After graduating from Central High School, J. Edgar took a job as a file clerk at the Library of Congress in order to support himself as a nighttime law student at George Washington University. He received his bachelor of laws degree in 1916 and a master of law in 1917. (At that time, law was an undergraduate program of study.)
In July 1917 he secured a position with the United States Department of Justice, where he was assigned to work with military intelligence agencies preparing evidence for the deportation of anarchists. In 1919 Hoover became special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, a position from which he and Palmer launched a wideranging antiradical campaign. In 1921, after the national Red Scare died down, Hoover took over the day-to-day management of the FBI, as its head assistant director.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was created by executive order in 1908, ostensibly to allow the United States Department of Justice to manage its growing caseload of antitrust and interstate commerce cases. The corps of investigators quickly became involved in controversial issues, prosecuting the leaders of radical labor unions and burglarizing the offices of members of Congress. The scandals heightened fears that a federal corps of investigators whose leaders owed their appointment to the incumbent administration would inevitably become a secret police force and a threat to democracy.
To head off criticism as he entered his 1924 election campaign, President Calvin Coolidge replaced the incumbent attorney general with the highly respected Harlan Stone. In turn, Stone sought a professional lawyer-administrator with high moral standards to clean house at the FBI. At the age of 29, Hoover became director of the FBI, a position he did not relinquish until his death 48 years later.
Hoover set out to change the organizational culture of the bureau. Stone ordered that the FBI confine its investigations to violations of federal law and cease its political activities. Hoover in turn insisted that the bureau be divorced from outside political interference and that all internal appointments be based on merit. He instituted strict rules of behavior, which, among other standards, forbid the use of intoxicating beverages, established a uniform dress code, prohibited the acceptance of gratuities, and discouraged divorce. Personal evaluations of all agents were conducted every six months. All important communiques and policy decisions went through the director.
During the Great Depression, Hoover took center stage in a widely publicized national crusade against crime. The crusade resulted in the apprehension or death of a number of famous criminals, including John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, "Ma" Barker, and Clyde Barrow. Although a number of law enforcement agencies were involved, Hoover became the leading symbol of the effort, an image reinforced by a series of popular films and books that mythologized the work of FBI special agents (called G-men). In order to protect the FBI's public image, Hoover established a system of central review for all news stories emanating from the bureau.
As the United States prepared for World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt provided Hoover and the FBI with broad discretionary authority to combat domestic espionage. Hoover used this authority to step up the surveillance of leftists and trade union leaders, whose activities had obsessed him since his early years. By the end of the war, the bureau dominated domestic intelligence activities. Building on this position, Hoover and the FBI mounted an extensive postwar effort to control radical movements in the United States.
Liberals accused Hoover and the FBI of a variety of questionable tactics, including break-ins, wiretaps, and the infiltration of organizations that Hoover thought subversive. The FBI conducted extensive wiretaps in an effort to discredit civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, with whom Hoover had a running public feud. Hoover kept an extensive file on the activities of President John F. Kennedy, and personally confronted the president in an effort to discourage a liaison with Judith Campbell, who was also carrying on a relationship with a leading figure in organized crime. During the administration of President Richard Nixon, the FBI placed wiretaps on the phones of White House aides and other high government officials in an effort to stem national security leaks.
Many believed that Hoover's extensive political files, along with his support among congressional conservatives, discouraged prospective efforts to remove him from office. In fact, many politicians viewed Hoover as an asset whose capabilities provided them with much desired information. As Hoover approached the mandatory retirement age of 70, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order allowing Hoover to stay on indefinitely. Hoover died at his home in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1972, ending his tenure at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
HOWARD E. MCCURDY
Gentry, Curt, 1991. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: Norton.
Keller, William W., 1989. The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover: The Rise and Fall of a Domestic Intelligence State. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Summers, Anthony, 1993. Official and Confidential. The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Putnam & Sons.
Theoharis, Athan G., and John Stuart Cox, 1988. The Boss. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.