The Director

August 18, 2007 at 3:15 am (Figures in History, Law Enforcement, Politics)

An essay I wrote in History about the Great and Powerful Hoover. A mastermind at contorting his public image, he managed to seize control of the FBI and hold more power than any other government or law-enforcement official before or after.

At the time of writing this, I was saving to my PC and to my thumb drive, so I’m not sure if this is my final draft or the one just before it, so if there are any mistakes, let me know.

The Director

John Edgar Hoover’s career as Director of the FBI is marked by corruption, political bias and some of the most embarrassing blunders in the history of crime fighting. Hoover would use the manipulation of the media and various scapegoats to cover his own mistakes. Despite this, his career spanned nearly thirty years. One must wonder why this man had so much power that his career spanned seven presidents and sixteen general attorneys. The reason for this is his political mastery. In the book Citizen Hoover by Jay Robert Nash, Nash describes Hoover: “At politics he is a master. No one else in Washington today has managed to clutch high power with such tenacious longevity” (1). Hoover’s political maneuvering kept him in power long after he had served any purpose to the FBI.

Hoover’s rise to power began during the tumultuous year of 1917 when America entered the Great War. Hoover landed a job as a clerk in the overworked Department of Justice. The department’s attention was focused on investigating and deporting immigrants on suspicion of spying. John Lord O’Brian was appointed as assistant to the Attorney General and given a new staff in which Hoover was named unit chief in the enemy alien registration section. As a result, Hoover set out to prove himself. He was credited many times for his tireless effort at rooting out saboteurs and spies.

Another significant event to push Hoover to the head of the ranks was the bombing of the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on June 2, 1919. More bombings ensued with messages left stating such things as “The powers-that-be make no secret of their will to stop here in America the worldwide spread of revolution” (Quoted in Nash 19). Hoover’s prior work as unit chief brought him a new niche in the fight against the “Red Menace.” Because of Hoover’s reputation, General Palmer chose him as the man to be in charge of the General Intelligence Division, later named the Anti-Radical Division. Hoover began his crusade against Communism. Studying the famous Communist works of the day, he developed a fear of a Communist takeover (Nash 19). Hoover would end up playing a very important role ruining the careers of many federal employees and blacklisted writers and actors who were suspected of supporting Communism.

Hoover’s rise to power was complete in the year 1927. Seeped in scandal, the Bureau of Investigation was looking for someone new in charge. It was suggested to the newly appointed Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone that hard-working Hoover be considered for the job. On May 10, 1924, at the age of twenty-nine, Hoover was appointed head of the bureau. Hoover promised Stone that he would keep politics out of the bureau, but in 1932, when the Republicans had been firmly defeated, Hoover replaced more than one hundred agents with men chosen by the new Democratic administration.

Hoover soon took on his most favorite public image, the “Gangbuster.” The director enjoyed the image given to the press, but it was false. He was described by Nash: “When Hoover appeared in public in the early 1930’s, in the opinion of many observers he seemed to be imitating Hollywood film sleuths. He could be seen dining alone in Washington restaurants, his table set apart from others, his back to the wall. At such times, the Director would look ‘about furtively like a G-man’” (36).

This image was false and served only to boost his career and his ego. In fact, the term “G-man” was completely made up by Hoover, who wrote about the origin of this phrase in a story describing the capture of the notorious George “Machine Gun” Kelly in a house in Memphis, Tennessee. Kelly had escaped from Leavenworth Penitentiary and had been running from federal agents for two months. According to Hoover, FBI agents, with help from local law enforcement, surrounded the house. Hoover wrote that when agents entered the house, Kelly trembled in the corner and whimpered, “Don’t shoot, G-men; don’t shoot!”(37). Hoover continued to exaggerate the term to the media. He wrote, “That was the beginning of a new name for FBI agents. By the time Kelly had been convicted and had received his sentence of life imprisonment, the new nickname, an abbreviation of ‘Government Men’ had taken hold throughout the underworld. Along the grapevine of the powerful empire of crime passed the whispered words of warning about the G-men” (37).

In Nash‘s book however, the true story is revealed. First of all, it was only one officer entered the house that held “Machine Gun” Kelly, a local Memphis Police officer named WJ Raney. When Raney entered the house and demanded the criminal drop his weapon, Kelly replied, “I’ve been waiting all night for you” (37). In fact, the phrase never caught on in the criminal underworld. Federal agents are most commonly referred to as “feds” (37).

This was only one example of Hoover boosting his ego and credit through the media and through fanciful tales. He would continue to take credit away from local police departments and other agencies and give it to his FBI agents. One such case involved a famous counterfeiter, Victor “The Count” Lustig. Agents of the Treasury Department had managed to capture Lustig and promptly turn him over to the care of the FBI. The counterfeiter proceeded to escape Hoover’s men in New York. Again the Treasury Department caught up with Lustig and decided to bring him to Pittsburgh. On the way, the FBI overtook the car and took Lustig into their custody. Hoover called the press to announce another FBI victory over the world of crime. Never did he mention the escape of the prisoner in New York or that the Treasury Department had been the agency that found the criminal (Nash 52).

Hoover was not without critics. One skeptic was Senator Kenneth D. McKellar, who confronted Hoover about his record with the FBI when Hoover was seeking a larger budget for his FBI. McKellar hounded Hoover until Hoover conceded that the FBI could not have made certain arrests without tips from citizens whose names were never mention in his press releases. Hoover was even asked if he had made any arrests at all in his career and Hoover could only answer truthfully: no. As a result, to save his reputation as a hard-ball crime fighter, Hoover flew to New Orleans a few weeks later to personally arrest “public enemy number one,” Alvin “Old Creepy” Karpis. In the papers Hoover was portrayed as yanking Karpis out of a car and slamming the cuffs on him. However, the truth is that Hoover waited in an apartment building until the criminal was surrounded by the FBI, at which point the Director walked up to the car and ordered the criminal be cuffed (Nash 57). This was Hoover’s first arrest.

Hoover’s politics kept his image clean in the face of criticism. During the years following the Second World War, Soviet spies had managed to steal atomic bomb secrets from right under the FBI’s nose. Hoover managed to keep his public image clean, but the incident still had an effect. The sting would not last too long, however, as the country stepped into the most paranoid and damaging era of the Cold War.

On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy would give his famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia that would mark the beginning of massive public slander and ruin for employees of the State department. In his speech the Senator held up a piece of paper and said, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party” (Quoted in Johnson 18). There was no such list. The piece of paper in McCarthy’s hand was a four year old letter from former Secretary of State, James Byrnes. Haynes Johnson writes in The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism: “It contained no names, no list, no mention of traitors working within the State Department, nothing about “spy rings,” not any reference to Communist Party membership” (16). Fearful of being accused as Communist or Communist sympathizers and being publicly humiliated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, few people stood up to McCarthy. Hoover had a backer in his obsessive fight against Communism.

Hoover’s involvement with McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee was significant in the fact that most of the information given to slander and ruin the careers of suspected

Communists or Communist sympathizers came from the FBI. According to Haynes: “The History of McCarthyism cannot be told without understanding the critical role Hoover played…Hoover’s part in forming and leading the anticommunist crusade began with his invaluable service to Palmer during the summer of 1919; it continued for more than a half century” (103). According to Nash, the FBI became an “infiltrative organization gathering ‘intelligence,’ which was more likely to compromise, embarrass, and ruin those investigated than merely supply ‘facts’ (Nash 106).

McCarthy’s rein would not last. Senator McCarthy was censured on December 2, 1954. Just two and a half years later, on May 2, 1957, he died of alcoholism at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Hoover’s career, however, remained intact. Nash writes that Hoover claimed the FBI was merely a fact-finding agency that neither evaluated nor analyzed the results of investigations, and that the FBI did not make recommendations as to who was loyal to the American government or not (105). Hoover used political mastery to distance himself from McCarthyism and the hysteria of the Red Menace era to save his career and ensure his future with the FBI.

Hoover’s political maneuvers kept him in favor as the director of the FBI for nearly thirty years. His image portrayed to the public was very useful in securing his position, even though it was almost completely fabricated. Even the major blunders of the FBI could be covered up through the use of the press. Through these tactics, the Director’s career outlasted seven presidents and spanned nearly three decades. No one in any government position in America has had so long a career in such a powerful position, and hopefully never will. Hoover never retired from the FBI. He was found dead of an undiagnosed heart condition on May 2, 1972. He was 71 years old.

Works Cited

Nash, Jay Robert. Citizen Hoover. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1972.

Johnson, Haynes. The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, 2005.


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