For nearly half a century, J. Edgar Hoover presided over the FBI with an iron fist.
His career began with a wave of anti-Communist raids in 1919. It ended under the presidency of his friend Richard Nixon.
Hoover’s modern public image evokes an old man in a dark room, listening to wiretaps and annotating secret documents. But a new biography explores how presidents, members of Congress and even a significant percentage of the American people understood and approved of much of what Hoover was doing, until almost the end of his life.
Beverly Gage, professor of American history at Yale University, has spent 13 years writing and researching G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Creation of the American Century.
She spoke with NPR. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
Hoover’s racial ideology
“One of the most fascinating topics I was able to touch on in the book was the Hoover college fraternity, which was this organization called Kappa Alpha [Order]. It was known that he loved his college fraternity and had become president of the college chapter of George Washington University. But what I found… is that it was this deeply reactionary Southern brotherhood. It was a segregationist Southern fraternity. Thomas Dixon, who wrote the book The clansman who became the basis for The Birth of a Nation, was one of his most influential figures. Many of the Southern Democrats around DC were part of this racist Southern fraternity that Hoover joined. …And then it was fascinating to see how he took a young generation of men steeped in this racist, segregationist ideology and made them part of the first generation of FBI officials.”
A difficult relationship with politics
“One of the most egregious moments of any president asking the FBI to do things that were fundamentally political rather than related to a criminal investigation or national security was that moment in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson, who was about to to get the Democratic nomination for president, was very worried that civil rights activists were going to disrupt the Democratic National Convention. So he went to see his old friend Hoover, and they had been neighbors on 30th Place in Washington, so they knew each other very well. And he went to his old friend Hoover and said, ‘Surely you can send some guys to watch things. And so at the Democratic Convention, they bugged and bugged and infiltrated activists civil rights who were just trying to find a way for black people to have a say in what was happening in Democratic politics.”
Hoover’s wiretaps of Martin Luther King Jr.
“The FBI today uses the King case and the example of what Hoover’s office did to Martin Luther King as a kind of grand cautionary tale. And there are a lot of good things about it. But I think it’s also important to remember and one of the things that my book really tries to point out is that it’s pretty easy for us to say…we think of Hoover as a big bad guy and King as a great saint. And so we have this great morality story. But if you look back to 1964, ’65, really the peak of the FBI’s efforts against King, the time when Hoover comes out and calls King “the liar the nation’s most notorious”. If you look at what public opinion polls said at the time, 50% of the public sided with Hoover in this controversy. Only 16% said King was of the good side and a lot of people said they don’t know what to think.So it’s easy to wear these judge lie now. It was much more convoluted and I think it tells a much darker story about American history, if you look at the story itself.
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What followed Hoover’s tenure
“One of the things that happened very quickly, near the end of Hoover’s life and then after his death, was that Congress rightly stepped in to impose a whole new set of constraints on the FBI that didn’t didn’t exist during Hoover’s lifetime. He had almost no accountability mechanisms. So the congressional committees that now oversee intelligence operations, none of that existed. And perhaps most importantly, the director of the FBI is now limited to a 10-year term, and that’s in direct response to that colossal career of J. Edgar Hoover. And I think if we can take one very simple lesson from that, it’s that you probably don’t want a single individual in a position with that kind of power for half a century.