It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. Some of you don’t recognize this name. Those of you who do will have very polarized opinions of him. J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most powerful people in the country, yet he wasn’t the President, Vice President, or a Supreme Court Justice. He ran the FBI… for almost 50 years. During that time he was either a creative detective, or the beginning of the end of privacy (depending on how you view it). Many of the NSA issues in the news lately, could largely be attributed, or at least inspired by, J. Edgar Hoover.
Born in 1895, he lived his entire life in Washington DC. He earned a Law Degree from the George Washington University Law School in 1917. Right out of school, he was hired by the Justice Department. This was during the beginning of the Red Scare, where most Americans were terrified of the threat of Communism spreading to the United States. Due to increased fear, his authority was increased.
This became the pattern of his career. He was a fast riser in his positions. He was soon director of the Alien Enemy Bureau. Within two years, he was the head of General Intelligence Division, where he monitored suspected “radicals’ and political activists. By 1924 (when he was 29), he became the Director of the Bureau of Investigation (which would later become the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935).
He held this position until he died in 1977. That’s through ten Presidencies, World War 2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs, and most of the Cold War. From Calvin Coolidge to Jimmy Carter. Think of that. From black and white to color photos. Through prohibition, the mobster era, the hippie 60s, and the Black Panther movement, he led the most powerful investigatory organization in the world.
During this time, he collected information. Lots of it. It’s said he had files on just about everyone, especially politicians including Presidents. Harry Truman said of him, “We want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in… plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him” Hoover knew that knowledge was power. It didn’t matter who had the title of “leader”, if he could bribe the leader. Both Presidents Truman and Kennedy wanted to dismiss him, but were afraid of the political cost.
Other famous people he spied on included Martin Luther King Jr, whom he accused of having ties to Communists, but then later focused on his extramarital affairs. He had a long list of supposed Communists. Actors like Lucile Ball, Helen Keller, and even Charlie Chaplin. The latter of whom Hoover actually forbade from reentering the country, and worked with Immigration to revoke his re-entry permit.
Hoover had very conservative values. Thus much of the information he gained was about sexual preferences (despite the rumor that he himself was gay) and infidelity. He actively fought homosexuality, and even got Eisenhower to sign an executive order, forbidding homosexuals from holding federal jobs. This anti gay obsession, may be the result of being in the closet, as speculations have claimed since the 40s, though never confirmed.
On the plus side, he really developed the FBI into what it is today. You know IAFIS, the fingerprint database they use on CSI? That’s the latest version of the database that was started by Hoover. He also commissioned the first forensic laboratory in 1932. In his world, anyone who spoke against the government, could be a threat. So he had information on everyone. He wanted to know who your friends were, where you went to school, what books you rented from the library, etc. He wanted to be proactive. He wanted to know what you were going to do before you did. Did you attend a political rally? The FBI had your name. Soon, they would know everything about you. Did you SPEAK at a political rally? You were on a watch list. Did you encourage others to speak up? You probably spent some time being interrogated. Hoover was absolutely paranoid of sabotage in this country, so he went out of his way, and out of bounds, to stop it before it happened.
He also didn’t care too much about the truth, if it got in the way of his goals. He often exaggerated his claims or the threats that people posed to national security. This also helped maintain his power and financial support. He had information that Presidents didn’t. He didn’t share information about the Verona Project (spying on the Soviets that started in 1943) with the CIA until 1952. Officially, the FBI’s jurisdiction is limited to the US, while the CIA has jurisdiction OUTSIDE the US. Lyndon B. Johnson (about whom I might write another biography someday) made sure that Hoover was in charge of the Kennedy Assassination, and even waived the then mandatory retirement age so that he could continue as the Director of the FBI. In some conspiracy theories, it is believed that this was to make sure the cover up was maintained, since the FBI didn’t investigate the possibility of a conspiracy.
Often criticized for withholding information, Hoover retained all of the information, until he was ready to share. Or forced. He maintained absolute control. If he didn’t like an agent, he’d either fire them or give them such a terrible job that they’d quit. If he had a political rival, he’d use his vast amount of information and ruin them.
Was he a good guy or a bad guy? Perhaps both. He eliminated the mob threat. He fine tuned investigation. He also happened to be manipulative and ego maniacal. To this day, J. Edgar Hoover remains one of the most intriguing and controversial figures in American history.