Nov 192012

J. Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895-May 2, 1972) was the long-serving and controversial director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. John Edgar Hoover joined the Justice Department shortly after the United States entered WWI. Possessing superb organizational skills, Hoover was promoted to head of the Radical Division within the Bureau of Investigation. Rising to Acting Director of the Bureau in 1924, Hoover switched the Bureau’s focus from investigating political organizations to criminals. Faced with a wave of violent bank robberies in 1933, Hoover was placed in charge of an expanded bureau, which captured or killed a number of Public Enemies. Believing that he and he alone should symbolize the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), magazine articles, books and movies portrayed Hoover as having trained the agents.

A national symbol by the end of WWII, Hoover was a lifelong anti-communist, and the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953) seemed to confirm the global Communist conspiracy. When Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1952, he supported Hoover’s belief that domestic security trumped civil liberties. John F. Kennedy symbolized the shift in cultural values that would take place during the 1960s, and Hoover disliked both the president and the social changes. In fact, Hoover used the FBI to attack any group that threatened the status quo, including Martin Luther King Jr., the anti-war movement, and the Black Panthers, employing wiretapping techniques of dubious legality. Despite a lengthy relationship with Richard Nixon, Hoover’s continued career was uncertain when he died of a heart attack on May 2, 1972.

Early Life

J. Edgar Hoover was born on January 1, 1895 and grew up in Washington, DC. His full name was John Edgar Hoover but he changed the name to J. Edgar early in his career because he was often confused with another attorney in the Justice Department named John E. Hoover. An excellent student, he was the best debater in high school. Hoover’s extended family were all bureaucrats, therefore his entry into the lower tiers of government bureaucracy was guaranteed. Realizing that it was vital to start acquiring seniority early, he worked at the Library of Congress during the day and pursued a law degree at night. Hoover had passed the bar shortly after the US entered WWI, and he quickly obtained a low-level job at the Justice Department that made him exempt from the draft. It is interesting that he had served as a cadet captain during high school and was a vocal patriot, but he refused to enlist in the military. Connections earned him a promotion within a year that doubled his salary, which was desperately needed because clinical depression (diagnosed as melancholia at the time) had forced his father to retire early.

Four thousand people were arrested as suspected spies by the Justice Department during the course of the war. Since each arrest order needed permission from the department’s headquarters, many clerks were made Permit Officers. Hoover soon earned the trust of his superiors and was made responsible for deciding who went to prison and who did not.

Post-WWI Anti-Radical Campaign

After the end of the war, radicalism surged across the United States and a wave of bombs sent to prominent public figures served to heighten hysteria. Two weeks after Attorney General Alexander Palmer’s house was bombed on June 2, 1919, the Justice Department decided to deport foreign born radicals. Hoover was promoted to special assistant to the attorney general and head of the Radical Division within the Bureau of Investigation because of his superb organizational skills and experience coordinating with the Immigration Bureau to deport aliens without actually convicting them of specific crimes. When the stress of running the department and maneuvering for the Presidential nomination forced Palmer to take several weeks of rest, Hoover was left alone to plan the anti-radical campaign. He chose the targets, represented the government at deportation hearings and organized the research into the radical movement. Hoover felt that his access to the Bureau’s huge storehouse of facts made him an expert, as well as gave him contempt for anyone who opposed him.

The Immigration Act of 1918 permitted the deportation of any alien who belonged to an organization that advocated political violence but most aliens with left-wing views belonged to socialist organizations that emphasized working within the political system. Since the Union of Russian Workers’ constitution advocated social revolution, several thousand members of the union were arrested on November 7, 1919, even though the Tsarist government of Russia had been the actual target. Although the recently formed Communist Party called for revolution and was made up of aliens, the Bureau lacked enough agents to organize quick, efficient roundups of thousands of Communist party members in thirty-three cities, so it had to accept the assistance of local police and anti-communist groups, who had little interest in respecting the party members’ rights. Between 4,000 and 6,000 radicals were arrested on the night of January 2, 1920, but the severity of the raid stirred up a huge storm of criticism. The department survived a Congressional hearing but was forced to abandon the campaign, which taught Hoover the importance of strong political backing, as well as led him to forge close ties with friendly journalists to shape public opinion in his favor.

Hoover had immersed himself in the study of communism as preparation for the campaign, and communist literature was particularly strident at that point since its leaders believed that global revolution was only weeks or months away. When it became apparent that this would not happen, communist thinkers changed their approach but Hoover’s view of communism was formed during that period and never wavered during the following fifty years.

Hoover had risen to acting director of the bureau in 1924 but the bureau lacked a clearly defined purpose or clear boundaries. The bureau’s focus gradually switched from investigating political organizations to individuals accused of breaking the law, and Hoover made the bureau the national center for fingerprints. The improved bureau finally had a target when the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby on March 1, 1932 sparked a national outcry. Hoover was put in charge of an investigation that included the postal inspector, the Secret Service, the Prohibition Unit, the Washington Metropolitan Police and the Bureau. The investigation’s mandate was only to coordinate the efforts of local authorities, but the press praised the Bureau, and Hoover in particular. The need for a public crimefighter reflected the growing national desire to know that someone could be relied on to preserve law and order.

Public Enemy Era

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) decided to create a more powerful federal police force by combining the larger Prohibition Bureau with the smaller Bureau of Investigation, Hoover worried that he would have to accept a secondary role. The situation changed when a botched attempt to rescue bank robber Frank “Jelly” Nash on June 17, 1933 ended with one bureau agent and three local law officers, as well as Nash, dead. Such a blatant attack on federal law enforcement officials drove Attorney General Homer Cummings to win public support for the Justice Department by declaring war on crime. Hoover was put in charge of the new division, which soon had a success when it arrested Machine Gun Kelly, his wife Kathryn and his partner Albert Bates for the kidnapping of Oklahoma oilman Charles Urschel. The arrest was largely due to a related investigation by detectives from Fort Worth, Texas, but Hoover made sure that the bureau got the credit.

Kelly was the first of the Public Enemies that would be hunted by the bureau but John Dillinger would be its greatest victory. He had been robbing banks for over a year when he escaped from prison at Crown Point, Indiana on March 3, 1934 by using a wooden pistol to disarm the guards. When he drove the local sheriff’s car across the state border he committed a federal crime and the Bureau was brought in. However, an attempt to capture him in St. Paul, Minnesota failed due to poor planning, and a night time raid on his gang at the Little Bohemia resort in Wisconsin resulted in the death of an innocent bystander, while the gang escaped in the darkness. The failure derailed the career of rising agent Melvin Purvis, who had been Hoover’s golden boy. Dillinger was finally run down based on a tip from Anna Sage, a madam faced with deportation, and he was killed trying to escape. There was no mention of a tip because Hoover wanted the public to believe in the bureau’s scientific crime fighting methods. Believing that he and he alone should symbolize the bureau, Hoover would strive to make sure that he was present for the photographs celebrating the successful conclusion of each major case.


Hoover had become a respected public figure, so reporter Courtney Cooper decided to write a series of articles that portrayed Hoover as a genius crimefighter who had single-handedly forged the FBI into an organization that always got its man. Twenty-four magazine articles, three books and four movies portrayed Hoover as having trained the men, gathered the detection techniques employed in the laboratories and ensured that the organization functioned with flawless efficiency. Hoover started to be treated like a movie star, whose interests and habits regularly appeared in newspapers. Believing his own press clippings, he began to lecture publicly about how people turned to a life of crime because of their characters, while stressing the need for traditional values expressed through family, school and church.

Hoover paid strict attention to the bureau’s public image, both by monitoring how the press presented the bureau and by striving to control every aspect of the agents’ behavior to ensure that the department’s reputation was not harmed by inefficiency or corruption. When Melvin Purvis, famous for hunting down Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, failed to respond to Hoover’s suggestions to reduce his public presence, he was sidelined until he realized that he no longer had a future with the bureau and resigned on July 10, 1935. Still at the height of his fame, he had writing offers from Hollywood and product sponsorship offers. In 1936, a series of articles were collected into a book, American Agent, that aroused Hoover’s anger by acknowledging that local police forces deserved credit. Whenever a studio approached Purvis about adapting the book into a movie, the bureau would offer its own assistance for free, as well as put pressure on companies that attempted to hire Purvis as a security advisor. Although he never discussed the effect that the harassment had on him, Purvis killed himself in 1960.

Rumored Homosexuality

Clyde Tolson joined the bureau as a special agent in April 1928. Four years younger than Hoover, he had gained high-level administrative experience working for the War Department before transferring to the bureau. Hoover began grooming him to become second-in-command of the bureau, and Tolson became one of two assistant directors within two years. The two men became extremely close, going to and from work together, eating lunch together and going on vacations together. Since neither man ever married, this naturally led to rumors of homosexuality but anyone who made a public accusation was visited by agents and forced to either provide proof or retract. No evidence exists of a sexual relationship, but Tolson was his escort at every social event, and even though they acted as if they were in a relationship, people soon learned not to inquire too closely. Hoover had dated Lela Rogers (the mother of Ginger Rogers), screenwriter Frances Marion and Dorothy Lamour, although none of the relationships led to marriage.


Hoover’s career benefited from a good working relationship with FDR, who preferred to deal with people one-on-one. As Japan, Germany and Italy embarked on programs of military expansion during the 1930s, FDR turned to Hoover to monitor communist and fascist sympathizers in the US, although it had to be kept secret in order to avoid arousing the powerful isolationist movement. Following the German invasion of Poland, a state of emergency was declared on September 9, 1939 and all law enforcement departments were requested to cooperate with the FBI. Hoover ordered that every political group be investigated for subversive activities and whether it was vulnerable to subversion, which was used as an excuse to monitor liberal groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Hoover also kept detailed surveillance on Eleanor Roosevelt because of her devotion to liberal causes. While Hoover was loyal to FDR, he would not hesitate to leak information to the press that damaged the reputations of people who were a threat to the bureau, which further reduced the willingness of people to criticize the bureau.

The American intelligence community had failed to anticipate the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and Hoover feared that he would take the blame, since he had dismissed a warning from a British agent because he was spending time with loose women as part of his cover. Fortunately, an investigation conducted by Roosevelt’s staff concluded that the admiral and general in charge of Pearl Harbor were responsible. Although he ensured that the FBI was in charge of domestic intelligence, Hoover was unable to prevent the formation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which handled foreign intelligence, under William Donovan.


The FBI had become quite powerful by the time that FDR died on April 12, 1945, and Hoover had become a national symbol. After cooperating smoothly with the same president for twelve years, Hoover was unhappy about having to work with Harry Truman, FDR’s successor, since he had criticized the FBI for being partly to blame for Pearl Harbor. Worse, Truman refused to let Hoover take charge of the soon to be formed CIA, believing that one man should not control both domestic and foreign intelligence gathering. Convinced that the Communists were planning a surprise attack on the United States, Hoover refused to be caught off guard and spent most of the Truman administration planning a massive program to arrest Communist sympathizers. Unlike previous campaigns where aliens were deported, these sympathizers would be citizens, so it would be a much more complex undertaking. Truman’s token efforts to introduce loyalty programs confirmed to Hoover that he was weak on anti-communism. Believing that Truman would lose the 1948 election, he broke with the president and testified in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) on March 26, 1947, which earned him the support of the red-hunting right wing. Although Truman won the 1948 election to everyone’s surprise, the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953) seemed to confirm the global Communist conspiracy.

When Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1952, he supported Hoover’s belief that domestic security trumped civil liberties. Unlike Truman, Eisenhower required each member of the government to prove that he was not a security risk, and ex-FBI agents were hired to implement the security checks. Eisenhower’s courting of Hoover paid off when he testified in front of HUAC in 1953 to express his full support of the administration.

Civil Rights

Hoover had settled into a comfortable life where he followed the same daily routine and took the same vacations every year, where he visited the same circle of friends and ate at the same restaurants. Given such an anal routine, it should come as no surprise that he was so opposed to any form of social change. Furthermore, he had grown up in a neighborhood that was primarily made up of white, middle-class Protestant immigrants from the south, and the city was almost completely segregated, so the only blacks were servants. He had a black chauffeur and a black live-in maid, while two black agents guarded his office. The three men, along with black drivers in Miami and California for his vacations, had been made FBI agents to ensure that they were not drafted during WWII, so he was not well-suited to appreciate demands for civil rights.

Furthermore, although Hoover claimed to be above politics and never voted, the vast majority of his friends were republicans, and he was believed to have strong republican sympathies. Aside from refusing to hire blacks as agents, he would only accept women for clerical positions, and he was biased against Jews and Hispanics. In fact, he had no interest in foreign countries and mistrusted any foreigners.

The FBI stayed out of civil rights cases because Hoover had seen Southern juries refuse time and time again to convict whites for crimes committed against blacks. However, his natural resistance to civil rights in general meant that instead of explaining his viewpoint to civil rights leaders, he responded to criticism by launching investigations to root out the real reason why they had attacked a national institution like the FBI.

Organized Crime

Hoover had repeatedly and publicly ridiculed the idea of a national crime syndicate, and he refused to cooperate with the Senator Estes Kefauver’s Committee on Organized Crime in 1951. The validity of this viewpoint was questioned when New York State Police found a conference of more than sixty Mafia dons in upstate New York on November 14, 1957. Hoover’s ingrained resistance against cooperation with other governmental organizations drove him to ignore the criticism. In 1959, the New York office had 400 agents investigating Communists, while four agents handled organized crime. However, there are indications that Hoover had other reasons for refusing to investigate organized crime. He was friends with Walter Winchell, who was extremely close to many gangsters, including Frank Costello, and he regularly spent time at clubs frequented by gangsters. He stayed free of charge at Del Webb’s hotels in Las Vegas, even though Webb was known to be a partner with Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Furthermore, close friend and oil mogul Clint Murchison was rumored to have close connections with the mob. Also, Hoover and Tolson were dedicated gamblers on horse races. Since the mob fixed the races, they could ensure that Hoover won his bets instead of bribing him directly. It was even rumored that Lansky had used pictures of Hoover and Tolson in an embrace to blackmail Hoover.

Hoover’s fixation on the threat of communism to America’s domestic security seemed out-of-date given the dramatic decrease in tensions following the end of the Korean War and the death of Stalin. By 1956, the Communist Party in the US had shrunk to 22,000 members, and when Soviet tanks crushed the uprising in Hungary in October, disillusionment shattered what was left of the party. Instead of assigning resources to other investigations, the Bureau developed COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), where FBI informants infiltrated party meetings and raised questions about the invasion of Hungary and Soviet anti-Semitism to provoke internal feuds. Membership in the American Communist Party had shrunk to 3,474 by December 1957, but the dubious legality of many of these actions meant that the bureau was acting more like a conspiracy than a governmental agency.

Masters of Deceit was ghostwritten by FBI staff but carefully edited by Hoover to ensure that it matched his public persona. The book was published in 1958 by Henry Holt, which was owned by Clint Murchison, who hosted Hoover and Tolson every summer for free at his hotel at La Jolla. The book sold over two million copies but the profits were split by Hoover, Tolson, Louis Nichols, This Week magazine editor William Nichols and the FBI Recreation Fund, while the actual writers received nothing other than their salaries. In another example of breaking the law, Hoover’s daily lunch tab at an expensive Washington restaurant was picked up by a friend who owned a large laundry service. Furthermore, he claimed that his annual trips to California were official “inspection trips,” so they were paid for by taxpayers. Hoover had also invested in oil companies and railroads owned by Murchison and Richardson. The FBI was responsible for renovations and new furniture for his house, and agents were expected to routinely give expensive gifts.

The Kennedy Era

Although President John Kennedy (JFK) announced in his inauguration speech that the torch had been passed to a new generation, he kept Hoover as head of the FBI to appease the powerful right wing. For the first time in his life, Hoover worked for someone younger than him, but Kennedy was just a symbol of the shift in cultural values that would take place during the 1960s. Hoover had relied on his direct connection to Roosevelt and Eisenhower to protect him against the attorney general, his nominal superior, but this approach was futile when the president and the attorney general, Robert Kennedy (RFK), were brothers. While Hoover disapproved of JFK in general, he was duty bound to warn him about dangerous sexual affairs, which led the president to end his relationship with Judith Campbell, the mistress of mobsters Sam Giancana and John Rosselli.

At the same time, Hoover continued to enforce his own traditional morality, investigating the fiancees of agents and refusing to permit married agents to attend nightclubs unless accompanied by their wives. Hoover maintained control over his agents by threatening to transfer them to an office in another city, which would require the agent to sell his house at a loss and bear the heavy cost of moving his family and possessions. However, his domain began to shrink as the financial rewards of private practice combined with his control of agents’ private lives caused the number of recruits to decline, while his most loyal senior executives began to retire.

The Bureau was not just entirely white, its agents looked down on blacks and commonly referred to them as ‘niggers.’ After RFK finally hounded Hoover into admitting that the Bureau only had five black agents, Hoover was pressured into agreeing to double the number, although he did not inform the attorney general that the five agents were his personal servants. The bureau refused to contribute agents to the Justice Department’s efforts to protect the Freedom Riders, claiming that its mandate was investigation not law enforcement. Actually, Hoover was preoccupied with trying to break the main civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. because King had criticized the FBI for its lack of involvement in the civil rights movement. He continued to believe that any criticism of the government or traditional values could be traced back to Communist agitation. When King refused to break with Stanley Levinson, who had been involved in the Communist party until 1955, RFK allowed King’s phone to be tapped, which enabled Hoover to learn about his extra-marital affairs.

As he became older, Hoover came to rely on agent William Sullivan, who appeared to possess the necessary moral standards and intelligence to interpret the massive data produced about domestic organizations. As head of the Domestic Intelligence Division, he became the bureau’s ranking expert on Communism, second only to Hoover. However, when he concluded in August 1963 that Communists had failed utterly to infiltrate the civil rights movement, Hoover began to disregard all memos produced by his division. Fear for his future career drove Sullivan to send a memo a week later which stated that King’s “I have a dream” speech showed that he was undoubtedly the most dangerous Negro in the country, and advocated using more aggressive surveillance techniques against King’s movement. Sullivan later claimed that he changed his conclusions to suit Hoover’s demands, but it seems likely that Hoover, a trained lawyer and experienced bureaucrat, was pushing Sullivan to provide more concrete information to support abandoning the surveillance of King but lacked the communication skills needed to explain his needs. In the end, this shows the extent to which Hoover had surrounded himself by yes-men.

The Johnson Era

The assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963 was too big to be settled by a simple FBI report, so Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), Kennedy’s successor, formed the Warren Commission. Resistant as ever to any infringement on his turf, Hoover gave the barest minimum of cooperation to the commission. Actually, the FBI had previously investigated Lee Harvey Oswald but had slipped up in not recommending him for deportation despite there being sufficient evidence, since he had a Russian wife, a subscription to a Communist paper, was believed to be trying to infiltrate an anti-Castro group in New Orleans, and had met with a diplomat at the Soviet embassy in Mexico City, who was also known to be a KGB agent. Given its sloppy approach to the case, the FBI was determined to present Oswald as a lone agent. At the same time, the Warren Commission publicly criticized the FBI’s handling of the situation, and Hoover launched a counterattack to defend the bureau. Furthermore, Hoover was aware that he had failed to communicate to the president the numerous groups within the country that hated him, in particular the recordings of top mobsters ranting how JFK had betrayed them. If the mafia were involved in a conspiracy to kill JFK, then their possession of incriminating photos would provide another explanation why the FBI did not investigate the assassination more carefully. The FBI’s pursuit of organized crime definitely decreased following JFK’s death.

Hoover had expected that he would have to leave the bureau when he reached the mandatory retirement age in 1965, but he and LBJ had been good friends for almost twenty years. Having inherited an administration that resented him as a pretender, Johnson needed a loyal friend. Hoover’s backing reassured many conservatives that Johnson’s civil rights program was not a communist cover. The dedication was rewarded when Johnson waived the mandatory retirement for Hoover. Despite his loyalty to the president, Hoover would clash with the attorney general over the proper response to the race riots of the 1960s, and the FBI sent agents to compile lists of protest leaders in anticipation of mass arrests. Even though the resources of the FBI were unable to find a conspiracy linking the increasingly severe summer riots in black ghettos, he decided to expand COINTELPRO into the growing black nationalism movement in order to prevent the rise of a black “messiah.”

Although Hoover was no believer in racial equality, he was loyal to LBJ, so the FBI devoted its resources to breaking the (Klu Klux Klan) KKK. LBJ showed that the Klan’s attacks were not just against blacks but American society, and then assured Hoover that he would receive the political support needed to deal with such a controversial issue. The event that sparked the shift was the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi on June 22, 1964. At that time, the FBI did not have any offices in the state but shortly after the civil rights law was signed on July 2, Hoover flew to Jackson to open an FBI office as part of his plan to send 153 agents to the state. However, Hoover continued to remain suspicious about the motives of the civil rights movement, and his campaign against the Klan was due primarily to its threat against society, not a minority group. In fact, he ridiculed the desire of black men to be called ‘Mr.’ by the police rather than “boy.”

In July 1964, the FBI started to infiltrate the Klan in the same way that it had moved against Communist parties, and it had acquired 2,000 informants within the Klan, roughly 20 percent of its total membership. The decision to create another COINTELPRO was based on Hoover’s previous failures in court cases where local Southerners refused to convict white men regardless of the evidence. When the Klan killed a white volunteer who was driving protestors home on March 25, 1965, the FBI caught the criminals eight hours later, because one of them was an informant. With Hoover at his side, Johnson went on television to announce that the killers had been caught and to state that the nation would not allow itself to be terrorized by the Klan.

At the same time, Hoover was employing COINTELPRO techniques against Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBI used information obtained through its surveillance to wreck King’s reputation, sending information to universities planning to give him honorary degrees. Frustrated that King was going to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover called King a notorious liar during a press conference on November 18, 1964, which greatly weakened the respect he had within the government and Congress.

COINTELPRO was extended to the peace movement that sprung up in reaction to America’s increasing involvement in the Vietnam War because Hoover believed that Communists wanted to encourage agitation to pressure the government to withdraw from Vietnam. Viewing the antiwar demonstrations on university campuses as a direct opposition to traditional society, Hoover was outraged but since they were American citizens who did not actually commit crimes he had no options other than trying to stir up conflict between the mainly white protestors and the black nationalists.

The Nixon Era

Having known Richard Nixon since the beginning of his career, Hoover naturally had a close relationship with the new president. However, Nixon’s aides were not impressed by Hoover’s reputation and lengthy history of anti-communism, nor were they impressed with the quality of information provided by the FBI. Nixon was aware of Hoover’s value as a symbol to the right-wing but did not oppose his aides’ desire to replace him as soon as possible. Hoover was willing to cooperate with Nixon’s requests for wiretapping but when his cautious nature made him resist some of the more dangerous requests, Nixon’s aides became increasingly impatient with what they viewed as a has-been. In the end, they would bypass Hoover and recruit the CREEP (Committee to Re-elect the President) team to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee. However, Nixon was able to depend on Hoover to combat the street protests and news leaks in his administration. Hoover had wiretapped members of administrations for previous presidents, so it was a simple matter for the FBI. However, his discomfort about the increasingly reckless attitude of Nixon’s aides made him insist on receiving written authorization from the attorney general.

Although he detested the antiwar movement and felt that the students shot at Kent State University had gotten what they deserved, Hoover refused to go further than the already dubious legality of COINTELPRO and take part in Nixon’s plan for a huge campaign against the antiwar movement because the movement was simply too popular. He worried that if they were caught, they would lose the confidence of the American people. Nixon tried to win Hoover’s support for the removal of restrictions on mail opening, burglaries and electronic surveillance, but failed and finally abandoned the whole project.

Hoover’s reluctance to stick his neck out for Nixon did not mean that he had gone soft on radicals. After King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, he shifted his focus to the Black Panthers by providing local police with information needed for raids against the organization. Hoover’s COINTELPRO operations against King, the Panthers, the SDS and other radical organizations were kept secret and involved a relatively small number of trusted FBI agents. Cooperation with other agencies and expansion of the program would drastically increase the chances of being caught, which would have had severe consequences for both Hoover and his beloved FBI. Nixon was motivated by a desire to discredit political enemies and strengthen the Republican base, while Hoover wanted to protect the nation against threats to traditional values and an uprising organized by the Soviet Union, which both Nixon’s aides and some of Hoover’s top assistants like Sullivan thought was basically impossible.

Final Years

As Tolson’s health began to decline in the late sixties, he was unable to keep a firm hand on the internal operations of the FBI, and Sullivan’s promotion to number three in the Bureau behind Hoover and Tolson meant that he was being groomed as Hoover’s successor. However, Hoover began to regret the promotion after Sullivan publicly stated in October 1970 that the American Communist Party was no longer a serious threat. A year later, Sullivan went over Hoover’s head to prevent the demotion of his protégé. As a result, Hoover promoted Assistant Director Mark Felt to deputy associate director to control Sullivan. A couple of months later, Hoover finally forced Sullivan, who had misjudged his value to the Nixon administration, to resign. In the end, Nixon chose to lose a valuable ally in the FBI instead of publicly challenging Hoover, so Hoover managed the impressive feat of retaining control of the FBI.

Hoover died of a heart attack on May 2, 1972. Tolson had been ill for years and resigned from the FBI immediately after the attorney general appointed L. Patrick Gray head of the Bureau. Hoover had never groomed a successor, especially after forcing Sullivan out the previous year. The funeral took place four weeks before the first Watergate burglary.

When Hoover died, the FBI had 883 files on senators and 722 on congressmen.

Historical Movies:

The FBI Story (1959)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring James Stewart and Vera Miles
A veteran FBI agent relates his experience with the FBI from its humble beginnings through its battles with bank robbers, gangsters, Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and communists.

Lepke (1975)

Directed by Menahem Golan, starring Tony Curtis and Anjanette Comer
The rise and fall of gangster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter through his use of unions to control the garment business, alliance with Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, and the formation of Murder, Inc.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)

Directed by Larry Cohen, starring Broderick Crawford and Michael Parks
It follows Hoover during the 48 years that he ran the FBI and examines his willingness to bend the constitution to defend the nation, as well as his refusal to retire and the fear of presidents to openly confront him.

Chaplin (1992)

Directed by Richard Attenborough, staring Robert Downey, Jr. and Geraldine Chaplin
A look at the troubled and controversial life of genius filmmaker Charlie Chaplin.

Baby Face Nelson (1995)

Directed by Scott P. Levy, starring C. Thomas Howell and Lisa Zane
After being forced out of Chicago by Al Capone, Nelson becomes a famous bank robber but is finally hunted down by the FBI.

Panther (1995)

Directed by Mario Van Peebles, starring Kadeem Hardison and Marcus Chong
Depicts the founding and fall of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Nixon (1995)

Directed by Oliver Stone, starring Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen
It examines the life of Richard Nixon from his childhood to the Watergate scandal which forced him to resign as president.

Public Enemies (2009)

Directed by Michael Mann, starring Johhny Depp and Christian Bale
Led by Melvin Purvis, the FBI pursues notorious outlaw John Dillinger during the Public Enemy Era. (full review)

J. Edgar (2011)

Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Arnie Hammer
As director of the FBI for almost fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover symbolized law enforcement to the nation. Viewed as a master of secrets, he actually struggled to keep secret his romantic relationship with Clyde Tolson, the assistant director of the Bureau. (full review)

Further Reading:

Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover- Anthony Summers, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993.

The author focuses more on Hoover’s personal life and the hypocritical way that he would harass anyone that disagreed with him, even arranging for taps on government officials who had been on the other side of bureaucratic wars. The book collects a large number of comments and reports of eye-witness testimony about Hoover’s homosexuality and his long-term relationship with Clyde Tolson. Much more attention is devoted to Hoover’s drinking, homosexuality, and pursuit of Dorothy Lamour and Ginger Rogers’ mother than to the Public Enemy Era. Almost no space is given to Hoover’s use of the FBI to attack any organization that threatened the status quo. COINTELPRO is mentioned a handful of times, but juicy gossip, testimony and rumors are the meat of the book. The research is well-done, rumors are always identified as rumors, the varying reliability of witnesses is presented, but the emphasis is on the more juicy side of Hoover’s life.

J. Edgar Hoover: Secrecy and Power-Richard Gid Powers, New York: The Free Press, 1987.

The author works hard to show how the all-white environment where Hoover grew up shaped his values and his early experiences in high school caused him to become fixated on relying to a mastery of the available facts to destroy any opponents’ arguments. He examines both Hoover’s life and how he used the FBI to combat the growing radicalism that terrified him. Powers does not ignore Hoover’s ties to right-wing businessmen and mentions their connections with gangsters but gives it little attention.