Hoover, J. Edgar (1895-1972)

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Hoover, J. Edgar (1895-1972)

When J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972, the New York Times wrote of him, "For nearly a half century, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were indistinguishable. That was at once his strength and its weakness." Hoover was a strong personality, fiercely patriotic, and highly organized and controlling. Head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from the presidency of Calvin Coolidge until the presidency of Richard Nixon, he transformed the face of the United States Justice Department and became the definition of law enforcement in America, for better or worse.

John Edgar Hoover was born into a solidly middle class neighborhood in Washington, D.C. His father was in the Coast Guard and later worked as a low-level employee of the federal government. Brought up to the exacting standards of his strict mother, Hoover determined he would surpass his unambitious father. He remained devoted to his mother, living with her in the house in which he was born until her death in 1937.

Hoover received both a bachelors and a masters of law at George Washington University, and went to work for the government. He worked at the Library of Congress until the advent of World War I. In 1917, seeking to avoid the draft, which would force him to leave his aging parents, he obtained a clerical job at the Department of Justice, from which he moved up quickly. An extremely moralistic man, Hoover was virulently anti-Communist and anti-radical, and he gained prestige in the Justice Department by overseeing its wartime campaign against American radicals. In 1924, he took over as head of the Bureau of Investigation of the Justice Department (renamed Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935).

When Hoover took over as director, the Bureau was a slack organization, largely made up of political appointees and "hacks," who were not law enforcement professionals. Hoover immediately began to revamp the organization, first firing much of the staff and retraining those who remained. He eliminated the seniority system of promotions and instituted a merit system, with regular performance reviews. Over the course of his almost 50-year directorship, he succeeded in turning the FBI into one of the world's most efficient crime fighting organizations, with a state-of-the-art criminal lab, an ingenious fingerprint filing system designed by Hoover himself, and a prestigious training school for law enforcement agents.

Hoover is perhaps most famous for his success against the gangsters of the prohibition era, arresting renowned crime figures such as Al Capone and John Dillinger, and for his post-World War II activity against the Communist Party and against the Ku Klux Klan. He also grew infamous for abusing the power of his agency and exceeding its jurisdiction. If he turned the FBI into a crack crime-fighting force, he also turned it into an internal secret surveillance tool. Hoover's FBI employed tactics of infiltration, provocation, illegal wiretapping, and even burglary to amass volumes of damaging information about both public figures and private citizens. Even presidents and their families were not exempt from FBI scrutiny. This information was kept by the director in secret files that were allegedly used to control the activities of government officials, influence the outcome of elections, and quash public dissent. In the 1960s, with the support of President Lyndon Johnson, Hoover created counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs) to infiltrate and disrupt the activities of many leftist organizations, the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society among them.

Hoover and his G-men were hailed as heroes during the gangster-fighting days of prohibition. Although they garnered much popular support during the anti-Communist 1950s, with the rise of the New Left in the 1960s more people began to question the authority of the FBI. On March 8, 1971, a small group calling themselves "Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI" broke into the agency's offices in the town of Media, Pennsylvania. They found and publicized files proving the illegal activities involved in the FBI's COINTELPROs, changing the public image of Hoover's Bureau from dashing G-men to secret police.

J. Edgar Hoover died suddenly in 1972 of undiagnosed heart disease. He had been a religious man, an unbending moralist, obsessed with details and with eradicating any threats to the American way of life as he defined it. Though Hoover had used his agency to enforce Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation and to root out the Ku Klux Klan, he was personally a racial bigot and the FBI had a poor record of hiring minorities. Throughout his life he was followed by rumors of homosexuality. He was a dandified dresser who was never romantically associated with women, but who did form intimate attachments with men, notably Clyde Tolson, his second in command at the FBI, with whom he had a long, close friendship which some compared to marriage. Hoover violently denied any allegations that he had sexual relations with men, and his strict moral code would certainly forbid either the relations themselves or the acknowledgment of them. It is the type of information one might expect to find in a confidential folder in a secret file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

DeLoach, Cartha. Hoover's FBI: The Inside Story by Hoover's Trusted Lieutenant. Washington, D.C., Regnery Publications, 1995.

Demaris, Ovid. J. Edgar Hoover: As They Knew Him. New York, Carrol & Graf, 1994.

Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York, Plume, 1991.

Keller, William W. The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover: Rise and Fall of a Domestic Intelligence State. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1989.

O'Reilly, Kenneth. Black Americans: The FBI Files. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1994.

——. Hoover and the Un-Americans: The FBI, HUAC, and the Red Menace. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1983.

Potter, Claire Bond. War on Crime: Bandits, G-men and the Politics of Mass Culture. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Powers, Richard. G-men: Hoover's FBI in American Pop Culture. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Theoharis, Athan G., and John Stuart. The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1988.