J. Edgar Hoover


Name J. Edgar Hoover
Born 1895
Died May 2 1972
Birth Location Washington, DC

Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1924 until his death in 1972. The legendary director of the FBI for over fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover's (1895–1972) bureaucratic and public relations skills along with his staunch anti-Communism saw him grow his organization and himself into household names widely respected and even revered by most Americans of his time. During the World War II years, he presided over internal security. In that capacity, his organization investigated and arrested selected Japanese residents in the U.S. with the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, Hoover opposed the subsequent mass removal and confinement of Japanese Americans authorized under Executive Order 9066.

Contents

Before the War

John Edgar Hoover was born in Washington, DC on January 1, 1895, to Dickerson Naylor Hoover and Annie Marie Scheitlin. His father worked as a printer for the federal government, and he enjoyed a comfortable middle class upbringing. He graduated from National University Law School in 1916, while working as a clerk at the Library of Congress.

In 1917, he was hired by the Alien Enemy Bureau of the Justice Department, finding himself involved with the processing of German and Austro-Hungarian nationals facing internment. He later was put in charge of the "Radical Division," and oversaw the so-called Palmer Raids (after attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer) of "subversive" organizations in the 1919–20. These raids drew the ire of civil libertarians and burnished Hoover's reputation as an expert on domestic communism, a role he would relish throughout his long career.

Exhibiting the bureaucratic adroitness that also marked his career, he managed to escape charges of civil liberties abuses due to the Palmer raids and was named assistant director to the Bureau of Investigation in 1921 and director in 1924 by attorney general Harlan Stone. With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the FBI's (so named in 1935) attention turned to organized crime and such celebrity villains as John Dillinger and "Pretty Boy" Floyd; this campaign led to Hoover becoming a national celebrity and established for him the value of public relations and the media.

Japanese American Incarceration

Hoover oversaw the FBI's great expansion during World War II and oversaw their role in the custodial detention program, including putting together custodial detention lists and the arrests of Japanese American community leaders immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Hoover played a major role—though largely in the background—in the conflict between the Justice Department and War Department/army over the mass exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. After Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox made the inflammatory statements about fifth column work in Hawai'i in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hoover contradicted Knox, stating unequivocally that there had been no such sabotage. Though Hoover's statement was withheld for a time, it was made public after the Tolan Committee hearings. Hoover later reported to Attorney General Francis Biddle that the Western Defense Command's intelligence capabilities were marred by "[h]ysteria and lack of judgment."[1] On February 3, 1942 Hoover sent Biddle his assessment of the push for mass removal: "The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data."[2] Though he didn't necessarily believe all Japanese Americans were loyal, he did believe that there was no need for mass exclusion, especially given the FBI's prior arrest of those on the custodial detention list. Hoover had read—and largely concurred with—Kenneth Ringle's January 26, 1942 report and Ringle's and Curtis Munson's earlier recommendations (see Munson Report). Despite his presence at key meetings with the War Department and the esteem that the President held him in, Executive Order 9066 was signed and mass exclusion took place.

The reasons for his opposition to mass exclusion did not necessarily have to do with his belief in Japanese American loyalty. Among other things, he authorized his agents to conduct warrantless random raids on Japanese American households and to conduct surveillance in the War Relocation Authority (WRA) concentration camps against the wishes of the WRA. Later, Hoover opposed the lifting of the exclusion orders preventing Japanese Americans from returning to the West Coast until after the 1944 elections. One reason for his opposition to mass removal of japanese Americans likely had to do with burnishing the reputation of the FBI, whom he felt had already identified and imprisoned any "dangerous" Japanese Americans by the time EO 9066 had been issued. In his biography of Hoover, Richard Gid Powers also argues that Hoover simply didn't consider race or ethnic origin a stigmatizing factor with regard to loyalty, writing that he "would therefore reject any system of punishment that applied equally to the loyal and the disloyal simply because of their race; for Hoover the distinction between loyalty and/disloyalty was too important to be subordinated to any other test or standard." [3]

Though some assigned Hoover part of the blame for intelligence failures that abetted the attack on Pearl Harbor, he managed to mostly evade responsibility in the popular media. Thanks to the highly publicized capture of a crew of German would be saboteurs and the subsequent lack of sabotage as well as highly favorable portrayals of Hoover and the FBI in books, newspapers, newsreels and even a feature film, Hoover emerged from the war more famous and influential than ever.

Postwar Years

Anti-Communism dominated his early postwar years, as he aligned himself with Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, conducting investigations and sharing information with that body. The FBI prepared evidence that led to the prosecution of the Klaus Fuchs spy ring and the eventual conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. He eventually cut ties with McCarthy before the latter's fall, preserving his own power. With the Supreme Court's weakening of the Smith Act in 1956, Hoover developed the infamous Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to infiltrate and disrupt "subversive" organizations ranging from the Communist Party and then expanded to the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers and New Left student groups among others and even included a campaign to destroy the career of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Holding power to the very end, he died in Washington, DC in 1972. After his death, his career was reexamined by the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1975–76) led by Senator Frank Church. The committee concluded in part that Hoover had "conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association."[4] He has since been the center of numerous spectacular assertions and theories ranging from the Kennedy assassination to his alleged cross-dressing and homosexuality, resulting in a spate of largely negative characterizations that he so successfully managed to avoid in his lifetime.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Drinnon, Richard. Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Hayashi, Brian Masaru. Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

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

———. "J. Edgar Hoover." In American National Biography, Vol. 11, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 157–60. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Theoharis, Athan G. and John Stuart Clark. The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Footnotes

  1. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 64.
  2. Personal Justice Denied, 73.
  3. Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 250–51.
  4. Quoted from Richard Gid Powers, "J. Edgar Hoover," in American National Biography, Vol. 11, eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 159.