J. Edgar Hoover
The Secrets of J. Edgar Hoover
Though never elected to any office, for 50 years he was more powerful than presidents. As head of the FBI he knew what everyone else wanted to keep hidden. But behind the public persona, his shocking private life nearly brought him down. What were the Secrets of J. Edgar Hoover?
J. Edgar Hoover
John Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895 – May 2, 1972) was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States. Appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation—predecessor to the FBI—in 1924, he was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, where he remained director until his death in 1972 aged 77. Hoover is credited with building the FBI into a large and efficient crime-fighting agency, and with instituting a number of modernizations to police technology, such as a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories.
Late in life and after his death Hoover became a controversial figure, as evidence of his secretive actions became known. His critics have accused him of exceeding the jurisdiction of the FBI. He used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and to collect evidence using illegal methods. Hoover consequently amassed a great deal of power. Said one journalist in the 1960s, “Hoover does not have to exert pressure, he is pressure.”
Early life and education
J. Edgar Hoover was born on New Year’s Day 1895 in Washington, D.C., to Anna Marie (née Scheitlin; 1860–1938), who was of German Swiss descent, and Dickerson Naylor Hoover, Sr. (1856–1921), of English and German ancestry. The uncle of Hoover’s mother was a Swiss honorary consul general to the United States. Hoover did not have a birth certificate filed, although it was required in 1895 Washington. Two siblings had certificates. Hoover’s was not filed until 1938, when he was 43.
Hoover grew up near the Eastern Market in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. At Central High, he sang in the school choir, participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, and competed on the debate team, where he argued against women getting the right to vote and against the abolition of the death penalty. The school newspaper applauded his “cool, relentless logic.”
He obtained a law degree from George Washington University Law School in 1916 where he was a member of the Alpha Nu Chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order and an LL.M., a Master of Laws degree, in 1917 from the same university. While a law student, Hoover became interested in the career of Anthony Comstock, the New York City United States Postal Inspector, who waged prolonged campaigns against fraud and vice, and also was against pornography and birth control.
Hoover lived in Washington, D.C., for his entire life – Department of Justice
Immediately after getting his degree, Hoover was hired by the Justice Department to work in the War Emergency Division. He soon became the head of the Division’s Alien Enemy Bureau, authorized by President Wilson at the beginning of World War I to arrest and jail disloyal foreigners without trial. He received additional authority from the 1917 Espionage Act. Out of a list of 1400 suspicious Germans living in the U.S., the Bureau arrested 98 and designated 1,172 as arrestable.
In August 1919, Hoover became head of the Bureau of Investigation‘s new General Intelligence Division—also known as the Radical Division because its goal was to monitor and disrupt the work of domestic radicals. America’s First Red Scare was beginning, and one of Hoover’s first assignments was to carry out the Palmer Raids.
Hoover and his chosen assistant, George Ruch monitored a variety of U.S. radicals with the intent to punish, arrest, or deport them. Targets during this period included Marcus Garvey; Rose Pastor Stokes and Cyril Briggs; Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman; and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, whom Hoover maintained was “the most dangerous man in the United States.”
In 1921, he rose in the Bureau of Investigation to deputy head, and in 1924, the Attorney General made him the acting director. On May 10, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Hoover as the sixth director of the Bureau of Investigation, following President Warren Harding‘s death and in response to allegations that the prior director, William J. Burns, was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. When Hoover took over the Bureau of Investigation, it had approximately 650 employees, including 441 Special Agents.
Hoover was noted as sometimes being capricious in his leadership; he frequently fired FBI agents, singling out those who he thought “looked stupid like truck drivers” or he considered to be “pinheads.” He also relocated agents who had displeased him to career-ending assignments and locations. Melvin Purvis was a prime example; he was one of the most effective agents in capturing and breaking up 1930s gangs and received substantial public recognition, but a jealous Hoover maneuvered him out of the FBI.
Hoover often hailed local law-enforcement officers around the country and built up a national network of supporters and admirers in the process. One that he often commended was the conservative sheriff of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, J. Howell Flournoy, for particular effectiveness.
In the early 1930’s, criminal gangs carried out large numbers of bank robberies in the Midwest. They used their superior firepower and fast getaway cars to elude local law enforcement agencies and avoid arrest. Many of these criminals, particularly John Dillinger, who became famous for leaping over bank cages and repeatedly escaping from jails and police traps, frequently made newspaper headlines across the United States. Since the robbers operated across state lines, their crimes became federal offenses, giving Hoover and his men the authority to pursue them. Initially, the FBI suffered some embarrassing foul-ups, in particular with Dillinger and his conspirators. A raid on a summer lodge named “Little Bohemia” in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, left an FBI agent and a civilian bystander dead, and others wounded. All the gangsters escaped. Hoover realized that his job was now on the line, and he pulled out all stops to capture the culprits. In late July 1934, Special Agent Melvin Purvis, the Director of Operations in the Chicago office, received a tip on Dillinger’s whereabouts which paid off when Dillinger was located, ambushed and killed by FBI agents outside the Biograph Theater.
In the same period, there were numerous Mafia shootings as a result of Prohibition, while Hoover continued to deny the very existence of organized crime. Frank Costello helped encourage this view by feeding Hoover, “an inveterate horseplayer” known to send Special Agents to place $100 bets for him, tips on sure winners through their mutual friend, gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Hoover said the Bureau had “much more important functions” than arresting bookmakers and gamblers.
Even though he was not there, Hoover was credited with several highly publicized captures or shootings of outlaws and bank robbers. These included that of Dillinger, Alvin Karpis, and Machine Gun Kelly, which led to the Bureau’s powers being broadened and it was given its new name in 1935: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1939, the FBI became pre-eminent in the field of domestic intelligence. Hoover made changes, such as expanding and combining fingerprint files in the Identification Division to compile the largest collection of fingerprints to date. Hoover also helped to expand the FBI’s recruitment and create the FBI Laboratory, a division established in 1932 to examine evidence found by the FBI.
Investigation of subversion and radicals
Hoover, perhaps at the behest of Richard Nixon, investigated ex-Beatle John Lennon by putting the singer under surveillance, and Hoover wrote this letter to the Attorney General in 1972. A 25-year battle by historian Jon Wiener under the Freedom of Information Act eventually resulted in the release of documents like this one.
Hoover was concerned about subversion, and under his leadership, the FBI spied upon tens of thousands of suspected subversives and radicals. According to critics, Hoover tended to exaggerate the dangers of these alleged subversives and many times overstepped his bounds in his pursuit of eliminating that perceived threat.
The FBI investigated rings of German saboteurs and spies starting in the late 1930s, and had primary responsibility for counterespionage. The first arrests of German agents were made in 1938, and continued throughout World War II. In the Quirin affair during World War II, German U-boats set two small groups of Nazi agents ashore in Florida and Long Island to cause acts of sabotage within the country. The two teams were apprehended after one of the men contacted the FBI, and told them everything. He was also charged and convicted. During the war and for many years afterward, the FBI maintained a fictionalized version of the story in which it had preempted and caught the saboteurs solely by its own investigations and had even infiltrated the German government. This story was useful during the war to discourage the Germans by making the FBI seem more invincible than it really was, and perhaps afterward to similarly mislead the Soviets; but it also served Hoover himself in his efforts to maintain a superhero-style image for the FBI in American minds.
The FBI participated in the Venona Project, a pre–World War II joint project with the British to eavesdrop on Soviet spies in the UK and the United States. It was not initially realized that espionage was being committed, but due to multiple wartime Soviet use of one-time pad ciphers, which are normally unbreakable, redundancies were created, enabling some intercepts to be decoded, which established the espionage. Hoover kept the intercepts—America’s greatest counterintelligencesecret—in a locked safe in his office, choosing not to inform President Truman, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath, or two Secretaries of State—Dean Achesonand General George Marshall—while they held office. He informed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the Venona Project in 1952.
In 1946, U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark authorized Hoover to compile a list of potentially disloyal Americans who might be detained during a wartime national emergency. In 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean War, Hoover submitted to President Truman a plan to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and detain 12,000 Americans suspected of disloyalty. Truman did not act on the plan.
COINTELPRO years – Main article: COINTELPRO
The same Hoover letter, with fewer redactions.
In 1956, Hoover was becoming increasingly frustrated by Supreme Court decisions that limited the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute people for their political opinions, most notably communists. At this time he formalized a covert “dirty tricks” program under the name COINTELPRO.
This program remained in place until it was revealed to the public in 1971, after the theft of many internal documents stolen from an office in Media, Pennsylvania, and was the cause of some of the harshest criticism of Hoover and the FBI. COINTELPRO was first used to disrupt the Communist Party, where Hoover went after targets that ranged from suspected everyday spies to larger celebrity figures such as Charlie Chaplin who were seen as spreading Communist Party propaganda, and later organizations such as the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others. Its methods included infiltration, burglaries, illegal wiretaps, planting forged documents and spreading false rumors about key members of target organizations. Some authors have charged that COINTELPRO methods also included inciting violence and arranging murders. In 1975, the activities of COINTELPRO were investigated by the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, called the Church Committee after its chairman, Senator Frank Church (D–Idaho), and these activities were declared illegal and contrary to the Constitution. Hoover amassed significant power by collecting files containing large amounts of compromising and potentially embarrassing information on many powerful people, especially politicians. According to Laurence Silberman, appointed Deputy Attorney General in early 1974, FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley thought such files either did not exist or had been destroyed. After The Washington Post broke a story in January 1975, Kelley searched and found them in his outer office. The House Judiciary Committee then demanded that Silberman testify about them.
In 1956, several years before he targeted King, Hoover had a public showdown with T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader from Mound Bayou, Mississippi. During a national speaking tour, Howard had criticized the FBI’s failure to thoroughly investigate the racially motivated murders of George W. Lee, Lamar Smith, and Emmett Till. Hoover wrote an open letter to the press singling out these statements as “irresponsible.”
Response to Mafia and civil rights groups
While Hoover had fought bank-robbing gangsters in the 1930s, anti-communism was a bigger focus for him after World War II, as the cold war developed. During the 1940s through mid-1950s, he seemed to ignore organized crime of the type that ran vice rackets such as drugs, prostitution, and extortion. He denied that any mafia operated in the U.S. In the 1950s, evidence of Hoover’s unwillingness to focus FBI resources on the Mafia became grist for the media and his many detractors. The Apalachin Meeting of late 1957 changed this; it embarrassed the FBI by proving on newspaper front pages that a nationwide mafia syndicate thrived unimpeded by the nation’s “top cops”. Hoover immediately changed tack, and during the next five years, the FBI investigated organized crime heavily. Its concentration on the topic fluctuated in subsequent decades, but it never again merely ignored this category of crime.
Hoover’s moves against people who maintained contacts with subversive elements, some of whom were members of the civil rights movement, also led to accusations of trying to undermine their reputations. The treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr. and actress Jean Seberg are two examples. Jacqueline Kennedy recalled that Hoover told President John F. Kennedy that King tried to arrange a sex party while in the capital for the March on Washington and told Robert Kennedy that King made derogatory comments during the President’s funeral. Hoover, despite maintaining a public persona of a noble man, was privately racist and was not enthused about racial integration. After trying for a while to trump up evidence that would smear King as being influenced by communists, he discovered that King had a weakness for extramarital sex, and switched to this topic for further smears.
Hoover personally directed the FBI investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In 1964, just days before Hoover testified in the earliest stages of the Warren Commission hearings, President Lyndon B. Johnson waived the then-mandatory U.S. Government Service Retirement Age of seventy, allowing Hoover to remain the FBI Director “for an indefinite period of time.” The House Select Committee on Assassinations issued a report in 1979 critical of the performance by the FBI, the Warren Commission, and other agencies. The report also criticized what it characterized as the FBI’s reluctance to thoroughly investigate the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President.
Late career and death
J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, photographed in 1961.
Hoover’s FBI investigated Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti, a special assistant and confidant to President Lyndon Johnson, in 1964. Despite Valenti’s two-year marriage to Johnson’s personal secretary, the investigation focused on rumors that he was having a gay relationship with a commercial photographer friend.
Hoover maintained strong support in Congress until his death at his Washington, D.C., home on May 2, 1972, from a heart attack attributed to cardio-vascular disease. His body lay in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where Chief Justice Warren Burger eulogized him. President Richard Nixon delivered another eulogy at the funeral service in the National Presbyterian Church. Nixon called Hoover “one of the giants. His long life brimmed over with magnificent achievement and dedicated service to this country which he loved so well.” Hoover was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., next to the graves of his parents and a sister who died in infancy.
Operational command of the Bureau passed to Associate Director Clyde Tolson. On May 3, Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray, a Justice Department official with no FBI experience, as Acting Director, with W. Mark Felt remaining as Associate Director.