J. Edgar Hoover

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for forty-eight years (from 1924 to 1972), Hoover was one of the most controversial figures in American politics, the first and most durable leader of the anti-Communist movement that ruled American public life for much of the century.

Early Life

John Edgar Hoover was born to a family of civil servants in Seward Square, Washington, D.C., a few blocks behind the Capitol. Educated in the District of Columbia public schools, Hoover showed early signs of the drive and the leadership abilities that would make him one of the most powerful bureaucrats in American history. At Washington’s elite Central High, he was a leader of the student cadet corps and a champion debater; at the Old First Presbyterian Church, he was a teacher in the Sunday school. Photographs of him show a sword-slim figure of suppressed nervous energy, his expression one of intense determination. The values he absorbed from Seward Square, from Central High, and from the Old First Church were his guiding principles throughout his life: absolute assurance that his middle-class Protestant morality was the essential core of American values, and a deep distrust of alien ideas and movements that called those certainties into question.

Life’s Work

After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law from George Washington University’s night school, Hoover joined the Justice Department as a clerk on July 26, 1917, four months after the beginning of World War I. Hoover spent the war working for John Lord O’Brian’s War Emergency Division in the Alien Enemy bureau, administering the regulations that governed the hundreds of thousands of German and Austro-Hungarian aliens interned or supervised by the department.

While Hoover was wrapping up the affairs of the expiring Alien Enemies Bureau after the November 8, 1918, armistice, the Bolshevik Revolution was breaking out of Russia and spreading across central Europe to Germany and Hungary; general strikes in Vancouver and Seattle seemed to be the opening shots in an American class war. A sense of crisis took hold of the country as the Comintern, organized in Moscow on March 4, 1919, predicted a worldwide proletarian revolution by the end of the year. Forever after, Hoover would see Communism through a perspective colored by the crisis of 1919, when the world seemed on the brink of a Communist revolution.

A series of bombings in the spring of 1919, including an explosion at the Washington home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, gave rise to irresistible demands for action against radicals. Palmer, a candidate for the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination, decided to respond with a Justice Department drive that would concentrate on aliens, since they could be deported en masse administratively without the protection of legal due process. Hoover’s experience dealing with aliens brought him to the attention of Palmer, who put the twenty-four-year-old attorney in charge of the antiradical campaign.

As leader of the 1919-1920 antiradical drive, Hoover became the government’s first expert on the Communist movement. He established an “antiradical division” in the Justice Department and then, when the American Communist and Communist Labor parties were established in the late summer of 1919, prepared briefs arguing that their alien members were subject to deportation under the immigration laws. Hoover planned a raid of the headquarters of the anarchist Union of Russian Workers in November, 1919; on December 21, 1919, he put 249 radicals, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, two of the most noted radicals of the day, on a ship for the Soviet Union. Then, on January 2, 1920, Hoover led a nationwide roundup of alien Communists, arresting more than four thousand. The Justice Department was hoping to use the arrests to spur passage of a peacetime sedition bill that would have outlawed expression of revolutionary opinions by citizens, but widespread abuses of the prisoners’ rights and the overbearing behavior of the Justice Department stirred up the opposition of liberals and civil libertarians who brought the drive to a halt. Hoover, however, emerged with an enhanced reputation as an expert on radicalism and an organizational genius.

Hoover served as assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation from 1921 to 1924, when he was placed in charge of the scandal-plagued bureau. Acting quickly to bring his agents, previously loosely supervised, under tight control, Hoover turned the bureau’s newly acquired (1924) fingerprint collection into a national law enforcement resource, and, in the spirit of the progressivism of Herbert Hoover (no relation), made the bureau a force for professional standards and scientific methods.

During the 1930’s, Hoover and his men became national heroes as the result of a series of sensational hunts for gangsters such as John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson. FBI agents, “G-men,” were celebrated by Hollywood, radio, and the adventure magazines; their exploits convinced the public that the New Deal had the determination necessary to restore the national unity and morale that...

(The entire section is 2147 words.)