How J Edgar Hoover secretly ruled America
The long-serving director of the FBI sat at the centre of a web of surveillance and information gathering for nearly five decades. But how did he come to wield so much power? And why were his agents so feared?
The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, Prohibition, World War II, the Cold War, sixties counterculture, Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights movement, Vietnam – as the United States of the 20th century moved from monumental event to monumental event, one man was there; an ever-present man wielding immense power and a master of secrets. He was at the centre and at the fringes, both a household name and an enigma in the shadows.
John Edgar Hoover served as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for almost 48 years and under eight presidents; an illustrious, if controversial, career that began in 1924. Only 29 years old when appointed, his mission was to transform a weak and small Bureau of Investigation (it became the FBI in 1935) in disarray into an expert crime-solving outfit. It was an inspired appointment.
A short rise to infamy
Hoover brought all the self-determination, unerring focus and ambition that got him so far so young. Born on 1 January 1895, he overcame a childhood stammer by learning to talk quickly; impressed on the school debate team with “cool, relentless logic”; and studied law at night classes, earning his degree in 1916 and master’s in 1917. That year, the same year the US entered World War I, Hoover managed to secure a job at the Department of Justice. By the age of 24, he headed an entire division and coordinated raids to round up suspected radicals and communists, arresting thousands and deporting hundreds.
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As director, Hoover implemented sweeping changes and a professional standard that established the Bureau as a powerful arm of federal law enforcement. Laboratories were improved for forensic analysis of handwriting, fingerprints and ballistics, and, perhaps his most significant change, Hoover devised systems for meticulous record keeping.
What his FBI needed now was a huge, publicity victory for Americans to get behind. Enter the Prohibition era and the rise of organised crime during the 1920s and 1930s. Using the newspapers and an influence in Hollywood, Hoover made sure gangsters like John Dillinger and ‘Baby Face’ Nelson were no longer romanticised antiheroes, but villains. And his agents – G-Men, from ‘government men’ – were hot on their heels. It worked; the decade was the making of the FBI.
The threat from within
It did not matter that Hoover did not go after major organised crime and denied the Mafia’s existence. Budgets and resources expanded, and the G-Men were hailed as frontline soldiers. When war actually came, the FBI were handed a far-reaching mandate to investigate those suspected of being domestic or foreign “subversives”.
By the end of the war, its authority had extended from crime fighting to national security, and Hoover oversaw a nationwide hive of surveillance and information gathering. President Truman feared the FBI of becoming a “Gestapo”. But Hoover’s remit only grew as Cold War tensions escalated, which suited him due to his staunch anti-communism. He relentlessly worked to root it out in the US, almost unchecked, until his overzealous investigations soon looked like reckless, personal persecutions.
Fear and paranoia
Hoover directed his agents to employ an array of illegal methods to go after suspected radicals, or anyone he told them to go after. Wiretapping and violence were all part of the FBI’s covert COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) and not just against suspected communists, but, from the 1950s, civil rights activists.
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Such tactics allowed Hoover to remain as FBI director for decades, with deputy Clyde Tolson at his side. Presidents dared not get rid of him in fear of the evidence he hoarded away. More than anyone, Hoover understood that true power lay not in armies and weapons, but information and perception. His personal life was kept a mystery, and he lived only with his mother until her death.
Hoover passed 70 and kept working, but his aura waned. In 1971, a break-in at an FBI field office by Vietnam War protesters and subsequent articles in The Washington Post revealed damning details about the Bureau, including how every agent was tasked with monitoring black people for no reason.
And yet, he was still director of the FBI when he died in 1972, aged 77. His final instruction was to his secretary to destroy his ‘personal file’: a cache of papers alleged to contain highly incriminating material. Hoover had cultivated an environment of paranoia, and of using any means to act on that paranoia. It was a legacy felt six weeks later when the Watergate burglary took place. The scandal fomented distrust in US institutions and shone a light on a world in the shadows; a world Hoover had ruled over for nearly half a century.
This article was first published in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.