to be trusted in hyper-partisan America.

This article appears in the December 2022 print edition with the headline “When J. Edgar Hoover Was a National Hero.”

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