J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover was the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, heading the domestic security organization from 1924 until his death in 1972, a span of nearly half a century that witnessed four wars (three “hot” and one cold), the Great Depression, and the civil rights movement. All of these major events played a key role in the controversial career of the man whose name is synonymous with the FBI.

In fact, “Hoover” and “the FBI” are often used interchangeably, and at least one historian has written that this practice is hardly inaccurate (Schrecker, 204). By the time of Hoover’s death, it was scarcely thinkable that anyone else could be the director of the FBI.

Hoover’s FBI was renowned for the personal professionalism of the agents (on which Hoover had long insisted) and, at least in the early years, the judiciousness with which Hoover often exercised his police power. But any mention of judiciousness would ring hollow in the ears of the many victims of McCarthyism, one of the most prominent of Hoover’s campaigns.

The FBI’s files were the raw data from which Joseph McCarthy and like-minded politicians fomented hysteria over the potential influence of Communist subversives in the United States. Many innocent men and women were discredited and blacklisted by this fear; a whiff of leftwing sympathy was often enough to brand a person a Communist sympathizer.

In one of the most glaring examples of this, Hoover and the FBI played a key role in the 1954 discrediting of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who nine years earlier had directed the design of the first atomic bombs, which ultimately ended World War II on U.S. terms.

Based on a letter to Hoover—which grossly exaggerated old evidence against Oppenheimer—the U.S. government eventually decided that Oppenheimer was a security risk. There was so little hard evidence against him that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was forced to acknowledge his loyalty at the same time that it affirmed he was a security risk.

Many sad stories abound from the period; the early 1950s were a scary time to be even a moderate dissenter in the United States. Historians have rightly condemned the McCarthyites for using the specter of communism to curtail freedom and individual liberties.

Tempering such criticism, however, are recent revelations from archives of the former Soviet Union, showing that there were a large number of Soviet operatives in the United States. Hoover and McCarthy were responding to a very real situation, but doing so in a way that often victimized innocent people for their political beliefs in the name of national security.

The same biases played a role in Hoover’s decision making during the 1960s. Although there is little question that he genuinely believed the radical students’ and civil rights movements to be threats to the nation’s security, these assessments were ultimately political ones. The same suspicion of radicalism that had characterized his assessment of the Communist threat colored his analysis of the liberal 1960s as well.

Hoover became convinced that the increasingly radical civil rights movement posed a grave threat to the country and must be stopped. One radical historian writes that internal FBI memos “discussed finding a black leader to replace King,” and “as a Senate report on the FBI said in 1976, the FBI tried ‘to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King’” (Zinn, 462).

Discussions of this sort are always politically charged, and suspicion can easily be cast on some of the more outlandish claims made about the FBI’s conspiracies (such as its role in covering up UFOs). Such verification from the U.S. Senate, however, is among the evidence that suggests that there is fire for this smoke. The columnist Jack Anderson agreed. Despite the kind words he wrote (perhaps moved in the wake of the director’s then-recent death), Anderson was in fact quite critical of Hoover.

Anderson felt it “hypocritical not to point out” the FBI’s recent tendency to go “beyond its jurisdiction to investigate the business dealings, sex habits and personal affairs of prominent Americans.” In fact, Anderson was quite critical of Hoover, and the misuse of power and access that Anderson mentioned has come to be one of Hoover’s enduring legacies.