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.

Americans were divided by ethnicity, religion, colour and language – but when the good lawman overcame the wrongdoer, a wider sense of community was, for once, triumphantly affirmed. When the sheriff brought the baddies to book, the meaning of America was demonstrated: no group was above the law; everyone was equal before the law; a community of the law-abiding was recreated. Thus the drama of crime and punishment was a unifying ritual of community solidarity and law enforcement was intensely politicized – and publicised. While English crime writing revolved round fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, in America centre-stage in the criminal drama was held by real people – by Billy the Kid or Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp. The American public expected its lawmen to be colourful popular heroes and the boundary between crime fiction and non-fiction was tenuous indeed. Allen Pinkerton, the most famous detective of the 19th century, was almost an enormous best-seller, publishing 18 volumes of ‘true crime stories’. The first head of the FBI, William Flynn, edited a popular crime magazine, Flynn’s Weekly. His successor, William Burns, was a national celebrity and the subject of countless feature articles. Like Flynn, Burns was an affable, extrovert Irish cop – a major figure in New York night-life as well as a popular lecturer, and the author of two crime novels as well as the compiler of a collection of ‘true crime stories’.

Hoover, the super-bureaucrat, could not easily compete with this. But while the respectable America of the Twenties had been shocked by the opportunities Prohibition had given men like Capone, with the Great Crash came the panic-stricken presumption that the whole structure of civilised society was tumbling – and that the gangster, not the lawman, was winning. The result was an all-out media crime craze. From 1930 on came a great rash of prison movies and a new genre of gangster movies such as Little Caesar (1930, with Edward G. Robinson) and Public Enemy (1931, with James Cagney), in which the Capone-like celebrity gangster was the star and the Police were depicted as impotent or simply absent: Hollywood morality insisted that the gangster got killed, but usually this was accomplished by rival gangsters, not the Police. The new genre was so popular that fifty such films were rushed off in 1931 alone. Such films drew upon, and further fed, a genuine folk panic. There were incessant calls for martial law, for public hangings and floggings, for a network of American Scotland Yards, for the setting-up of an American Devil’s Island. Monster anti-crime rallies were held, many States passed ‘public enemy’ laws making it a crime merely to consort with known criminals, and the American Legion armed its members to act as police auxiliaries against the terrifying crime wave. (Actually, such statistics as exist suggest that crime fell steadily in the decade following the Great War.) What the public wanted, said Chester Gould, was ‘a symbol of law and order who could dish it out to the underworld exactly as they dished it out – only better. An individual who could toss the hot iron right back at them along with a smack on the jaw thrown in for good measure.’ Gould was describing his new comic-strip character, Dick Tracy, launched in 1931, but FDR’s Attorney-General, Homer Cummings, was not slow to grasp that immense political advantage was to be gained if real law enforcement could somehow be brought into line with what the movies promised and the comic-strips demanded.

This was where Edgar Hoover and his G-Men came in. In a blaze of publicity Cummings presented Hoover to the public as the world’s greatest detective and the FBI as the great scientific organisation which he, Cummings, would now unleash upon the gangsters. Where ordinary policemen had failed, they would not. In another great public relations coup Cummings set up a new maximum security prison for celebrity gangsters – Alcatraz, sited, predictably, on Hollywood’s doorstep. To the accompaniment of saturation media coverage the FBI was launched on one feverish crusade after another against ‘number one public enemies’: Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine-Gun Kelly, the Ma Barker Gang, Baby Face Nelson and, above all, John Dillinger. Hoover and his agents were so caught up in the media excitement that they frequently acted like comic-strip actors themselves. When Baby Face Nelson killed FBI agent Sam Cowley, FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis rushed to Cowley’s deathbed where, he told reporters, he had taken ‘an oath in Cowley’s blood’ to avenge him, helpfully providing the press with the headline quote they wanted: IF IT’S THE LAST THING I DO, I’LL GET BABY FACE NELSON. Hoover behaved in similar fashion, charging about the country pistol in hand as if he himself was personally leading the manhunt. He luxuriated in a tough-guy image, and was frequently photographed holding machine-guns or at ring-side seats at big fights along with sundry Hollywood stars. In public speeches he excoriated ‘namby-pamby’ penal reformers and the ‘cream-puff school’ of criminology’. He was, he said, ‘proud to be termed a member of the so-called machine-gun school of criminology’.

The hysteria reached its height during the hunt for Dillinger, who had repeatedly escaped from jails, the Police and the FBI, leaving a trail of carnage behind him. Cummings made the hunting-down of Dillinger a major Federal objective and told the press that his orders were ‘shoot to kill. Then count to ten.’ Time put Dillinger on its cover, he was sighted everywhere: the whole country had simply gone ‘Dillinger happy’ – he was the most famous outlaw since Jesse James. Success came in the lucky and squalid way it usually does in such matters: Special Agent Melvin Purvis got a tip that Anna Sage, a Chicago brothel-keeper, knew something. Sage was facing deportation and agreed to shop Dillinger in return for the reward money plus help with the Immigration Bureau. Thanks to Sage’s tip, Purvis found Dillinger and killed him. Across the country excited radio announcers broke into programmes to announce that the ‘arch-criminal of the age’ was dead.

Inevitably, Cummings was lost sight of in the media hurricane: the press wanted only Purvis. Hoover, however, elbowed everyone else aside in his determination to monopolise the publicity. He refused to accept Purvis’s deal with Sage and Sage was deported. The Dillinger story was then sanitised so as to be a triumph of scientific investigation for the Bureau, not a personal triumph for Purvis (Sage disappeared altogether from this version). Purvis, the FBI’s greatest agent (he had also bagged Pretty Boy Floyd), was forced out, and Hoover then systematically worked to prevent him getting a job elsewhere. When, in the end, Purvis committed suicide with the same machine-gun with which he had shot Dillinger, Hoover refused even to come to the funeral.

Meanwhile, Hoover sponsored comic-strips, pulp magazines, films, books and radio serials about the FBI – in which, inevitably, he emerged as the central figure. All else apart, Hoover kept such a tight, personal grip on the Bureau that it was impossible for agents to have the freedom of action the crime-writers wanted: the only person in the FBI with that sort of freedom was Hoover. From the mid-Thirties on, Hoover was stamped indelibly on the popular American consciousness. A host of books, speeches and interviews made his name synonymous not only with law and order but with a broader set of conservative verities, for Hoover took himself extremely seriously as a moralist, tirelessly lecturing audiences on the need for a return to religion and the centrality of the family. Unhindered by the fact that he had never managed to leave home, marry or have children, and that his knowledge of women was pretty much restricted to his large private collection of nude pin-ups, he saw himself as having a special mission to the nation’s youth, and developed strong opinions about the proper forms of child-rearing and, in particular, the father-son relationship. Increasingly, conservatives came to accept Hoover’s depiction of himself as a moral guardian of the nation’s values and institutions. In time, like his predecessors, he became a best-selling author himself.

Hoover and the FBI thrived under the New Deal as never before, and Hoover saw in FDR a President worthy of his entire devotion. The domestic political espionage service that Hoover had begun to run for earlier Presidents was now greatly expanded for FDR, providing him with regular intelligence on everything his enemies, rivals and even his friends were up to. At FDR’s request, Hoover had by 1936 also placed the American Nazi and Communist Parties under surveillance and the net was rapidly extended to the whole panoply of labour and liberal groups, which meant, ironically, that many of FDR’s own keenest supporters were under illegal surveillance. When Hoover learnt that Eleanor Roosevelt had complained to FDR that the FBI was being developed into a veritable Gestapo, he opened a secret file on her, but was canny enough to leave it at that. The Army Counter-intelligence Corps (CIC) was bolder and, by bugging Eleanor’s hotel bedroom, got tapes of the President’s wife having intercourse. These tapes were then played to FDR, producing a bitter row with Eleanor and also the complete disbanding of the CIC, whose members were ordered to the Pacific by a furious Roosevelt ‘for action against the Japs until they were killed’. The tapes ended up in Hoover’s files, ammunition against a rainy day.

By the end, even FDR saw that Hoover had become too powerful to control: in 1943 a proposal for OSS-NKVD co-operation which had the backing of the Army, the State Department, the OSS – the CIA’s predecessor – and the President had to be abandoned when it was realised that Hoover would work up a gale of opposition by strategic press leaks. This was precisely the weapon Hoover was to use repeatedly and to deadly effect against Truman, whom he hated from the word go, for he had learnt that Truman, not unreasonably, believed Hoover should never have kept his job after the terrible failure of US counter-espionage over Pearl Harbour. Hoover tightened his links with the Right and began to make sweeping allegations of Communist infiltration of the Government, insisting that even major figures like Dean Acheson were pro-Soviet. Hoover, indeed, more than any other man, was responsible for the post-war anti-Communist hysteria from which the American political system has never fully recovered: ambitious politicians like Nixon or Joe McCarthy were largely made by Hoover, who leaked tit-bits to them at will. When Truman refused to sack all those fingered by Hoover, Hoover took his anti-Truman case to Congress and thus to the people, to rapturous conservative applause.

If, as seems likely, the motive behind Hoover’s launching of the great Communist witch-hunt had been to destabilise Truman and make it impossible for him to sack Hoover, it must be adjudged a success, but the lack of scruple Hoover demonstrated takes one’s breath away even today. Thus Whit-taker Chambers had for three years previously sought to interest Hoover in the notion that the State Department functionary, Alger Hiss, was a Communist spy. Hoover reviewed the evidence, found it lacking in substance, and dismissed Chambers as a crackpot. As soon as Truman became President, Hoover hauled out the Chambers charges and, with Nixon’s help, crucified the hapless Hiss. In the famous Medina trial of 1949, where the leaders of the American CP were all found guilty and sentenced to jail, effectively for being Communists, Judge Medina rounded off the proceedings by sentencing the defence lawyers to jail as well. Given that the latter had not been on trial in the first place, and that this precedent made it all but impossible for those later accused of leftism to find defence lawyers at all, this was no small breach in the rule of law – but Hoover publicly congratulated Judge Medina. The worst of all came with the trial of Julius Rosenberg for passing atom secrets to the Russians. Hoover encouraged the notion that Rosenberg had committed the ‘crime of the century’ by giving the Russians the A-bomb – when, in fact, he knew that it was Klaus Fuchs who had done this. When Rosenberg failed to provide the FBI with the information Hoover wanted, he persuaded the Attorney-General to indict Rosenberg’s wife Ethel as well, though purely as ‘a lever’ to make Julius crack. Hoover, who had always placed motherhood on a pedestal, was shocked when the ploy failed and Ethel, the mother of two young children, was electrocuted along with her husband. Hoover reconciled himself to this by convincing himself that Ethel had been a bad mother.

Eisenhower, having seen Hoover stand up to Truman and win, was quite openly deferential to him. Henceforth FBI loyalty reports on Administration recruits would have the virtual force of law, and ex-FBI agents generally headed the security sections all government departments now set up. Together these measures meant that Hoover had complete veto power over all government appointments. Hoover, in return, got on famously with Ike. Both men tended to be anti-black and to see civil rights agitation as, at best, a nuisance. Hoover had had the NAACP under surveillance since 1941 and kept Ike supplied with a steady flow of reports stating that this or that NAACP initiative was ‘in line with Communist plans’. For the FBI remained obsessed with the Communist ‘menace’, despite plentiful evidence that the American CP was a tiny, dying and impotent force. It was, fatefully, against the CP that Hoover first deployed a COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) in 1956. COINTELPRO was a new, aggressive technique of destroying organisations by ‘dirty tricks’ – the use of disruptive rumours, disinformation, framing loyalists as FBI informants, sexual blackmail, anonymous phone and letter campaigns etc. It was a roaring success: in a year CP membership collapsed from 22,000 to under four thousand (and many even of them were FBI informers). But COINTELPRO was also entirely illegal and represented a new police intrusion into American politics. From obsession with the ‘Communist conspiracy’ the FBI had itself become a conspiracy. In the years to come, COINTELPROs were launched against a whole series of domestic ‘enemies’ – the Socialist Workers Party, the KKK, Black Nationalists and the New Left.

Hoover was, by the Sixties, a man further and further out of touch with his times. Having destroyed the CP it was harder for him to persuade others that the top domestic priority should still be the struggle against what he called ‘the Trojan snake of Communism’. His homilies no longer went down well with the young, whose long hair and liberal attitudes scandalised him. And the new Attorney-General, Bobby Kennedy, was – with Martin Luther King – one of the men Hoover hated most in all the world, especially since Bobby soon began pressing Hoover to integrate the lily-white ranks of the FBI. Hoover’s spies also told him that Bobby was looking for a chance to ease him out. But, of course, Hoover had voluminous files on Bobby’s brother Jack, going all the way back to tape-recordings of Jack in bed with Inga Arvad (Miss Denmark) in 1942. (Indeed it seems possible that Jack was hurriedly shipped off to war on PT-109 largely to avert a scandal, for Inga had visited Hitler and Goering in Nazi Germany and was then under suspicion of being a German spy. On the tapes Jack could be heard, inter alia, discussing military matters with her.) Hoover’s files bulged with the evidence of many more recent Kennedy indiscretions, as well as the health problem Jack had so carefully concealed from the electorate. So Bobby never got round to firing Hoover and LBJ was delighted to have an FBI chief who shared his own passionate hatred of Bobby. Hoover and LBJ had, in any case, been close friends and neighbours for decades and LBJ was delighted with the vast stream of domestic political espionage Hoover sent him, so much so that he kept Hoover in office indefinitely after his statutory retirement age. In return, LBJ achieved one of his true miracles: levering the FBI into tracking down white extremists who murdered civil rights workers.

While Hoover was not averse to launching a COINTELPRO against the Klan, he never ceased to see civil rights agitators as tools of Communism. His hatred of Martin Luther King was greatly strengthened by the tapes acquired by bugging which revealed King’s rich and varied sex life and proved, to Hoover’s satisfaction, that King was a hypocrite. When he heard that King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he sent King a copy of the tapes with a long letter of denunciation ending with the words: ‘There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation.’ King – Who ignored the threat – was never sure whether the object was to get his wife to divorce him, to get him to turn down the Nobel Prize, or to get him to commit suicide.

Hoover had more success with the actress Jean Seberg. When he learned that Seberg was pregnant by a Black Panther, Hoover inspired cruel press stories about her ‘black baby’ which led Seberg to try to commit suicide, causing the baby to be born prematurely. It died almost immediately. Seberg never recovered from her baby’s death and when, several years later, she learnt that she had been the object of a COINTELPRO, she committed suicide as did, not long after, her ex-husband.

Nixon’s accession to power was the final apotheosis, for no one doubted that by handing him the Alger Hiss case Hoover had given the crucial push to Nixon’s career. At last Hoover had a President of his own making. But the hard-edged young men staffing the Nixon White House saw Hoover as a Neanderthal old bore and tension grew when Nixon, determined to stop leaks, ordered the FBI to carry out widespread bugging of Administration officials. Knowing the risks of such operations, Hoover dragged his feet. As Nixon’s appetite for bugging, wiretaps, mail-opening and black-bag jobs increased, so did Hoover’s nervousness: he thought word of such gross illegalities was bound to get out in the end and that the resulting explosion might badly damage the FBI.

Then in March 1971 the FBI’s history changed for ever. A group of radical Catholics burgled the FBI’s Pennsylvania office and stole a large number of files – which soon began to appear in print in New Left journals. The files revealed widespread FBI domestic surveillance, a network of campus informers, and the penetration and secret surveillance of such inoffensive movements as the Jewish Defense League and the National Black Economic Development Conference. All this material covered just one State and it took no genius to realise that similar illegal FBI operations were bound to exist in the other 49 States. Worse still, one of the documents used the dread word COINTELPRO and before long an NBC journalist had used the Freedom of Information Act to start opening that can of worms. Hoover hurriedly wound up the still current COINTELPROs and tried hard to batten down the hatches, but the FBI’s image had been irreversibly damaged. Nixon continued to press Hoover to carry out various black-bag jobs but Hoover, now badly burnt, refused to do anything without a signed Presidential order – and Nixon was far too shrewd to sign anything like that. Later, the White House came to feel that Hoover had ‘caused’ Water-gate by his refusal to allow the FBI to do the President’s dirty work, since this had ‘forced’ the White House to recruit its own special set of ‘plumbers’, who were not only amateur enough to get caught but could then be traced right back to the White House. Nixon was furious at being baulked and Hoover was probably closer to being fired than at any other point in his career when, on 1 May 1972, he died.

Hoover’s overriding aim was always to preserve the FBI as an organisation under his exclusive personal control. Despite the fact that the Bureau was supposed to be subject to the Justice Department and, through it, to the President as chief executive, trainee agents were taught that ‘the Director has learnt from the bitter experiences of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations when the Justice and State Departments were infiltrated with Communists that the Bureau must be free of the control of any Department or executive in the Government.’ Recruits were left in no doubt that their real loyalty had to be to Hoover personally. They were told that ‘if the Director does not receive adulatory letters from the agents he takes this as an indication of apathy towards the Bureau and a sign of disloyalty and lack of dedication.’ Trainees were treated by Bureau lecturers to an idealised version of Hoover’s life and told that

the Director chose the path of sacrifice ... he remains the guiding light of the FBI – in spite of liberal-leftist moves for his ouster. He still works longer hours than any of us, every day of the year ... yes, boys, J. Edgar Hoover is an inspiration to us all. Indeed, it has been said, and truly – ‘the sunshine of his presence lights our lives.’

Trainees were also instructed that ‘they have more Communists in the Harvard Yard than you can shake a stick at’; that Adlai Stevenson supporters were ‘Communists, Communist-sympathisers and pseudo-intellectual radicals’; that the NAACP was ‘a Communist front group that has been instigating fictitious complaints against police officers in Civil Rights cases’; that the Director was keen to see ‘Communist sympathisers’ removed from the Supreme Court; and that he favoured the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Trainees would also hear that the American Civil Liberties Union was a Communist front, that New Left activists had a liking for ‘Jewish ass’ and that the Justice Department was an enemy never to be trusted. Finally, at the end of their induction, new recruits would be given a short interview with Hoover. They were rigidly drilled in what to say and warned that to show signs of weakness – to fail to meet his eye, to have a quiver in their voice, wipe their mouth or pick their noses – would result in instant dismissals. Also,

our Director enjoys standing on a little box when he greets people in his office. Of course, it’s just a small one, only six inches high. Pretend you never even notice it! Not long ago we had a new agent who for some reason just couldn’t keep his eyes off it. He was fired.

Loyalty was backed up by the fact that FBI pay was high (better than the CIA’s), that its pension scheme was the best in government, and that Hoover kept agents on contracts which enabled him to fire them on the turn. Usually, the mere threat of transfer was enough to ensure total obedience. Thus in 1963 the head of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division, William Sullivan, wrote Hoover a long and careful memo arguing that Communist attempts to infiltrate and control the civil rights movement had been a complete failure. Hoover’s anger was such that Sullivan found his whole Division in uproar. Its employees, hearing of the Director’s displeasure, ‘thought they would all be transferred out of Washington; selling their homes and uprooting their families would ruin them financially. They wanted another memo written to the director to “get us out of the trouble we were in”.’ Sullivan quickly wrote a craven new memo explaining that ‘the director is correct. We were completely wrong,’ that the Communist danger in the civil rights movement was indeed very great, and that Martin Luther King was ‘the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism’.

The truth is that Hoover was a lousy policeman. The daily stream of intelligence he sent to the White House was often useless because no attempt was made to sift and organise the material. He was heavily to blame for US unpreparedness at Pearl Harbour: for weeks beforehand he accumulated evidence of Japanese diplomats being shipped out of America en masse and the burning of vast numbers of documents in Japanese consulates, but he failed to warn FDR and specifically forecast that the Japanese would not attack at Pearl Harbour. Similarly, the Kennedy assassination was another gross FBI failure and earned the Bureau the censure of the Warren Commission. But it was worse than that: Hoover was determined to keep the FBI small enough to allow him to maintain a completely personal control over it. So it became an article of faith with him that there was no such thing as organised crime, requiring a large-scale national police organisation. It was only in 1957 when a New York police sergeant stumbled on a meeting of sixty Mafia dons that Hoover was finally forced to admit that such a thing as the Mafia did exist, though the FBI kept the term Cosa Nostra out of the press until 1963. Similarly, Hoover always refused to have anything to do with combating drug trafficking on the grounds that the problem was so vast that, to fight it, the FBI would have to grow unmanageably larger. Instead of attending to these genuine threats to American society, Hoover concentrated his energies on chasing often imaginary Communists, on building his beloved Bureau into a Frankenstein’s monster which broke the law as often as it upheld it, and, in the extreme case, on destabilising an Administration he did not like.

Nixon gave a rather different picture in his funeral oration.

The good J. Edgar Hoover has done will not die. The profound principles of respect for law, order and justice will come to govern our national life more completely than ever before ... The American people today are tired of disorder, disruption, and disrespect for the law. America wants to come back to the law as a way of life, and as we do come back to the law, the memory of this great man ... will be accorded even more honour than it commands today.

To be fair, Nixon can’t have believed a word of what he was saying. The Watergate burglary took place just a month later.