John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) was director of the FBI for nearly fifty years, serving continuously under every president from Coolidge to Nixon. He built the Bureau from an obscure and incompetent sub-agency of the Department of Justice to a professional and centralized Federal police force, and used the powers his position gave him, particularly the potential for blackmail, to make himself one the most respected, feared and powerful men in America. Conspiracy theorists make much of his questionable involvement in the assasination of John F. Kennedy and his possible co-opting of the Warren Commision, and the fact that he was a 33rd degree Freemason. He also may or may not have been a homosexual and/or a transvestite, which might explain why one of his favorite smears against his political enemies was to accuse them of homosexuality.

Hoover, a young DoJ employee, fresh out of George Washington University law school, was appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924, at the height of the Prohibition era. Hoover had already made his name within the Department as an ardent anti-radical and one of the central orchestrators of the anti-Communist Palmer Raids of 1920. When he took over the Bureau, it was largely considered a joke, one more governmental pool of patronage and corruption. His first actions as director were to move to clean up the agency and to change to a merit-based hiring and promotion system.

During the '20s and '30s, Hoover built up his reputation and that of the Bureau through gang-busting. By the late 30s, the FBI had gone from an obscure and poorly-respected backwater to the subject of laudatory films, radio shows, and comic books, many of which Hoover himself had a hand in developing. Hoover himself was built up as a national hero by all of this, and by this time had already made himself quite famous.

In 1936, Roosevelt, who respected Hoover immensely, gave the FBI jurisdiction over surveillance of domestic subversives. This, and the outbreak of World War II, which gave such activities a great deal of importance, was the beginning of Hoover's real tenure as a Washington king-maker. Hoover interpreted the term "subversive" to include anybody he considered soft on Communism or personally disliked, up to and including Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom he shared a relationship of mutual loathing.

The second Red Scare during the post-war period was very good to Hoover. He collaborated closely with both HUAC and Joseph McCarthy in fighting to stamp out the percieved Communist menace, and in the process cemented even more firmly his ability to make or break anybody in the Washington establishment with his substantial surveillance resources. Eventually, however, he withdrew support from McCarthy, whom he had come to view as an alcoholic, a paranoid loose cannon, and probably a child molester. In 1956, with the power of the American Communist Party already largely broken, he established COINTELPRO, an anti-leftist "dirty tricks" group designed to ferret out and destroy at any cost the radicals he had become obsessed with.

When the Kennedys came to power, though, Hoover became deeply at odds with Bobby Kennedy, his new attorney general. The two main sticking points of their relationship were the mafia, which Kennedy intended to root out at all costs and Hoover had publicly insisted was a myth for forty years, and the question of civil rights, particularly the matter of Martin Luther King, who Hoover despised and intended to destroy.

In the wake of the Kennedy assasination, Hoover behaved in a way that can only be called suspicious, working to suppress evidence of Jack Ruby's mafia connections and the fact that the FBI had had evidence for years that prominent mafia leaders had been contemplating a hit on Kennedy. After JFK's death, Hoover enjoyed a much closer relationship with LBJ and Nixon, both of whom respected him a great deal, and one of whom, Nixon, owed much of his early political career to Hoover personally.

This was the time of the rise of New Left, and Hoover, who naturally hated them, was more than happy to turn COINTELPRO over whole-heartedly to their annihilation. He searched in vain for evidence that New Left groups were controlled by the Communist Party, and finding none, set out to manufacture his own, and supress the groups, particulary the SDS and Black Panthers, by any means, legal or illegal. This was a period of break-ins, "black bag operations", smear campaigns, illegal phonetapping, and beatings, all of which were more-or-less already Hoover's métier , but which he used here as never before. Ironically, Hoover knew of Nixon's own activities in this field, but dissaproved, considering Nixon's men a pack of wild, undisciplined amateurs who would eventually get him into trouble. Before this particularly sordid chapter of American history could come to its conclusion, though, Hoover died, of heart failure, in May of 1972. It was only after his death that the full extent of his hold over so many Washington establishment figures and his wide involvment in illegal activities would begin to come to light.

Good biographical sources:
  • The Crime Library on J. Edgar Hoover
  • CNN Profile of Hoover
  • Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (Richard Powers, 1987)
  • Hoover's FBI : The Inside Story by Hoover's Trusted Lieutenant (Cartha Deloach, 1997)
  • J. Edgar Hoover; The Man and the Secrets (Curt Gentry, 1991)
James Ellroy's American Tabloid is also worth looking into as an interesting fictional treatment of, among many other things, Hoover's relationship with the mafia and the Kennedys.

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