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J. Edgar Hoover

On This Day: J. Edgar Hoover Named FBI Director

May 10, 2011 05:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On May 10, 1924, J. Edgar Hoover was chosen to lead the Bureau of Investigation, beginning a legendary 48-year tenure marked by innovation, eccentricity and controversy.

Directing the Bureau of Investigation

J. Edgar Hoover joined the Justice Department in 1917 and quickly worked his way up the ranks. He was put in charge of the Enemy Alien Registration Section, which monitored enemy aliens during World War I. After the War, he oversaw the Palmer Raids, which rounded up anarchist and communist radicals.

He joined the Bureau of Investigation in 1921 and gained a reputation for being hard working, loyal and prepared. His dedication was noticed by Attorney General Harlan Stone, who tabbed him to replace William J. Burns as director of the Bureau of Investigation in May 1924. Hoover was confirmed and sworn in as director in December.

Upon his appointment, Hoover reorganized the bureau, firing many agents and creating a more focused and disciplined group. He gained fame for prosecuting notorious gangsters, including John Dillinger and “Machine Gun” Kelly, and eradicating perceived communist threats, helping to turn the bureau’s “G-Men” into nationally admired figures.

The agency expanded its powers under Hoover, becoming the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Hoover led the FBI through World War II and the Cold War, targeting alleged subversives and anti-American radicals. He remained as FBI head through six decades and eight presidents, reigning as one of the most powerful and untouchable men in Washington.  

His popularity began to wane due to a perceived neglect toward fighting the mafia and an insufficient investigation into the Kennedy assassination, but he remained a well-respected figure and was FBI chief until his death in 1972.

Hoover’s Reputation Crumbles

After his death, behind-the-scenes information began leaking out and tarnishing his legacy. He was revealed to be a dictatorial egomaniac who often ignored civil liberties and collected damaging information against personal and political enemies.

In 1975, a Senate committee revealed that Hoover kept secret personal files on politicians, journalists, activists and other public figures to use as blackmail or to gain favor with presidents. The allegations began “eroding J. Edgar Hoover's once impregnable reputation as the world’s most efficient and incorruptible cop,” wrote Time.

Hoover paid particularly close attention to Martin Luther King, keeping the civil rights leader under constant surveillance in an attempt to link him to communism and discredit him. Though FBI wiretaps turned up no communist activities, they did find evidence of King’s sexual misbehavior; in 1964, the FBI sent King part of its findings along with a threatening letter reading, “King you are done.”

In December 2007 it was revealed that, before the start of the Korean War, Hoover had planned to make mass arrests of people he perceived to be dangerous and disloyal. The plan, which would have suspended habeas corpus, was never approved by President Truman.

Hoover’s sexuality has also been questioned. Hoover openly criticized homosexuality, but his long-term relationship with a male companion led many Washington observers to view Hoover as a closeted homosexual. According to Salon, “Evidence of physical intimacy is merely circumstantial, although suspicions about J. Edgar and Clyde [Tolson] ran rampant through Washington political circles.”

Hoover never married or had a serious relationship with a woman. He and Tolson went on vacation together and frequently dressed similarly. They were buried alongside one another.

Opinion & Analysis: Hoover’s Legacy

Today, Hoover’s reputation has largely changed from “patriotic, upstanding, nation-protecting, model-for-one-and-all hero to liberty-denying, rights-abusing, sneaky, jealous, morally corrupt villain,” wrote Jay Ambrose in Capitol Hill Blue.

In an interview with Dateline NBC, Hoover biographer Richard Hack explains how Hoover created a mystique about himself and became so powerful that presidents feared to fire him. “For J. Edgar Hoover,” Hack says, “to be as powerful as he was, to maintain that image, he gave up his personal life. It became his personal life. There was no other life.”

Ambrose believes that we must remember Hoover’s early accomplishments as well as his misdeeds, though his abuses of power far outweigh his work building the FBI. Furthermore, he argues that Hoover must be praised for his anti-communist work.

“To say he exaggerated the internal Communist threat is not to say that there was no threat at all; especially during the earliest stages of the Cold War, there were Americans happily betraying their country in service of the Soviet Union's druthers and a misplaced, idiotic ideology. There was spying. Some of it was hugely hurtful. His view of communism was more nearly on target than that of countless intellectuals,” Ambrose writes.

The FBI’s headquarters building is named after Hoover. Efforts have been made, however, to remove his name due to his reputation for manipulating the law to achieve his goals. Sen. Harry Reid said, “J. Edgar Hoover stands for what is bad about this country. This small man violated the rights of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, famous and not so famous.”

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