G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century 
by Beverly Gage.
Simon and Schuster, 837 pp., £35, March, 978 0 85720 105 8
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J. Edgar Hoover (wearing the hat) with Clyde Tolson in 1936.

Seventy years ago​ , Gallup asked Americans for their opinion of J. Edgar Hoover. Only 2 per cent expressed strong disapproval. It was a result, the pollsters claimed, ‘virtually without parallel in surveys that have dealt with men in public life’. For decades, Hoover could luxuriate in the knowledge that he was, quite possibly, the most admired man in the country – or at least in the District of Columbia, which to him usually amounted to the same thing. Keeping on top of Hoover’s fan mail, one of his deputies reported, required ‘thousands and thousands of man hours’; there was always too much of it and the author of ‘every letter received’, no matter how reverential, had to be ‘checked out in the FBI’s central files’. But it was only to be expected that Hoover would be more popular than any president he served under, or any politician who might have checked his power in Congress. He was said to have transformed the Federal Bureau of Investigation into the free world’s greatest bulwark against the ‘anarchy and lawlessness and immorality that passes imagination’. He warned his countrymen that the ‘blueprints’ were ‘already made’ of a new America, in which a ‘tiny minority, perhaps ten or twenty men, would rule’. This minority would insist on moving the capital to a ‘large industrial centre, probably Chicago’, where communal kitchens would be set up ‘so that women would be “free” to work in factories and mines along with the men’. The state would decide ‘what streetcars you ride’ or ‘whether you walk’, even ‘the time your alarm clock goes off in the morning or the amount of cream in your coffee’. Anyone fortunate enough to be spared liquidation or internment in a concentration camp would become, ‘as so many already have, 20th-century slaves’. Hoover knew this sounded incredible, but ‘it took only 23 men to overthrow Russia,’ and he had it on good authority that, ‘after the actual seizure of power’, a revolution in the US might ‘develop even more swiftly’ than in less happy lands.

Hoover liked to say that he began his ‘extensive and penetrating study’ of international communism just after the First World War, when he was put in charge of the ‘radical division’ of the Justice Department. He spent his whole life in Washington – his family had lived there for generations – and never seems to have doubted that he’d follow his forebears into government service. During his American tour of 1842, Dickens had found Washington an underpopulated ‘City of Magnificent Intentions’, with too many ‘public buildings that need but a public to be complete’. He thought it unlikely ever to fill up: ‘Such as it is, it is likely to remain.’ But the federal government was about to boom, and boom. The neighbourhood Hoover would live in until middle age, less than a mile south-east of the Capitol, became dense with government men. His father was a printer for the Coast and Geodetic Survey, America’s first scientific agency, for which his own father had been a clerk. Gore Vidal, also a creature of Washington, claimed he’d grown up hearing that Hoover ‘came from a family that passed’. Beverly Gage writes in her new biography that it’s possible some of Hoover’s ancestors were Black – they had lived in places with large Black populations, and some of his relatives had owned slaves – but concludes that the Hoovers were probably ‘mostly what they said they were’: one of the ‘oldest white families’ in town. Hoover has been well served by previous biographers, but online databases and genealogical tables have enabled Gage to provide the fullest account yet of his early life. Her Hoover had few friends, but was remembered ‘happily running errands for his teachers’ and sending them ‘charming notes of appreciation’. He was the hardest-working boy in his high school class – of which he was valedictorian – and the most ingratiating. He had a stutter, which he controlled by speaking quickly. His father was often depressed, and sometimes institutionalised; in an interview, Hoover’s niece said she’d heard ‘Uncle Edgar wasn’t very nice to his father when he was ill. He was ashamed of him. He couldn’t tolerate the fact that granddaddy had mental illness. He never could tolerate anything that was imperfect.’ But he worshipped his mother, who appears in other books as a martinet, and here (through Gage’s use of quotations from Annie Hoover’s few surviving letters) as at least occasionally capable of expressing tenderness towards the son who endeavoured, always, to please her. (He lived with her until her death in 1938, when he was 43.)

For government employees, the all-white George Washington University offered an accelerated night-school curriculum that combined college and law school. To qualify for it, Hoover worked cataloguing books for the Library of Congress. It’s worth bearing in mind that Hoover’s first career was as a librarian: by all accounts he became extremely good at it, a master of the library’s innovative card-index system. He also became president of the GW chapter of the fraternity Kappa Alpha, which claimed devotion to the cause of the Old South and to the protection of white womanhood and had links to the Ku Klux Klan. Hoover would lean on Kappa Alphas for favours in Congress and recruit them to work at the FBI, particularly in senior roles. The fraternity also showed him how he wanted to live: in a stratified community, limited to a particular kind of man, with himself at the top.

FBI agents were once required to memorise the date 26 July 1917 – Hoover’s first day as a law clerk at the Justice Department, just a few months after America’s entry into the First World War. His mythologisers claimed he’d been impatient for glorious combat only to be thwarted by the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, who ordered him to stay put. It’s more likely that he sought the job precisely because it came with a draft exemption. Gage thinks Hoover’s earliest duties probably involved interrogating captured German seamen and registering German nationals (as ‘enemy aliens’). Hoover argued for mercy in some of his early reports, but Gage says he quickly saw that ‘compassion and restraint were unlikely to be rewarded, especially in moments of national emergency.’ With men at war, the Bureau of Investigation (as it was then fashioned) was understaffed. Hoover – adept, as ever, at managing upwards, and with seemingly no vices or interests apart from work – was marked for promotion. At 24, he was put in charge of a new division to investigate ‘domestic subversive activity’, reporting directly to Palmer. Hoover began by creating a card-index system, modelled on the one at the Library of Congress, to track every political dissident in the country, cross-indexed by organisation and location. It grew to hundreds of thousands of names: anarchists, Bolsheviks, socialists, pacifists, union leaders, Black newspaper editors (‘as they are beyond doubt exciting the negro elements of this country to riot’) – anyone who in his judgment threatened the natural order of things.

In American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, Adam Hochschild argues that the Palmer Raids, in which thousands of immigrants were arrested, should ‘really be called the Hoover raids’ – they were Hoover’s doing, but he shrewdly let his boss take the credit and, later, the opprobrium.* In 1919, seven million residents of the US didn’t have citizenship: in an era before passports, many must have thought, why bother? They were about to find out. In an article published under Palmer’s name, it was claimed that since nearly all of the ‘organised agitators of the Trotsky doctrine’ in America weren’t US citizens, one way to prevent the ‘blaze of revolution … sweeping over every American institution of law and order’ was to deport as many ‘criminal aliens’ as possible, before they could infect ‘our social ideas with the disease of their own minds and their unclean morals’. At first, the mass arrests (probably of around 10,000 people) and deportations (notably of Emma Goldman) were seen as Palmer’s triumph; the New York Herald reported that he had forestalled a ‘nationwide uprising’ and a Bolshevik ‘reign of terror’. The left of the labour movement was devastated (Hoover targeted union halls), but Palmer insisted he was just getting started: there were still tens of thousands of ‘agents of Bolshevism’ in the country, of ever ‘increasing vigour’; he said that none would ‘escape arrest and prompt deportation’, if necessary via prison ships he called ‘Soviet arks’. It was one of the rare moments in Hoover’s career when he was outmanoeuvred by another bureaucrat. The acting head of the Labour Department, Louis Post, saw the Palmer-Hoover raids for what they were, ‘drastic proceedings on flimsy proof’, and began blocking deportation orders. Palmer said it would be Post’s fault when a communist uprising began in a ‘saturnalia of violence’ on May Day 1920. He foretold mass assassinations, the storming of government buildings, rivers of blood. It was excellent copy for the newspapers, but they turned against him when the day passed like any other. No President Palmer. Warren Harding campaigned on his comparative unexcitability: ‘Too much has been said about Bolshevism in America.’ Hoover still believed that a ‘gang of cut-throat aliens’ wanted to ‘overthrow the government by force’, but he wouldn’t make the mistake of being too specific about when the revolution was going to kick off. And he’d learned to watch out for the Louis Posts of the world – ‘sentimentalists’, ‘sob sisters’ and ‘convict lovers’, ‘twisted, mixed-up neurotics’ with a ‘“guilt complex” about the very privileges that America has given them’.

Most crimes in the US (as now) were supposed to be investigated by local police forces, which were subject to state law. What remained for the Bureau of Investigation – it wouldn’t add on ‘Federal’ until 1935 – were the odds and ends that fell under federal jurisdiction but weren’t claimed by other federal agencies, such as the Secret Service. At the start of the Harding administration in 1921, the bureau’s few hundred agents worked on anti-trust violations, escapes by federal prisoners, crimes committed on Indian reservations, the new federal crime of interstate car theft and the transporting of women across state lines for ‘immoral purposes’. Hoover created a national fingerprint database, the kind of complex organisational task at which he excelled. At 29, he was asked to become acting director of the bureau – a temporary appointment as the nation’s top lawman, which he didn’t relinquish until he died. It’s unlikely he’d ever fired a gun; he’d certainly never made an arrest. But he knew what it was like to work at a functional agency under an all-powerful leader: Herbert Putnam, his boss at the Library of Congress. Gage thinks Hoover didn’t just take from his library years the ability to sort and retrieve immense amounts of data. He’d seen the way Putnam – stern, captious, venerated, feared, a ‘tyrant and megalomaniac’, a demander of ‘unflinching loyalty’ – nurtured a ‘powerful institutional identification among the library’s employees, insisting that clerks and librarians subordinate their desires to “the personality of the institution itself”’. Putnam exercised ‘personal control over staff, budgets, communications … everything that mattered’. Congressmen danced to his tune.

At first, Hoover set out to define the bureau by what it wasn’t. He liked to say he didn’t hire policemen but investigators. Agents were university graduates, only to be seen in dark suits and ties (hats were required when outside). Until 1934, they weren’t allowed to carry guns. ‘I want the public to look upon the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice as a group of gentlemen,’ he said in a magazine interview. The men who weren’t Kappa Alphas would at least have to look like they were. Before Hoover took over, the bureau had occasionally hired Black agents. Afterwards, for as long as Hoover could get away with it, the only Black employees would be servants (he liked having a Black chauffeur). After the scandals of the Harding administration, Hoover insisted that the bureau would be known for its probity – though, as a previous biographer, Curt Gentry, has shown, for Hoover, ‘avoiding the appearance of misconduct’ was ‘more important than avoiding misconduct itself’. For the first years of his reign, according to Gage, Hoover spent ‘hours each day dictating memos on such matters as typographical errors, office cleanliness and the proper stamps to be affixed on bureau forms’. One bureau veteran complained to the Justice Department that ‘practically all’ of Hoover’s rules were ‘repressive and directed against the personnel rather than against the criminal’ – clerks weren’t allowed to go to the toilet without permission; windows had to stay open in winter. When his dictates weren’t followed, he raged. But the agents who got with the programme – the men most like himself – rose fast. None was promoted faster than Clyde Tolson, five years younger than Hoover, who was made assistant director. Tolson was a Missourian who had also gone to George Washington (though pledged a different fraternity); he was better-looking than Hoover, a little more socially at ease, and like Hoover seemed to have no life – romantic or otherwise – outside the office. In the 1930s at least, few people seemed to suspect that Hoover or Tolson might be gay. Instead, they were said to be ‘married to the Bureau of Investigation’, models of sacrifice, heroes who had placed the security of their country above the comforts of human love, worthy of every prize and perk.

Hoover is remembered as a power-mad empire builder, but Gage shows him moving slowly. For years he seemed content just to control the men who worked for him. He liked transferring them between field offices: if agents couldn’t put down roots, he figured, their greatest allegiance would be to the bureau (he wouldn’t post agents to their home states). He said he wanted to make it ‘possible to transfer an agent from Philadelphia to San Francisco and have him perfectly at home the next day’ – forms, procedures, were identical everywhere. He expanded only gingerly, and mostly in areas he thought were in keeping with the bureau’s dignity: anti-trust violations yes, Prohibition enforcement no (he left that to the Treasury). But he still needed to please his bosses. When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped – H.L. Mencken called it ‘the greatest story since the Resurrection’ – President Herbert Hoover (probably no relation) couldn’t be seen to do nothing; kidnapping wasn’t a federal offence, but that didn’t stop the bureau from offering ‘unofficial’ (mostly bumbling) assistance to the New Jersey police.

When Franklin Roosevelt won the 1932 election, Hoover probably came as close as he ever would to losing his job. Roosevelt had promised to break with the ‘timidity’ of past administrations, calling ‘on the strong arm of government’ to quell the ‘crimes of organised banditry, cold-blooded shooting, lynching and kidnapping’ and cajoling Congress into expanding the federal government’s jurisdiction over criminal cases. Hoover had to persuade him that they shared a common vision of ‘bold, persistent experimentation’: the bureau could be whatever Roosevelt wanted it to be. Within months, agents were authorised to carry guns and ordered to go after public enemies – the more high-profile, the better. The press was delighting in a ‘midwestern crime wave’ of bank robberies, which Hoover described as ‘a challenge to law and order and civilisation itself’, but it wasn’t the kind of work for which the bureau’s agents had been trained. Several were killed in shoot-outs; at one Wisconsin resort, the agents became confused and shot at people who had nothing to do with the gang they were targeting. Hoover’s policy of requiring agents to have degrees in either law or accounting was quietly scrapped; the bureau took on hired guns (mostly former cops) and made use of a ‘good vigorous physical interview’ to coerce confessions. Roosevelt also put Hoover back in the domestic surveillance business, secretly giving him permission to ignore a Supreme Court ban on wiretapping (‘I am convinced that the Supreme Court never intended any dictum … to apply to grave matters involving the defence of the nation,’ he wrote in a ‘confidential memo’). Agents learned to pick locks in the attic of the Justice Department building. Gage points to the irony of liberal presidents (the other being Lyndon Johnson) doing the most to empower Hoover.

The Roosevelt administration, particularly the attorney general, Homer Cummings, fretted about gangster movies: The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932) all seemed to be backing the wrong side. The Supreme Court wouldn’t offer filmmakers first-amendment protection until 1952; Hollywood producers feared, with reason, that if they didn’t attempt to censor themselves, Roosevelt would do it for them. The studios agreed to the Hays Code, which for more than twenty years forbade antiheroes being put on screen: ‘The sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.’ Lawmen couldn’t be ‘ridiculed’, and they had to prevail. Bureau agents – newly rebranded as FBI agents and G-men (‘government men’) – would be shown only in their most idealised form, gentlemanly, incorruptible, exactly as Hoover would have them be. Increasingly, he found himself wanting his real agents to look like their counterparts on screen, and stopped hiring men who were bald or had acne. (According to the memoir of William Sullivan, one of his deputies, an agent who lost his hair after he’d been hired wouldn’t be sacked, but would be ‘kept out of the public eye’.)

The misleadingly named ‘crime records division’ of the bureau became a public relations office, mass-producing press releases (each began with Hoover’s name and had to include two further mentions of him) to be reprinted by newspapers across the country. Agents also cultivated reporters, giving scoops on cases to those who flattered the bureau most; criticism would be punished by having the flow turned off, sometimes for ever, sometimes just long enough for the paper to learn its lesson. ‘They were our press prostitutes,’ Sullivan would brag. ‘Our strength was in the small dailies and weeklies; and with hundreds of these papers behind him, Hoover didn’t give a damn about papers like the New York Times.’ When the crime records department wanted to plant ‘stories critical of some of Hoover’s favourite targets’, it was all too easily done. ‘A negative story which appears in a newspaper published in a congressman’s home district hurts him more than any article in the Washington Post.’ When Hoover went before the House Appropriations Committee each year to settle the bureau’s budget, he often left with more money than he’d asked for. He had no trouble getting pay rises.

‘The director’ sometimes appears in G-man movies and comic strips – trimmer and less saurian than he appeared in real life, deadly serious, utterly focused, at the front of every effort to combat crime in America. On radio dramas, no man sounded tougher. Hoover became a celebrity, and discovered that he liked it. He started going to New York nightclubs (he expected the tab to be comped), dined with movie stars and ‘Broadwayites’, stayed in luxury hotels and resorts (he’d stop by the nearest field office so the trips would count as work). Nearly always he was accompanied by Clyde Tolson. A previous biographer, Richard Gid Powers, described the Tolson-Hoover partnership as ‘spousal’: this seems to be Gage’s sense of it, too. Were they lovers? Gage acknowledges the possibility, but doesn’t commit herself. She’s similarly non-committal about whether Hoover regularly cross-dressed, a story that continues to follow him. At a Gridiron dinner during his first term, Bill Clinton said that he ‘might have to pick an FBI director, and it’s going to be hard to fill J. Edgar Hoover’s’ – pause – ‘pumps’. But it’s not the kind of thing Hoover bragged about in an interview or put in a memo that can be read in the National Archives.

Thirty years ago, the reporter Anthony Summers was able to find a woman who said that she once saw Hoover in a hotel suite ‘wearing a fluffy black dress, very fluffy, with flounces, and lace stockings and high heels, and a black curly wig’ – but she was paid for the story, and in another instance was convicted of perjury. James Kirchick, in Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (2022), notes some of the ‘code words and allusive phrases’ that journalists once used to suggest that the ‘nation’s top cop was not the model of American masculinity and traditional moral values that he purported to be’: ‘The No. 1 G-man always has preferred the company of men, and though seen almost daily in Washington restaurants, it has never been with women,’ ‘walks with a rather mincing step, almost feminine’, ‘shrouds himself in great secrecy’, ‘dresses fastidiously, with Eleanor blue as the favourite colour for the matched shades of tie, handkerchief and socks’. Kirchick also collected stories of people – including a ‘beauty salon owner who told a customer that Hoover was a “sissy” and a “queer”; the man who claimed at a party that Hoover “had a crush on a friend of theirs and made advances to him several times”; the Louisville prison inmate who alleged that Hoover had a 17-year-old male paramour’ – who were visited by FBI agents and warned not to continue making ‘libellous’ statements. More than ten thousand federal employees without such protection lost their jobs when similar accusations were made against them, in many cases thanks to Hoover, who, according to Gage, ‘established a systematic programme for monitoring “sex deviates” and for communicating that information to other agencies’. She suggests that his heart might not have been entirely in it, since ‘Hoover never invested in homosexual investigations with anything like the zeal or commitment that he devoted to the problem of communism’ – but that’s a high bar. Was there anything Hoover cared about as much as he cared about communism?

According to his son Elliott, Roosevelt was warned that Hoover might be homosexual, but decided it didn’t matter, ‘so long as his abilities were not impaired’. The CIA, and its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services, didn’t yet exist. Roosevelt agreed to let the FBI take responsibility for foreign espionage – something Hoover badly wanted – though the bureau was so inept at first that you wonder if any agent had even read The Thirty-Nine Steps. In the lead-up to the war, Gage writes, British intelligence had to teach FBI agents the basics of setting up foreign outposts and running double agents. At Camp X in Toronto, MI6 officers instructed Americans ‘in the arts of sabotage, self-defence and secret codes’. In exchange, the FBI turned a ‘blind eye to British activities on US soil’. Ian Fleming, posted to Washington, didn’t take to Hoover – ‘a chunky enigmatic man with slope eyes and a trap of a mouth’. British intelligence generally considered him out of his depth, if sufficiently discreet to be trusted with secrets.

When America entered the war – after the FBI’s failure to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor – Roosevelt ordered Hoover to start arresting ‘alien enemies’. Hoover agreed that ‘the loyalty of the entire group is speculative and highly questionable’; for months he’d been preparing a list of names (close to 770 people) to be arrested as soon as war was declared. ‘If the bureau had not compiled such a list and maintained it in an up-to-date fashion,’ he wrote to the attorney general, ‘we would be in a pitiful position today.’ He didn’t think that many more arrests would be necessary and promised ‘vigil but no vigilantes’. Probably the best that can be said for Hoover is that he was one of the few people in government to argue against the mass internment of Japanese-Americans, though not because of any moral scruples. A ‘dragnet or roundup procedure’ of more than a hundred thousand people wasn’t a good look. He didn’t want it said that the bureau wasn’t capable of precision. He also warned that the policy might backfire: for all its swagger about the skills of its agents and their best-in-the-world forensic laboratory, the bureau often solved cases because of informants, many of them ‘walk-ins’. Hoover feared ‘the few sources of information among the Japanese available at this time would be closed.’ Indeed, a ‘walk-in’ led the bureau to catch a ring of bona fide would-be Nazi saboteurs, who had arrived in the Hamptons via U-boat in 1942. The group was intent on destroying as much of the defence industry as it could, before moving on to blowing up train stations and Jewish-owned department stores. Gentry argued that ‘no single episode in its history did more to perpetuate the myth of the FBI’s invincibility than its capture of Germany’s elite spies.’ The arrests were the ‘domestic news sensation of the year’, Gage writes, a triumph for the bureau and for Hoover, who was credited with saving countless lives. ‘As Hoover told it, FBI ingenuity, efficiency and scientific prowess alone accounted for the saboteurs’ capture.’ He kept it secret – he particularly didn’t want Roosevelt to know – that their leader, George Dasch, had rung up bureau headquarters and confessed. (It took a while for Dasch to get through to an agent who believed him.) Dasch had lived in America for almost two decades; he readily gave up the names and locations of his men. ‘Thirty years later’, according to Anthony Summers, Hoover still spoke of the case as one of his ‘most important accomplishments’, commemorated in bronze in the Justice Department offices. US Army Intelligence wasn’t impressed. In publicising the arrests of the saboteurs, the FBI ‘had wrecked plans to intercept other raiders expected to land a few weeks later’. Hoover didn’t seem to mind. The enterprise brought him closer to what he wanted: control over espionage and intelligence operations throughout Europe, Asia – anywhere the US had an interest.

The FBI quadrupled in size over the course of the war. Hoover finally appointed a Black special agent: in order to claim that the bureau wasn’t whites-only, he had his chauffeur go through the training programme, then continue as his chauffeur. There were still no female agents. Hoover disliked sharing counter-espionage duties with the Office of Strategic Services, which led intelligence operations during the war – its head, William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, complained that ‘the Abwehr gets better treatment from the FBI than we do.’ Hoover had ambitions for the FBI to take over all OSS operations when the war ended, and if Roosevelt had lived another six months he might have had a shot. But Truman thought the FBI was already too powerful. ‘We want no Gestapo or secret police,’ he wrote in his journal a few weeks after becoming president. ‘FBI is tending in that direction.’ When Truman created the agency that would become the CIA, Hoover didn’t take it well. He ordered FBI agents to destroy foreign intelligence files ‘both pending and closed’ rather than hand them over. When FBI agents wanted to collaborate with the CIA, they often had to do it behind his back. He held it against the agency that it was full of former OSS officers: better educated than the G-men and (for a while) more politically liberal. Donovan had been fond of recruiting Ivy Leaguers from fancy families – he liked to say that his ideal officer was ‘a PhD who could win a bar fight’. Some had fought with the communists in the Spanish Civil War. They were reputed to be urbane, polyglot, well-travelled, all of which made Hoover uneasy – apart from two one-day excursions to Mexico, he never left the US. Any FBI employee who made contact with a foreign national, under any circumstances, had to report it to his superiors.

Hoover was certain that the Soviet Union, in cahoots with the American Communist Party, was only biding its time, like a ‘corruptionist who now uses the tricks of the confidence man until his forces are sufficiently strong to rise with arms in revolt’. He didn’t stop ordering break-ins of ACP offices even when the Soviet Union and the US were allies, though they were always referred to as ‘surreptitious entries’ or ‘black bag jobs’, never burglaries. The goal was usually to copy membership lists (which he’d pore over) and instal listening devices. Powers has argued that Hoover suffered from ‘Pearl Harbor Syndrome’: he wouldn’t be caught napping again. ‘Since the movements of Japanese diplomats might have been a warning of Pearl Harbor, if anyone had intercepted them properly, Hoover now kept the White House informed of the travel plans of Soviet diplomats and their families’ – obsessively. He was confident, as he’d told Roosevelt, that there was a ‘vast illegal’ conspiracy; under successive presidents, he hoped to prove its existence. In 1947, the FBI began ‘loyalty screenings’ of every federal government employee, more than two million people. Many lost their jobs for having a ‘sympathetic association’ with communists. Anything interesting that was discovered was filed away, and would sometimes be leveraged for bigger fish, at least in biographies less careful than Gage’s. Gentry quotes Sullivan:

The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator he’d send one of the errand boys up and advise the senator that we’re in the course of an investigation and we by chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter. But we wanted you to know this; we realise you’d want to know it. Well, Jesus, what does that tell the senator? From that time on the senator’s right in his pocket.

Sullivan was in a position to know – he was at the bureau for thirty years – but he was also angry at Hoover (who gave him the push), and he had a book to promote. As with Hoover’s sexuality, Gage is on her guard when it comes to his use of blackmail – he’s famous for it, but the details are hard to substantiate. Gage argues that the ‘truth is that Hoover stayed in office for so long because many people, from the highest reaches of government down to the grassroots, wanted him there and supported what he was doing’ – but we know (don’t we?) that it wasn’t just that. G-Man recently won the Pulitzer Prize, but I don’t think it will entirely replace less responsible books about Hoover, in which he stays in position for 48 years (eight presidents, eighteen attorneys general) because everyone in Washington worries about what he has on them, whether Hoover tells them about it or not. He gives presidents information about their political opponents; they’re grateful, realising only too late that they’re beholden.

Under Eisenhower, Hoover became the ‘reputable’ face of anti-communism – as opposed to Joseph McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin who sometimes claimed that there were 205 ‘card carrying’ communists in the State Department, sometimes only 57. (Hoover would try to persuade him to refer to ‘loyalty risks’ instead – much harder to disprove.) When McCarthy’s subcommittee began to investigate communist subversion in America, the FBI told him whom to subpoena and gave him the questions to ask. But although Hoover got on with McCarthy, he tried not to be photographed with him. By 1957, McCarthy was dead of alcoholism, and his name had become a byword for witch-huntery. Americans were tiring of the Red Scare, but Hoover never tired. The McCarthy hearings had been all too public; Hoover’s initiative, which became known within the bureau as COINTELPRO (for ‘counterintelligence programme’), was intended to ‘increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections’ in secret. Khrushchev, according to an FBI memo, was inspiring ‘widespread disappointment, dissatisfaction, disillusionment, confusion and defeatism among the party leaders’; the American Communist Party was ‘on the brink of bankruptcy’. Victory might be within reach. In a letter to selected agents, Hoover encouraged them to come up with creative new ways to undermine the party ‘by feeding and fostering from within the internal fight currently raging’. Anonymous letters and phone calls stoked rumours of sexual infidelity, homosexuality and venereal disease – anything to create a feud. According to Powers, one of the most effective methods was ‘to put a “snitch jacket” on a party member’, by framing him as an FBI informant. Even time-wasting – diverting meetings into ‘non-productive, time-consuming channels’ – was worthwhile. Hoover was particularly interested in ‘stirring up anger between white and Black activists’, but all division was useful. The ‘sheer misery of the fights’, he thought, ‘might induce members to quit or to offer themselves to the FBI as collaborators’. It’s hard to plan a revolution when you’re being intensively audited by the IRS, or hounded in the local press for having supposedly embezzled party funds to buy a new car.

Cointelpro​ was the joy of Hoover’s late career. Otherwise, he cared about the prestige of the bureau, Tolson, his antiques (especially Chinese bronzes), horse-racing (for the sake of his reputation, an underling placed his bets). That seemed to be it. For years, agents who wanted to put COINTELPRO aside to work on the Mafia were dissuaded – Hoover wasn’t interested. Mobsters were only ‘a bunch of hoodlums’, he said, petty criminals best left to the local police. Even when organised crime became impossible to ignore, he resisted. It’s not clear why. Similarly, Gage’s account of Hoover’s reaction to the Kennedy assassination is – as she seems to acknowledge – truly strange. He was impatient ‘to wrap up the whole matter right then and there’, taking no interest in Lee Harvey Oswald’s communist sympathies, the three years he spent in the Soviet Union as a defector, his Russian wife. Why didn’t Hoover take the opportunity to claim that the Reds had finally done what he had been saying they would since 1917? Instead, he insisted that Oswald was a ‘nut’ who had acted alone.

Gage’s Hoover is a man whose ‘fundamental views changed little over the course of his career’, even though that career lasted an inordinately long time. When it came to race, he seems never to have stopped believing in what he’d learned as a Kappa Alpha, ‘that a stable social order required racial hierarchy’, and that civil rights leaders ‘threatened to disrupt that order’. ‘Faced with calls for the federal government to begin investigating lynchings, Hoover tended to look the other way,’ pursuing cases only after he was persuaded that the ‘FBI’s legitimacy was at stake’ if he didn’t. A law passed during Reconstruction was supposed to protect Black people from ‘different punishments, pains or penalties’, but the bureau had no interest in enforcing it. In 1961, according to the US Commission on Civil Rights, ‘the director used the strongest possible language to stress the need for co-operation between the bureau and law enforcement officials at all levels’; in other words, complaints of police brutality against Black people were to be ignored. At the same time, Gage shows that Hoover ‘actively pursued cases involving Black leaders and activists’, starting at the beginning of his career with Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Hoover finally got him on mail fraud charges), and ending with the Black Panthers. But there was no one he worked harder or more ingeniously to destroy than Martin Luther King. Sullivan, who ran the FBI operation against King, suggests that Hoover couldn’t stand ‘King’s repeated criticism of the FBI’ – when King was becoming famous, he told journalists that too many FBI agents were overly friendly with segregationists and local police forces. In 1955, King had thanked the Socialist Workers’ Party for supporting the Montgomery bus boycott; when King was stabbed in 1958, according to Gage, ‘agents noted that the communist leader Ben Davis volunteered to donate blood.’ An FBI informant claimed that the lawyer Stanley Levison, who had raised money for the bus boycott and was King’s friend, might once have been a communist functionary. That was all Hoover needed to order taps on King’s phone. Sullivan wrote that Hoover ‘wanted it proved that King had a relationship with the Soviet bloc’, but he was keen to find out anything illegal or embarrassing: he particularly hoped that King was embezzling or misusing money. Sullivan admitted that he often told Hoover what he wanted to hear, ‘that King was a dangerous menace and that Hoover was doing the right thing’. That was the way one got ahead at the bureau.

In 1964, after Hoover called King ‘the most notorious liar in the country’ during a meeting with reporters, President Johnson ordered Hoover to meet with King and reconcile. An FBI phone tap caught King describing the meeting to a friend: ‘The old man talks too much,’ he said. According to Sullivan, Hoover thought he had

captivated King, really charmed him. When he found out what King had said about him, King was lost.

We were on him night and day. Because of this constant surveillance, we got every aspect of King’s life on tape, including his love life … Hoover instructed us that tapes made in King’s hotel rooms were to be made available to some members of the press, to some select congressmen and to President Johnson. Thinking that wasn’t enough, he had the FBI send derogatory information about King to the pope prior to King’s visit to Rome.

The tapes – they won’t be unsealed until 2027 – were, according to Hoover, of an ‘immoral + degenerate’ nature. As King prepared to go to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, Sullivan arranged to ‘have a package of the tapes prepared by the FBI laboratory sent to Mrs King from Tampa, Florida’. Sullivan claimed that he only found out later about the letter that was enclosed with the tapes, though Gage suggests that he almost certainly wrote it himself. It was addressed to ‘KING’ and began:

In view of your low grade, abnormal personal behaviour I will not dignify your name with either a Mr or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII and his countless acts of adultery and immoral conduct lower than that of a beast.

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don’t have one at this time that is anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God and act as you do. Clearly you don’t believe in any personal moral principles. King, like all your frauds, your end is approaching.

The letter goes on for several paragraphs. King is told that he’s a ‘filthy, abnormal animal’ and that as soon as the world finds out about his ‘sexual orgies’, he’ll be finished. His ‘“honorary” degrees … Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards’ won’t save him. The only recourse is to kill himself: ‘There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is barred to the nation.’

Despite the misspellings and Florida postmark, King knew it was the work of the FBI. ‘They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit,’ he said. Coretta Scott King said later that ‘only Martin’s family and close staff members knew how depressed he was during the entire Nobel trip. It was a time when he ought to have been happy. But he was worried that the rumours might hurt the movement and he was concerned about what Black people would think. He always worried about that.’ She said she had to ‘help him out of his depression. Somehow he managed all the official functions, the speeches, the whole trip and the public never knew what he was going through.’ When King’s friend Ralph Abernathy heard the tapes, he realised that the ‘FBI had become our enemy just as surely as the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organisations that were waiting for us in Selma.’

Four years later, after King was murdered, the FBI would take the credit for arresting his killer – though really, Sullivan admitted, it had been the work of the Canadian Mounted Police, which sifted through 250,000 passport applications to find James Earl Ray’s alias, and Scotland Yard, which picked him up in London. Gage thinks that Hoover was angry at ‘what he saw as a lack of gratitude’ from civil rights activists; COINTELPRO was by this time being deployed against the Ku Klux Klan and White Hate groups. But the work was secret, and Hoover continued to warn of the special dangers posed by ‘marauding teenage thugs’ – everyone knew he meant Black kids – who were ‘degrading many American communities with brutal sidewalk muggings and assaults on defenceless and elderly citizens’. Johnson kept him on – ‘it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in’ – but by the end he often spent much of his workday napping. He died in bed, at the age of 77, chiefly mourned by Tolson, to whom he left almost his entire estate, and by Richard Nixon, who thought that Hoover might have helped him survive Watergate. ‘He’d have scared them to death,’ Nixon told his lawyer. ‘He’s got files on everybody, God damn it.’

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Vol. 45 No. 17 · 7 September 2023

Deborah Friedell wonders why the fervently anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover didn’t publicly blame the Russians for being behind the Kennedy assassination, especially given Lee Harvey Oswald’s clear connections with the Soviet regime (LRB, 27 July). The answer is straightforward: fear of a nuclear confrontation. If Russia had been involved, it could have been taken as a declaration of war; public opinion would have demanded the strongest possible action and the US would have been compelled to make a military response. President Johnson ‘guided’ the Warren Commission report into the assassination to avoid blaming the Russians: a lone-gunman assassin was much the safer option.

Sean McGlynn
University of Plymouth at Strode College, Street, Somerset

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