Home Criminal Defense J. Edgar Hoover’s American Century – – Mark Tooley

J. Edgar Hoover’s American Century – – Mark Tooley


Most of what people think they know about J. Edgar Hoover is nonsense, typically associated with his wearing a dress, high heels, and a boa.

During his nearly half-century as FBI director, he was hailed as the chief defender of Americanism against subversion and criminality. After his death, he became an icon of government surveillance. Progressives portray him as a reactionary foe of civil rights. Some on the right now think him a harbinger of the “deep state.”

Hoover was actually one of the most interesting, important, and complex figures in American history. He directed the FBI from 1924 until his death in 1972 (from Coolidge to Nixon!). Across five decades he was almost uniformly acclaimed, persuading presidents of both parties that he was indispensable and perhaps even untouchable. He was in the early years hailed as a defender of civil liberties even by Roger Baldwin, co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.

By most accounts, Yale University historian Beverly Gage’s new G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century is his definitive biography. She found no credible evidence that Hoover was a crossdresser.

Instead, Gage found that Hoover was a master bureaucrat and public relations artist who almost singularly built the modern FBI while striving to incarnate America’s own ideals about law enforcement and Americanism. Presidents, with congressional support, gave him power because he was competent, popular, and largely loyal to them.

Unlike his forgotten predecessors, Hoover’s FBI was, at least as he portrayed it, professional, nonpartisan, incorruptible, modern, and scientific. (Those predecessors lacked Hoover’s focused zeal, administrative flair, and savvy public presence.) The public image was not entirely divorced from reality. Hoover began his career as a file clerk with the Library of Congress, a job at which he excelled. His organizational abilities, above all with the FBI’s unprecedented files, were undisputed. During the post-WWI Red Scare, young Hoover managed the deportations of anarchists like Emma Goldman. U.S. Attorney General Harlan Stone, recognizing Hoover’s abilities, tapped him at age 29 to be FBI director. Later, as a Supreme Court justice, Stone would vouch for Hoover’s integrity and professionalism.

Originally the FBI was responsible for countering white-collar crime. But in the gangster-crazed 1920s, Hoover gained oversight of more violent crime often related to Prohibition. (FBI agents had to learn how to handle guns.) FDR, with whom Hoover was close, asked the FBI to monitor and counter subversive Nazis and Communists. In the Cold War, the FBI managed counterespionage. Hoover’s perspective in the 1950s was seen as reasonable and evidence-based compared to McCarthyite hysteria. During the 1960s, the FBI countered the New Left and violent racists, including the Ku Klux Klan.

Besides the allegations of crossdressing, Hoover is now best recalled for his exertions against Martin Luther King Jr. Gage stresses Hoover’s lifetime commitment to a college fraternity that celebrated the Old South. This Lost Cause nostalgia informed his perspective on race, she speculates. Perhaps, but she does not draw any straight lines from the fraternity to Hoover’s anti-MLK views.

Nor is there any real evidence in that book that Hoover was a committed racist relative to his times. His views were likely more enlightened than those of most white men born in the 1890s. In 1947 he praised the NAACP for its fight for “equality, freedom and tolerance,” which were “essential in a democratic government.” He told President Trumans’ Committee on Civil Rights: “The great American crime is toleration of conditions which permit and promote prejudice, bigotry, injustice, terror and hate.” He told of FBI exertions against forced unpaid labor by southern blacks, suppression of voting rights and, above all, the “extreme brutality” of lynching, which he gruesomely detailed. He recalled that over 20 years, the FBI had compiled evidence in 1,570 civil rights cases but only 27 had successful convictions. He denounced the “terroristic slave master” suppressing black rights, and corrupt police who “besmirch the good name of their chosen professions.” He urged Congress to pass civil rights legislation. Specifically, he argued for legal protections for voting, testifying in court, owning property, organizing, assembling, striking, and picketing, with safety in police custody.

Hoover’s vision for government as a trusted guardian of justice and the American way was idealistic.

The committee praised the FBI’s civil rights work, which was extensive after World War II, when returning black soldiers in several high-profile cases faced gross violence. Using Reconstruction-era laws, the FBI sought prosecutions but nearly always failed to extract convictions from all-white juries. Hoover’s FBI, lacking additional federal law, largely abandoned civil rights cases until the 1960s. By this time, an aging and increasingly isolated Hoover often conflated the Civil Rights Movement with subversive New Left radicals.

Hoover had mostly good relations with the NAACP and figures like Walter White and Thurgood Marshall. But he despised Martin Luther King Jr., calling him the “most notorious liar” in America for alleging FBI offices in the South were partial to Southern racial customs. For Hoover, publicly criticizing the FBI was unforgivable. Hoover also thought MLK was a communist stooge because of his close relations with Stanley Levison, a financier and fundraiser for the Communist Party USA. Despite warnings, MLK refused to end ties. The FBI bugged MLK, never finding evidence of communism, but recording sexual indiscretions, apparently including an orgy at a Washington DC hotel. Hoover concluded MLK was a degenerate. A Hoover subordinate infamously mailed an MLK sex audio recording to MLK, implying in an anonymous note that he should commit suicide. MLK’s wife opened the package. Despite such FBI provocations, MLK was never intimidated. Hoover’s obsession hurt himself more than MLK.

Hoover’s reputation as a fearless foe of gangsterism, lawlessness, and subversion was strongly established in the American mind. But America was changing. After 40 years in power, Hoover by the 1960s was sclerotic and unable to adapt. Critics were enemies. Dissidents were dangerous subversives. Character flaws evinced degeneracy. “He never could tolerate anything that was imperfect,” his niece recalled. He conjured an image of a pure America that was religious, virtuous, democratic, for which the FBI was the guardian, protecting it from countless enemies.

Over decades, Hoover lived in an increasingly lonely bubble, discarding family and old friends. He was surrounded by an obedient FBI that he had built. These included a fiercely loyal secretary, Helen Gandy, who served him for 54 years, and his deputy Clyde Tolson, who held that position for over 42 years. His final two presidents, LBJ and Nixon, were both longtime friends who wished to replace him with someone more subservient but lacked the nerve.

Regarding Tolson, Gage carefully examines their longtime “intimate” relationship. They did not live together but worked together, dined together, and vacationed together for nearly half a century. Neither ever married. She does not claim Hoover was actively homosexual. Hoover’s nemesis, Robert Kennedy, as attorney general investigated rumors and, to his presumed disappointment, found no evidence. But Gage surmises Hoover was at least oriented to male company. She dismisses the cross-dressing allegation, the source of which was a convicted perjurer.

Gage derides Hoover for having “damaged the lives of thousands of people” through surveillance and disruption. But she laments he’s become a “one dimensional villain.” His vision for government as a trusted guardian of justice and the American way was idealistic. Hoover’s sometimes aggressive actions against what he deemed subversive forces were a defense of American liberties, he believed. They were also countenanced and sometimes ordered by American presidents and Congress. But revelations about him and other once-trusted government figures after Watergate and Vietnam created generations of distrust in government. She concludes: “We cannot know our own story without knowing his, in all its high aspirations, and in its many human contradictions.”

True. Hoover offers a lesson against too much power for anybody for too long. But to judge him fairly means to compare him to what his times expected. Sometimes Hoover was a voice for reason against popular overreaction, against interning Japanese Americans (“Americans, unlike other nations, are not a race. Americanism is an idea.”), against the excesses of McCarthyism, and against the Nixon Administration’s “Huston Plan” for mass illegal break-ins and wiretaps to counter domestic terrorism.

Hoover was one of America’s most popular public figures for half the twentieth century. We should ponder why before we judge too harshly.


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