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Wisconsin academy review (Dec. 1989)

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THE BOSS: J. EDGAR HOOVER AND THE GREAT AMERICAN INQUISITION by Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988. 489 pp.$27.95.

In October 1924, the newly installed director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation despatched a memorandum to the acting assistant attorney general. The director acknowledged that “the activities of Communists and other ultra-radicals have not up to the present time constituted a violation of Federal statutes.” and the bureau “theoretically . . . had no right to investigate such activities.” He nonetheless recommended the continued investigation of such individuals because they might violate federal laws in the future.

On this frightening pretext, J. Edgar Hoover launched a career as FBI director during which he would accumulate forty-eight years of service and twenty-five million personal case files. In The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition, Marquette University history professor Athan Theoharis and free-lance journalist John Stuart Cox argue that Hoover “had more to do with undermining constitutional guarantees than any political leader before or since,” yet “in certain crucial respects [was] a representative American of his time.”

The authors examine the heretofore unavailable FBI record destruction, Symbol Number Sensitive Source Index, and Surreptitious Entries files and exhaustively prove the first part of their thesis. They impressively detail how Hoover deftly acquired power, astutely played politics, and ruthlessly violated civil liberties.

Hoover’s rise to power began four months after his high school graduation when he became a file clerk at the Library of Congress in order to pay his way through night law school. During World War I, he served as an intelligence clerk, then an attorney in the Department of Justice, preparing dossiers on alien radicals for the department’s alien enemy registration section.

At the end of the war, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer empowered Hoover to create and command a general intelligence division in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover’s office amassed files on over 200,000 individuals allegedly linked to foreign-inspired radicalism, including Wisconsin Republican Senator Robert La Follette. With the attorney general ill, Hoover coordinated the so-called Palmer raids of alleged subversives in 1919 and 1920.

In 1924 Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone appointed Hoover as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover won the job by assuring Stone that his office would be “divorced from politics” and “responsible only to the Attorney General.” Hoover kept the job by maintaining a low profile, obsequiously seeking advice from his bosses, and minimally apprising attorneys general of the bureau’s activity.

When it appeared that President Franklin Roosevelt would replace Hoover with private detective Val O’Farrell in 1933, Hoover ordered an intensive investigation which thoroughly discredited O’Farrell and helped save Hoover’s job. When Congress threatened to bring the FBI under the Civil Service in 1940, Hoover misrepresented the proposal as an affront to the bureau’s professionalism, and the FBI retained its Civil Service exemption. When Nebraska Senator George Norris led an attack on FBI methods in 1940, Hoover exploited his popular support by disingenuously offering to resign and thus stayed in office.

Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all considered removing Hoover, but their fear of public backlash rescued the director. “The sources of Hoover’s power,” the authors conclude, were “the [FBI] files; his ability to avert critical scrutiny and independent knowledge of his administration of the FBI; services rendered to V.I.P.’s; information given to politicians about their opponents and high-ranking corporate officials about militant labor unionism; and his cozy relationship with key reporters, editors, and syndicated columnists.”

Hoover remained in office not   [p. 43]   just by duping his employers and cultivating a powerful public image, but by remaining keenly attuned to the nation’s political currents. Hoover reveled in the popularity of the Palmer raids in 1920, then downplayed his role in the face of public criticism in 1921. Hoover disarmed conservative critics by capitalizing on the wartime emergency to expand the FBI’s domestic surveillance during World War II, then enraged liberal adversaries by supplying the House Un-American Activities Committee with covert assistance after the war. From 1950-1953, Hoover fueled Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s popularity by making speeches, providing counsel, and monitoring the senator’s opponents. But the director wisely deserted McCarthy in January 1954 when the senator began his rapid political demise.

Beyond Hoover’s enormous power and shrewd politics lay the most troubling component of his legacy: his unrepentant assault on the rights of innocent Americans. The Palmer raids resulted in over 10,000 arrests, but only 556 deportations. When asked by Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana in senate hearings on the raids in 1921, “Do you know how many searches were made without a search warrant?” Hoover replied simply, “I do not.”

In the 1920s, unknown to the attorney general, Hoover instituted “summary memoranda” on all congresspersons, which would include accounts of their “subversive activities” and “immoral conduct.” In 1925, defying the attorney general, Hoover inaugurated an “obscene file,” which would contain personal and sexual information on persons ranging from prominent radical activists to presidents. In 1943, circumventing the attorney general, Hoover continued a “custodial detention” file designed to investigate “individuals (other than alien enemies) who may be dangerous or potentially dangerous to the public safety or internal security of the United States,” by simply rechristening the file “security matter.”

From 1956 to 1963, Hoover compiled a secret file on John F. Kennedy, filled with negative personal information, pamphlets, articles, and letters. And from 1963 to 1968, Hoover supervised the wiretapping of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and even sent an audio tape of King’s illicit sexual activity to the minister’s wife.

Theoharis and Cox thus provide a fascinating account, replete with primary evidence, of a powerful man’s tragic perversion of American democratic ideals. Yet the authors also describe Hoover as quintessentially American. They do not prove this second part of their thesis, however. Hoover’s personal life, the popularity which he and the agency accrued, and the historical context in which he operated receive too little attention.

The authors nobly attempt to surpass the previously incomplete accounts of Hoover’s private life, most notably Don Whitehead’s The FBI Story, written under bureau auspices. But in the end they fail to penetrate significantly the secrecy which characteristically shrouded Hoover’s life. They concede that there is no evidence of Hoover’s homosexuality, then pointedly note the good looks and constant companionship of first Frank Baughman and then Clyde Tolson (FBI underlings), and lament the director’s aversion to women other than his beloved mother. Relying on their own judgments rather than those of any cited Hoover associates, they conclude that Hoover was a sad and lonely man—hardly a representative American.

This portrait of the private Hoover vividly contrasts with the public image of the FBI and its director which Hoover meticulously promoted. Allusions to Hoover’s personal popularity fill the book, but the evidence barely transcends an absorbing few pages on “G-Man” image-making (hair, weight, and dress regulations) in the 1930s; specialized recruiting (Catholics preferred for their religiosity and good looks) in the 1940s; FBI-assisted Hollywood moviemaking (for example, The FBI Story) in the 1950s; and wooing of “conservative media” representatives throughout. Theoharis and Cox thus leave the mistaken impression that Hoover manipulated the masses as easily as he manipulated his superiors.

In short, the authors are unwilling to credit Hoover for anything except his instinctive leadership. A major reason for this drawback is the limited scope of their study. By concentrating almost exclusively on Hoover’s virulent anticommunism, the authors play to Theoharis’s scholarly strengths (McCarthyism, civil liberties), but overlook Hoover’s considerable accomplishments in fighting crime, terrorism (right-wing as well as left-wing), and civil rights abuses—achievements which contributed to his popularity. As David Burner writes in John F. Kennedy and a New Generation, “Hoover was not the irresponsible psychopath television docudramas have made him out to be, and for many years the FBI maintained at least the appearance of a procedurally careful investigative force, a buttress rather than a threat to constitutional restrictions on federal power.”

While conjecture plagues the book’s account of Hoover’s private life and selectivity distorts its assessment of his popularity, personalization compromises the historical context of the subject. Theoharis and Cox, by blaming Hoover for virtually every infringement of civil liberties in the name of anticommunism from 1917 to 1972, implicitly absolve numerous attorneys general and presidents from Wilson to Nixon. The authors contend that Hoover stayed in power because the attorneys general and presidents of the 1920s erroneously believed that they could control Hoover, and the attorneys general and presidents since the 1930s were afraid they could not. Yet Theoharis and Cox admit that all of the presidents and congresses   [p. 44]   during Hoover’s directorate at least tacitly approved most of Hoover’s activities.

Harry Truman created the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947 over Hoover’s protest. Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general limited Hoover’s wiretapping and bugging authority in 1965. Hoover was therefore neither easily controlled nor uncontrollable.

He was instead, as the authors state, in many ways a reflection of his time. Yet their “Great Person” history, with a few exceptions, fails to capture Hoover’s era. There is ample documentation of McCarthyism, but little explanation for it. Theoharis would have done well to recall how his colleague Robert Griffith (with whom he edited The Specter: Original Essays on the Cold War and the Origins of McCarthyism)explained the second “Red Scare,” by noting traditional American fears of radicalism as well as the Korean War. Not only was Hoover popular, but so was what the authors label “The Cause”—anticommunism—which every president whom Hoover served ardently embraced.

Which leads, finally, to the title. The Spanish Inquisition counted thousands of victims of torture and death. J. Edgar Hoover, for all his abuses of power, was no Torquemada. Comparing Hoover’s excesses at the FBI to the excesses of the fifteenth-century Spanish Church and state is akin to calling the recent Iran-contra scandal a “reactionary scare and a wholesale repression,” which the authors also do, in tenuously connecting Hoover s FBI to the late CIA director William Casey’s purported “secret government.”

The Reagan White House’s Iran-contra deal nonetheless shared with Hoover’s FBI a penchant for secrecy and a disrespect for the U.S. Constitution. The age-old question, revisited by Theoharis and Cox, regarding the proper balance between national security and individual rights in a democracy, deserves close scrutiny. But this issue has always been far bigger than one person.

Lawrence J. McAndrews is assistant professor of history at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

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