J. Edgar Hoover
John Edgar Hoover began to use the name J. Edgar Hoover in the early 1920’s to avoid confusion with a petty hood who shared his full name. Hoover did not want to be mistaken for this miscreant. The son of a government bureaucrat, Hoover was born in Washington, D.C., to middle-class parents and he remained a Washington resident all of his life.
The young Hoover considered becoming a minister in the Presbyterian church, of which he became a member in his teens. Serving in the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as commander of his high school’s company altered his ambitions.
Hoover imposed his personal code of behavior on the ROTC company, demanding that officers under his command attend its formerly optional weekly meetings, have a fighting spirit, and be outstandingly decorous. When he became director, he applied to the FBI the same standards he had imposed upon his ROTC company.
Although Hoover was offered a scholarship to the University of Virginia upon his graduation from high school, he preferred to remain in Washington. He wanted to study law at George Washington University, which then had a special late afternoon and early evening program limited to government employees. In 1913, Hoover, to make himself eligible, took a job as a messenger at the Library of Congress, just four blocks from his home.
He rose successively to the positions of cataloger and clerk, gaining in the process considerable expertise in how to gather and organize information efficiently. Later, it was the Library of Congress’s method of classification upon which he based the classification of records in the FBI.
By 1916, Hoover had earned a bachelor of law degree, and the following year he earned a master’s degree in law. By that time, the United States had entered World War I. Hoover qualified for a commission. In July of 1917, however, having been admitted to the District of Columbia bar, he took a job as a clerk at the U.S. Department of Justice at a salary just short of a thousand dollars a year.
One of the attractions of the new job was that it carried with it exemption from the draft. He was not, presumably, a draft dodger, but his father, who had suffered from emotional problems, had had to resign pensionless from forty-two years of government employment. Hoover and his brother, Dickerson, had to support the family.
A compulsively hard worker who achieved results regardless of what methods he had to use, including outright deceit and lying, Hoover rose quickly in the Justice Department, whose top men had as much disregard for the niceties of constitutional law as Hoover did. He was promoted several times in his first year there. Because he worked on his own at odd hours and on weekends, he quickly came to the attention of his superiors, who came increasingly to depend upon him.
The war with Germany had caused the passage of a series of repressive acts, including the Espionage Act (1917), the Alien Deportation Act (1918), and the Sedition Act (1918). These produced exactly the climate of hysteria and distrust in which Hoover, flag-wavingly patriotic and unfailingly self-righteous, could flourish best. The times were exactly right for one of his ilk to advance at the Justice Department.
Working under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who, citing wartime exigencies, violated the civil rights of many citizens, Hoover learned that ruthlessness paid and that it could become a sure road to rapid advancement. He also learned that if one could create an illusion of threats to national security, practically any repressive actions could be justified.
Within a year, Hoover had progressed sufficiently to have his own secretary. After, endless interviewing, he hired Helen Gandy, who remained with him until his death and who, as soon as he was dead, systematically destroyed the secret files that had been the terror of Washington politicians, including more than half of the eight presidents under whom Hoover had served.
When Palmer left the...
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