(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Sanford J. Ungar intended to produce with this enormously detailed book the first objective look inside the FBI by an outsider. If, finally, his view of this vast organization is not entirely objective, nevertheless it is fascinating and illuminating, and, perhaps, as objective as any such book ever could be, for the Bureau, as created and developed by J. Edgar Hoover, was not and still cannot be calculated to inspire objectivity. This massive volume is valuable for many reasons, not the least of which is its painstaking analysis of the schizophrenic nature of the great federal agency: rigid, dutiful, admired on the one hand and insidious, toadying, and distrusted on the other. Applying to the FBI the same crisp prose and diligent reporting that he displays in the Atlantic Monthly, of which he is the Washington editor, Ungar has produced an exhaustive work on the Bureau. He explores its role and performance as well as its devoted servants past and present, from the lowly clerks to the agents and heroes to the imperious dictator, the late J. Edgar Hoover. Ungar’s effort is not without flaws, but his achievement is surprisingly sensitive and very impressive.

Ungar began his task of writing about the FBI with the purpose of producing neither a piece of propaganda nor a brief for dismantling the FBI. In the past, he writes, books about the FBI tended to be admiring panegyrics to the glory of the agency and J. Edgar Hoover or to be muckraking attacks by outsiders who were forced to write about an organization they never could get close enough to to really understand. By soliciting the assistance of the new director, Clarence Kelley, Ungar hoped to avoid both extremes. Kelley gave him the authority to visit the bureau’s offices and to talk to agents without restraint. This permission was granted over the opposition of most of the other top officials of the FBI, but Ungar went ahead with his enormous task to learn everything possible about the vast organization into which the bureau has grown. He found that the men who disapproved of him and his intentions could, if not stop him, make his task difficult by sending agents to monitor his interviews, by deliberately misleading him on numerous occasions, and even by deliberately lying. Despite such roadblocks, Ungar wrote a book that, more than any other thus far published, gives an authentic picture of the FBI and the lives of its employees.

The smell and feel of the field offices, the lives that agents lead, the way they function—it is all here and it all rings true. Vivid and authentic, too, is the picture of the Hoover autocracy, a dictatorship which made sycophancy the only sure road to preferment and which hounded even the mildest critics as “enemies” and/or subversives. Perhaps the greatest problem that the Bureau faces today is involved with history; the FBI must redefine its relation to the public. Hoover felt that anything less than praise was criticism and that criticism was tantamount to Communism. As Ungar describes it, Hoover was both the making and the breaking of the FBI. The organization is changing, but Hoover’s shadow still looms over it.

In 1924, this ascetic, solitary man began the transformation of a weak and discredited organization into a modern, remarkably incorruptible crime-fighting force. (It is a fact that the agency’s sense of superiority—considering its position of financial incorruptibility among American and world police forces—has some justification.) But Hoover built his organization through a reign of terror that fostered sycophancy at every level and left the agency at the mercy of his every prejudice. Increasingly, he favored FBI concentration on crimes like car theft that lent themselves to quick solution by the bureau’s sophisticated fingerprint files and crime...

(The entire section is 1556 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Book World. May 14, 1976, p. 7.

National Observer. XV, April 24, 1976, p. 25.

National Review. XXVIII, June 25, 1976, p. 693.

New Yorker. LII, May 3, 1976.

Newsweek. LXXXVII, March 29, 1976, p. 92.

Progressive. XL, September, 1976, p. 61.