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The Two Faces of J. Edgar Hoover

The Two Faces of J. Edgar Hoover

The long-serving director of the FBI both abused his authority and created a model federal agency.

Michael Mandelbaum

The Federal Bureau of Investigation—the closest thing the United States has to a national police force—has become the subject of controversy. One of its recent directors, James Comey, and the Bureau in general stand accused of improper meddling in the nation’s elections. Many of the complaints against and most of the indignant criticism of them come from the Right side of the American political spectrum. Once, however, such charges came from the Left, and centered on one person: J. Edgar Hoover, who worked for the FBI under ten presidents over fifty-three years, the last forty-eight of them, from 1924 to 1972, as its director.

Toward the end of his time in office, and after his death, he came to be seen by many as rigidly reactionary in his politics, insensitive at best to civil liberties, and the architect of campaigns and personal vendettas that employed tactics of questionable legality against groups and individuals he deemed dangerous, using the vast the power of the federal government.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Hoover’s long tenure in office, and the power he amassed while holding it, make him one of the most consequential American public officials of the 20th century. Beverly Gage’s monumental book about him, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century—just this month honored with the Pulitzer Prize for biography—contains abundant material demonstrating the accuracy of the negative view of her subject. The author, a professor of history at Yale, writes in the book’s Introduction that she does “not count herself as one of Hoover’s admirers,” and what follows depicts the many ways in which he was not an admirable figure. As a scrupulous and fair-minded historian, however, Gage also shows another side of his public career, one worthy of respect and even emulation, as well as of continuing relevance to American public life.

For in addition to being the architect of ethically and indeed constitutionally dubious undertakings, Hoover was also, and often at the same time, a model civil servant. He sought to create, in the FBI, a professional, non-partisan, resolutely honest agency that brought the latest scientific techniques to law enforcement; and in this, to a considerable extent, he succeeded.

At the outset of his long tenure as FBI director, Hoover decreed that each agent the Bureau hired had to have a background in law (which he himself had studied at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.) or in accounting. Initially, no agent carried a firearm, and Hoover changed this policy only reluctantly when the FBI became involved in the hunt for notorious armed gangsters in the 1930s. From the beginning, the Bureau’s principal instrument of law enforcement was its extensive series of files, and these remained the core of the agency to the end of Hoover’s life and beyond.

Hoover fostered an ethos in the Bureau that had no tolerance for the kind of corruption that had plagued local police forces, including those in the United States. He disseminated across the country, through programs of cooperation with local police departments, the modern methods of law enforcement that the FBI pioneered. The organization that J. Edgar Hoover established embodied many of the features that the civil service of a democracy should have.

What, then, accounts for the existence of the other, different, malevolent Hoover? From Gage’s meticulous reconstruction of his life, three elements stand out. One concerns his personal view of the world. He held a pronounced version of what today would be called a socially conservative outlook on life, which in his case was forged in the early years of the 20th century. Born in 1895 to a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. with a history of working for the federal government that began in the middle of the nineteenth century, he grew up with a strong attachment to his Presbyterian faith. He grew up, as well, in a racially segregated city and while in college joined a fraternity rooted in the South and committed to the social and political values prevailing there at that time, which included a devotion to the “Lost Cause” of the Civil War era Confederacy. He never abandoned these values, even—indeed, especially—when they came under a sharp and widespread challenge at the end of his career.

Second, hostility to and fear of communism and ongoing efforts to combat it in the United States constituted one of the dominant themes of Hoover’s career and generated many of the initiatives that contributed to the baleful reputation he earned. In addition to encroaching on the civil liberties of American citizens, the anti-communist initiatives the FBI launched came to seem, in their scope, entirely disproportionate to the modest-to-negligible threat domestic communism in fact posed to the United States.

In hindsight, Hoover’s estimate of that threat can indeed be seen to have been exaggerated; but the threat did exist. The Communist Party of the United States did act on behalf of the Soviet Union, which became, after World War II, a hostile foreign power. A few people in positions of responsibility in the American government did conduct espionage on behalf of Stalin’s murderous, tyrannical rule. Hoover took seriously the actions of Communist Party members and sympathizers in the United States, as one in his position was bound to do. Moreover, he knew a great deal about Soviet espionage in America, because he had access to the communications that domestic Communists had with one another and with Moscow that Army Signals Intelligence had intercepted and decoded.

The written records of these intercepts, which came to be known as the Venona Transcripts, were not made public; this made it impossible for Hoover conclusively to rebut the assertion, which the Communists and others made, that the charges of enemy espionage were false. Such assertions achieved wide currency as part of the controversies that surrounded the sensational trials of Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. All three were accused of spying for Moscow, all three were convicted, and evidence that became publicly available only years later showed that the accusations were based on fact.

Third, in some of his most egregious enterprises, Hoover was responding to the wishes and often the orders of his superiors. While he carved out considerable bureaucratic autonomy over his decades as FBI director, the FBI was part of the Justice Department and therefore in theory, and more often than not in practice, subordinate to the attorney general and ultimately to the president. For the most part, including in the initiatives that now seem unjustified, he did not act as a lone wolf, nor did he preside over a rogue agency.

Indeed, many of the Bureau’s dubious interventions into domestic American politics came at the behest of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, the two 20th century presidents whose domestic achievements were and are most celebrated by the same people who found Hoover a blight on public life. Hoover’s worst excesses came in his personal campaign against the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., whose communist associates he considered dangerous and whose philandering he found objectionable. The wiretaps that the FBI used to gather information about King, which it subsequently misused, received the authorization of the attorney general of the day—Robert F. Kennedy.

From the constitutionally and ethically dubious practices for which Hoover was responsible, as well as from the controversy surrounding the FBI today, the obvious lesson to be drawn is that a government agency with the Bureau’s mandate is perpetually subject to the temptation to abuse its authority. This, in turn, validates the venerable American saying that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Beverly Gage’s meticulous account of the life and work of John Edgar Hoover holds another lesson as well for the United States today. Hoover and the FBI at their best embodied the ideal features of any civil service. They provided services that a modern society needs and provided them in a professional, nonpartisan, competent, and efficient manner. Thus, they offer a reminder, in an era in which distrust of and outright hostility to the government have soared, that federal agencies can in fact advance the public welfare while remaining faithful to democratic principles.  For at their best, Hoover and the FBI furnished the kind of government that America needs—now more than ever.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (2022).

Image: President Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover. (Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum)

United States