Hoover, J(ohn) Edgar
HOOVER, J(ohn) Edgar
(b. 1 January 1895 in Washington, D.C.; d. 2 May 1972 in Washington, D.C.), first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who in the 1960s presided over aggressive counterintelligence operations targeting civil rights leaders, high-ranking government officials, and members of the Mafia.
The youngest of four children, Hoover was the son of Dickerson Naylor Hoover, the head of the printing division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and Annie Marie Scheitlinr, a homemaker. At an early age Hoover attended the Church of the Reformation and, as a teenager, the Old First Presbyterian Church, where he acquired strong religious convictions. The single greatest influence in his life, however, was his mother, with whom he lived until her death in 1929.
At Washington's Central High School, Hoover overcame a speech impediment so he could perform on the debate team. He also commanded a squad of Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) cadets and graduated as the valedictorian of his class in 1913. That autumn he enrolled at George Washington University, earning an LL.B. in 1916 and an LL.M. in 1917 in legal jurisprudence, while working as a librarian at the Library of Congress. After dating in high school and later socializing with celebrities at New York City's Stork Club, Hoover spent most of his free time with his confidant Clyde A. Tolson, the associate director of the FBI. During Hoover's lifetime, he had no serious relationships with the opposite sex, giving rise to innuendo and rumor that he was a homosexual.
Hoover began his government career as a clerk with the Alien Enemy Bureau in the U.S. Justice Department on 26 July 1917. Putting his experience at the Library of Congress into practice, Hoover and his administrative skills caught the eye of the assistant attorney general, who recommended that Hoover be promoted. As the chief of the General Intelligence Division, Hoover compiled files on suspected radicals. Those suspects, mostly European immigrants, were the targets of a nationwide Justice Department dragnet on 19 November 1919, the climatic culmination of a phenomenon in U.S. history known as the Red Scare.
Hoover served as the assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation (the agency was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] in 1935) from 1921 to 1924. On 10 May 1924 the attorney general appointed Hoover as the bureau's director, a post he held for forty-eight years. Hoover and his law enforcement officers gained notoriety when G-men (government men), as his agents came to be known, gunned down the notorious killers John Dillinger and Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd in 1934. The bureau also received sensational publicity with the arrests of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for kidnapping the son of Charles Lindbergh in 1935, and of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for espionage in 1950.
The FBI's improprieties during the 1960s can be traced largely to intensified national security concerns in the aftermath of World War II and the cold war, which broadened the bureau's jurisdiction and greatly increased Hoover's authority. A staunch anticommunist, Hoover detested demonstrations and deplored civil disobedience; he believed student activism and the civil rights movement constituted part of a worldwide Communist conspiracy to incite revolution and dominate the United States politically and militarily.
Racial unrest in America's cities, student protests against the Vietnam War, and the militant, antiestablishment rhetoric of the New Left only reinforced Hoover's beliefs. To infiltrate and neutralize the Communist Party in the United States, Hoover launched a counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) beginning in 1957. During the 1960s the FBI sponsored a counterintelligence campaign of Orwellian proportions that included wiretappings, burglaries, mail tampering, propaganda, and electronic surveillance, all with Hoover's approval.
The bureau chief's relationship with the administration of President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s was a troubled one. Convinced that the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Communist puppet, Hoover attempted to persuade the president to distance himself from King and deny him access to the White House. Within months after Kennedy was sworn into office in January 1961, a power struggle ensued between the aging Hoover and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, over the decision to wiretap King's conversations.
After voicing his concerns to the president regarding King, Hoover placed the president and the attorney general under surveillance. From Hoover, Kennedy learned that his lover Judith Campbell Exner was also the mistress of the reputed Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana. Prior to the ominous newspaper headlines in November 1957 of the Apalachin Conference, a nationwide conclave of Mafia figures, Hoover refused to acknowledge the Mafia's existence in the United States. By 1961, however, under the leadership of Robert Kennedy, the FBI began pursuing and disrupting the sordid business interests of the crime syndicate, resulting in numerous indictments, deportations, and convictions, the most noteworthy of which was the arrest of the teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1964.
After Lyndon B. Johnson ordered an investigation of the FBI, Hoover's obsession with protecting the agency's image led to a cover-up of crucial evidence exposing Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as a security risk prior to the president's visit to Dallas on 22 November 1963. With Johnson's presidency came a period of accommodation and mutual understanding, even though Hoover believed the Texan to be politically naive. When Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the murder of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964, Hoover virtually declared war on America's hate groups in the Deep South. So pernicious was the FBI's diabolical plan of misinformation aimed at the Black Panther Party that the militant leadership's induced paranoia caused a lethal power struggle to erupt within the organization. Carefully planted informants, constant surveillance, and harassment drove the Students for a Democratic Society, the radical Weathermen, and the New Left in general underground. Befriending Johnson, Hoover even loaned the president tape recordings that Johnson used to entertain White House guests of King par-tying with female guests in a motel room.
Hoover's most flagrant violation of the law occurred when President Richard M. Nixon ordered him to blackmail liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to tilt the high court in the conservative direction. One casualty of the FBI investigation was Justice Abe Fortas, who resigned in May 1969 in the midst of a congressional inquiry. According to Nixon, Hoover's refusal to authorize a full-scale investigation of the reporter Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times after the newspaper published the Pentagon Papers persuaded White House aides to secretly create their own counterintelligence squad.
Hoover amassed a secret file of highly classified, cryptic documents he labeled "official and confidential." He wielded the sensitive information like a scalpel, exploiting human weaknesses and intimidating all who opposed his will. There is little doubt that heavy-handed FBI policies during the 1960s contributed to the utter contempt for the law felt in some quarters of society. The blatant disregard for civil liberties in the Nixon White House led to the Watergate crisis, multiple congressional investigations, and Nixon's eventual resignation. To promote the bureau and improve public relations, Hoover authorized the American Broadcasting Company's production of The FBI, a television series starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., that ran for most of the decade.
In 1972 Hoover died suddenly from undiagnosed heart disease. He was given a state funeral and was the first civil servant to have his body lie in state in the Capitol rotunda. Nixon gave the eulogy at Hoover's funeral, and Hoover is buried in the Washington Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Upon hearing of Hoover's death, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a victim of FBI voyeurism, remarked sarcastically, "With the passing of J. Edgar Hoover, I am reminded that Almighty God conducts the ultimate surveillance." Paradoxically, even though the bureau could boast of bringing infamous hoods, bank robbers, and kidnappers to justice, the white supremacists responsible for the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four young African-American girls on 15 September 1963, never had their day in court in Hoover's lifetime.
Volumes of documentation dealing with Hoover and the FBI in the 1960s are a matter of public record as the result of numerous lawsuits filed under the Freedom of Information Act. The historian Athan G. Theoharis has authored and edited several books on Hoover, the best of which is From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1991), written with Ivan R. Dee. Hoover's life and the early history of the FBI are inseparable. The most thorough synthesis of the two is Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 3 May 1972).
Jean W. Griffith