Public Enemy

R.W. Johnson

  • Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover by Richard Gid Powers
    Hutchinson, 624 pp, £16.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 02 925060 9

‘Dick, you will come to depend on Edgar. He is a pillar of strength in a city of weak men. You will rely on him time and time again to maintain security. He’s the only one you can put your complete trust in’: thus Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon, 1968. It is not often that a book casts fresh light on American history throughout this century, but this biography of Edgar Hoover does just that. Not only was Hoover, as head of the FBI, America’s leading policeman: he enjoyed an extraordinary political longevity – his career, which ended under Richard Nixon, began under Woodrow Wilson. That Hoover persecuted Martin Luther King is notorious, but Hoover was also the man who drove Marcus Garvey out of America. Similarly, the Hoover who turned his malign attention upon the anti-Vietnam War movement was the same man who had, half a century before, hounded Emma Goldman and John Reed and, later, put Leon Trotsky under surveillance in Mexico. This longevity makes Hoover’s biography a wonderful subject. Powers’s book is painfully neutral and somewhat pedestrian at times, but his authoritative command of his sources makes it unlikely that it will be surpassed.

Hoover was virtually born into the Federal bureaucracy – his middle-class Wasp family lived in Washington and almost all its members worked for the Government. As Powers stresses – at somewhat inordinate length – Hoover thus inhabited an extremely narrow, self-satisfied and self-righteous little world. Even as a young man, he was conservative, respectable, a Freemason, and a keen, church-going, racial bigot, disliking all non-Wasps. Born in Washington, he went to school there, attended university there, worked there all his life: he left America’s shores just once, for Central America, and that only when business forced him. Apart from vacations, all spent in America, he was a home-town boy who spent his whole life in that town. He never married and lived at home with his mother, whom he worshipped, until he was 43 (when she died). As he got older, he got narrower. Apart from his dogs (who had names like Spee Dee Bozo), he had, in all his life, only one close friend, Clyde Tolson, whom he promoted from raw FBI recruit to Assistant Director in two years flat. Hoover and Tolson were, for over forty years, inseparable – they breakfasted, lunched and dined together every day, socialised together, invariably went on holiday with one another. Although Hoover was always loud in his denunciation of ‘sexual deviates’, his relationship with Tolson was at least implicitly homosexual – though woe betide anybody who hinted so.

Hoover began his career in the Justice Department’s Alien Enemy Bureau at a point when Woodrow Wilson had already begun to whip up what became the great Red Scare. Since aliens (i.e. those who had not yet got their citizenship papers) did not enjoy the protection of the Constitution, Hoover found himself, in his early twenties, able to consign suspects to prison at the stroke of a pen. He took avidly to this work and in 1919 Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer made him head of the Radical Division – at the age of 24. Palmer, a strongly religious man given to public moralising, was deeply corrupt – he had used the Alien Property Bureau to transfer large amounts of confiscated German wealth both to himself and to the cronies on whom he was relying to secure him the Democratic presidential nomination. His road to power, he decided, lay via a great crusade to crush the Bolshevik revolution in America which he had regularly predicted – and the young Hoover was to be the herd-driver of the Reds. Hoover enthusiastically carried out vast night swoops, rounding up as many as six thousand suspected radicals in January 1920 alone. The violations of civil rights – and sheer illegalities – involved in these raids were, however, so gross as to lead to a major public backlash, leaving Palmer’s Presidential bid in ruins and Hoover running scared in front of angry Congressional investigators.

The Palmer raids marked Hoover for life. He had had a terrible fright: his career had most been ruined before it had properly begun. He was, for ever after, extremely conscious of how quickly political moods could change, determined never to be caught on the wrong side of such a change again – and deeply cautious about taking risks for any politician. But Communism had also become Hoover’s lasting monomania. Eager to know his enemy, he had set himself to study the slender literature then extant about Bolshevism. This admirable thoroughness he combined with a poor education, somewhat absurd philosophical pretensions and an entire confidence in his own views. Thanks to this crash course he acquired, in his own eyes, the lifetime status of leading American expert on Communism. What it more truly made him was the founding father of American anti-Communism. It is in his long, rambling homilies that one first sees elaborated many of the themes which have since become so familiar, including such notions as the antithetical duality between Communism and ‘Americanism’. Hoover’s primal passion was greatly assisted by the fact that the suspected radicals were aliens – Poles, Russians, Jews and other non-Wasp degenerates. You could, he told Congressmen, recognise ‘revolutionists’ just from their photographs: ‘Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows and misshapen features may be recognised the unmistakable criminal type.’

But this sort of rhetoric had to be put into cold storage after the dénouement of the Palmer raids. Hoover now spoke the language of liberal reform; asked, on becoming FBI Director in 1924, for the Bureau to be cut back; insisted, above all, that the FBI must stay out of politics. It was, he now averred, not against the law just to be a radical, and he refused to give further speeches on the ‘Red menace’ because FBI agents would naturally ‘take the cue and begin looking for radicals all over the place’. Indeed, while US Military Intelligence maintained a large domestic espionage network in the Twenties (especially in the unions), Hoover had been so badly burned that he wanted nothing to do with it. When he came under strong Congressional and White House pressure to start a new Red hunt in 1930, he argued that such a thing was strictly illegal – and since the agitators were mainly in the unions, wouldn’t it be better to hand the whole thing over to the Department of Labor? The project quietly died.

Herbert Hoover’s Administration staggered to its end amidst a growing climate of outrage against the ‘crime wave’, and particularly against the breed of sensational, violent gangsters who were apparently challenging the very authority of the state. To many, the fact that the Government had in the end only got Al Capone for evading income tax symbolised the complete inadequacy of the law-enforcement structure. The Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932 became so huge a national melodrama – it was, said H.L. Mencken, ‘the greatest story since the Resurrection’ – that Edgar Hoover (who co-ordinated the kidnap hunt) became, for the first time, a national figure. Nonetheless, once FDR won the election it seemed clear that Edgar Hoover was finished: the new Attorney-General, Tom Walsh, had loathed Hoover ever since the Palmer raids and was determined to sack him. But on the way to FDR’s inauguration, Walsh had a heart attack and died. The new Attorney-General, Homer Cummings, was a very different man: like Mencken, he realised that in the US, the crime business was, above all else, a branch of show business.

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