J. Edgar Hoover Shaped US History for the Worse

Beverly Gage

As director of the FBI for several decades, J. Edgar Hoover helped build a massive, professionalized national security state and hounded leftists out of public life. In doing so, he profoundly shaped the course of US history.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover testifies before the Senate in 1953. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, may have had a greater impact on the course of American history than any other unelected public official. From his early-career role in the Palmer Raids, to helping stoke the Second Red Scare, to his attempts to disrupt and destroy the civil rights movement and the New Left in the ’60s and ’70s, Hoover played a key role in undermining left-wing and progressive politics in the United States. But Hoover served in the FBI for nearly fifty years, and his legacy extends far beyond his attacks on the Left.

In this interview for Jacobin Radio podcast The Dig, guest host and Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht talked with historian Beverly Gage about her biography of Hoover, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. They discuss Hoover’s early personal and political influences, his strengths as a bureaucrat, his career-long vendetta against left-wing radicalism, and more. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The Consummate Bureaucrat

Micah Uetricht

J. Edgar Hoover was the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for nearly fifty years. Having read your biography of him, it seems safe to say that he was perhaps the most influential unelected bureaucrat in all of American history, or certainly near the top.

Your book is the story of Hoover turning the FBI into a modern, efficient law enforcement organization, whose law enforcement priorities frequently reflected his own obsessions with leftist radicals, civil rights organizers, and progressive activists of all kinds. He also, of course, had a career that extended much wider than that.

Is it accurate to say that he is one of the most influential unelected bureaucrats in all of American history? And how is it that he came to occupy this position for so long, and with so little accountability?

Beverly Gage

I do think it’s safe to say that Hoover was the most powerful unelected bureaucrat in American history. As you said, he was head of the FBI for almost half a century, and it was a particularly important half century in American history.

He started in 1924, and he died on the job in 1972. That gets us from the Coolidge administration to the Nixon administration, which is the period in which the American security state was built, the period in which the federal government expanded dramatically, and Hoover had his fingers in pretty much everything throughout that time period.

Micah Uetricht

You write early in the book about his membership in the Kappa Alpha fraternity at George Washington University, and that becomes a thread throughout the book, really, because Kappa Alpha men are constantly showing up throughout the rest of the story. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that fraternity and how it shaped Hoover’s politics, his orientation to life, his hiring practices ― all the ways that this fraternity shaped J. Edgar Hoover.

Beverly Gage

J. Edgar Hoover began to study law at George Washington University, which at the time was mostly a kind of night school for future government servants. He joined a fraternity called Kappa Alpha. That had been widely known: the fact that he had been a fraternity member and then the fact that he hired lots of early FBI officials out of his own fraternity, his own university.

A young J. Edgar Hoover in 1932. (Library of Congress)

But what hadn’t been known was what Kappa Alpha actually was in the early twentieth century, which was an explicitly Southern fraternity, a fraternity that was deeply devoted to a kind of romantic, racist Lost Cause ideology of the Old South. It had been founded explicitly to carry on the traditions of Robert E. Lee.

By the time Hoover joined, its most famous members were people like Thomas Dixon, who had written the novels glamorizing the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) that were then made into the film Birth of a Nation. Hoover is steeped in this. He’s very committed to this fraternity; it’s the source of his social identity, certainly in college, but even beyond he remains very involved. He was chapter president, and he really prided himself and was shaped by this Kappa Alpha vision. We need to think of him as basically a conservative white Southerner in his outlook on the world.

Micah Uetricht

I don’t know if you go as far as saying that Hoover was gay, but something like homosexuality seems to be . . . it’s something that Hoover is very known for now. It was kind of an open secret in Washington that he was in a relationship of some sort with Clyde Tolson, which certainly looks in many ways like a romantic relationship. As he grew in power and prestige in Washington, he was constantly making headlines in the society pages, often alongside Clyde Tolson; there were sometimes even stories that were published that alluded to Hoover being gay or that suggested it.

Yet none of those stories actually seem to cause much of a serious problem for Hoover. Obviously, he maintained his position until the day that he died. Whatever he was doing in his personal life seemed to be in some ways at odds with the kind of right-wing moralism that he was constantly hectoring the country about. It’s strange to read in your book of people who were very much on board with that kind of right-wing moral crusade who also think of J. Edgar Hoover as their best friend or as a close ally in their own right-wing politics. Can you talk about that aspect of Hoover’s life?

Beverly Gage

You note I don’t come out and say Hoover was a gay man. There are two reasons for that. One is that as with many people, and many historical figures, we don’t know very much about what he was doing in the bedroom. So it’s hard to say whether his relationships with other men were actually sexual — we just don’t have much evidence on that front.

The other is that, of course, Hoover didn’t present himself to the world in that way, and I think probably fundamentally didn’t understand himself that way. There’s lots of evidence that Clyde Tolson was his primary romantic, intimate, social, and even familial partner throughout most of his career. And it’s clear that he never dated women.

He had these intimate relationships with men, and there’s more evidence about that than one might think. Some of my favorite source material for the book was Hoover’s collection of personal photo albums, which, particularly in the 1930s, have dozens and dozens of intimate photos of his vacations with Clyde Tolson: of Clyde on the beach, of Edgar on the beach, they’re gazing into the camera, at each other.

They were very public about this relationship for most of their lives, particularly in the ’30s and ’40s, before it was so dangerous in Washington to be known as a gay person — before it became federal policy that gay people would be fired from their jobs. In terms of the gossip sheets, in terms of newspaper coverage, there’s lots of documentation about their lives together.

Micah Uetricht

Hoover’s position was technically a nonpartisan one; it was unelected. Yet he managed to successfully portray himself throughout his career as a kind of neutral bureaucrat while still openly proclaiming his reactionary politics. For decades, he made no secret about what his political beliefs were. I was surprised in reading the book to learn that his two closest White House allies in your telling were the two liberal titan presidents of the twentieth century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. How did this happen?

Beverly Gage

You’ve described very well the political puzzle of the book, or the two pieces of politics that one needs to understand Hoover. One is that he was steeped in a Progressive Era tradition that emphasized the importance of nonpartisan, professional, career government service that would stand as a counterweight to partisanship, that would bring expertise and professionalism into the government. He was a believer of sorts in that, and in many ways executed it effectively at certain moments, in the ways that he built the FBI, but particularly in his public image.

He was constantly saying the FBI is a nonpartisan institution. At the same time, he had very clear conservative beliefs of his own — particularly around communism, around race, around religion, around crime, and he made no secret of that either. This is a combination we don’t see all that often in our politics, particularly in the Trump era and since: a belief in professional government service and expertise, and a deep ideological conservatism.

But Hoover put those things together and made them work. One of the reasons it worked during his period is because the parties themselves looked so different. You could be a conservative and be a Democrat; you could be a liberal and be a Republican. The makeup of the parties was different. So Hoover had real constituencies on both sides of the aisle in a partisan sense.

He was also very good at doing political favors for people, at ingratiating himself — not only with figures in the White House, but with Congress as a whole. Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt were particularly interesting because they were great believers in state building, and one piece of the state that they really believed in building was the FBI.

Micah Uetricht

We mostly remember Hoover for his political beliefs and for his overreach in some of the repressive policies that he carried out. But throughout the book, you constantly talk about his role as an effective bureaucrat.

Whatever you think of Hoover’s political beliefs — you find them repulsive, even — you have to hand it to him that he was an incredible modernizer of the Bureau: that he was embracing new technologies, that he was constantly aiming to reshape the way that the Bureau functioned so that it would be more efficient. He was, in general, on top of his game at the Bureau, and the Bureau emerged from his tenure not just different politically, but different operationally, in a new and improved fashion. That’s one of the main reasons why it became as powerful as it did.

Beverly Gage

One of the great testaments to Hoover’s skills as a bureaucrat was the fact that he managed to last there for forty-eight years. He served under four Democratic presidents and four Republican presidents; any one of them, and actually any attorney general, in theory could have fired Hoover at any moment. So he was there a very long time, and that is a testament to something.

But he also had another set of bureaucratic skills, which were about institution building and administration. They were sometimes at odds with his own political ideology and his own sentiments. When it comes to fundamental aspects of his political worldview, he was incredibly consistent. You can look at him at the age of twenty-two, denouncing communists and anarchists, and you can look at him fifty-five years later, at the time of his death, and he sounds reasonably similar. Certain things didn’t change at all — these important building blocks of his ideology.

On the other hand, he was incredibly flexible as an administrator and as a bureaucrat, and he knew how to respond to crisis. Most of the FBI’s power emerges in moments of intense social change and crisis. It gets a lot of crime-fighting powers amid the kind of war on crime of the New Deal. A lot of Hoover’s intelligence and surveillance powers come about as a result of World War II.

J. Edgar Hoover fingerprinting Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, in 1939. (Library of Congress)

In these moments of crisis and a need for someone to take the situation in hand, he was often there. He knew what he was doing; he could make his bureaucracy turn as was needed, even as he was incredibly consistent in his fundamental ideas.

Micah Uetricht

One of the central ways he was able to build and maintain the career that he did was his expert public relations strategy. Hoover made himself into a national celebrity, and he built the Bureau’s reputation such that it became an incredibly widely trusted institution of American life.

He did this in a wide variety of ways. He worked with Hollywood to develop TV shows and movies that cast the FBI in an incredibly positive light. He cultivated journalistic sources and people who he could leak information to, perhaps in exchange for positive descriptions of what Hoover was doing, or in defense of Hoover if the Left would attack him. Can you talk about that role of public relations in Hoover’s securing his position within the FBI and within the government bureaucracy?

Beverly Gage

It was absolutely crucial to Hoover’s career, this public relations apparatus that he built up. Though I would say he himself really wasn’t a natural at this — it was something he had to learn. He was actually a nervous person, when it came to public speaking; there’s evidence that he had had a stutter as a young child that he had gotten over. He was a pretty tightly wound person.

So the charismatic ease of public relations was not necessarily his natural strong suit. But he was also a quick learner, and by the 1930s, he came to understand how important public relations was going to be not only to his own career, but to the future of his Bureau. From that moment on, the Bureau had a huge amount of energy, expense, and personnel going into public relations.

That meant everything from ghostwritten Hoover articles denouncing communists or delivering the latest crime statistics to working directly with Hollywood. It was to Hoover’s benefit that the film codes came into being in the mid-1930s. The film code said that Hollywood movies couldn’t allow the criminal to win. So Hollywood was on the lookout for heroic agents, and Hoover was happy to provide those storylines, to provide himself as a hero.

But he also had really interesting strategies. He had press sources. He had a speakers’ bureau, in which he trained agents to work with groups like the American Legion or the Daughters of the American Revolution, to go out and talk with schoolchildren, talk with memberships, and cultivate this grassroots constituency.

Coming out of this, the FBI really was one of the most popular, most trusted institutions in American life in a way that can be hard to imagine, certainly in our own moment, but really since the revelations of the ’60s. It’s been hard to recapture how popular Hoover himself was, how popular the FBI was, for most of the time that he was in office.

Micah Uetricht

Which then allows him to be protected and to maybe go out on a limb in terms of his right-wing politics sometimes. Certainly by the end of his career, he’s feeling more emboldened to say what is on his mind, especially in the heyday of his popularity before the revelations of the ’60s and ’70s. He feels like he has enough capital in Washington and enough political cover and enough public support from the American people that he can sometimes even push back against presidents.

Beverly Gage

We have this image today that all of Hoover’s power came from his secret files, and that he was going to strong-arm powerful people in Washington because he knew about their affairs or their alcoholism or their secret political corruption. There was some of that, no question about it. And Hoover sometimes had less of it than people imagined that he did, but it didn’t really matter as long as people thought that he might have the goods on them.

But one of the things that I wanted to do in the book was to get a little beyond that and to look at the many other sources of his power and longevity. One of those was this public relations stuff, the ability to cultivate a grassroots constituency. Another that really fascinated me was the way that he handled relations with Congress. In the 1940s, when congressional committees began to get professional staff and professional investigators, Hoover stepped up and, for the most important committees to him, provided them with agents to be on their staff, provided them with the research that could come out of the FBI and forge these tight relations with Congress.

So if you look at all these different levels — his relations with the White House, his relations with Congress, his relations with Hollywood and the press, his ability to cultivate a grassroots constituency, and then what he did within the FBI itself in terms of building a very tight-knit institutional culture and set of institutional loyalties, with himself as the man at the top — all of those pieces are important to understanding his career, and not just the fact that he did sometimes have the goods on people.

Hoover Against the Left

Micah Uetricht

I want to ask about a couple of specific incidents in his career, the first of which is the Palmer Raids. These raids were part of the program of repression and deportation of radical leftists in the United States. Can you describe what exactly those raids were? What was their long-term effect on American society?

Beverly Gage

The Palmer Raids are crucial for understanding Hoover, and also for understanding the evolution of the security state over the course of the twentieth century. Hoover happened to graduate from law school in 1917, just as the United States was entering World War I and as the Bolshevik Revolution was occurring in Russia, and those two things really shape who he becomes and what his outlook toward the world is.

His first job at the Justice Department was German internment, which we forget about as part of World War I. But there was a sustained program of trying to figure out which German nationals living in the United States seemed to be dangerous or disloyal and then throwing them into internment camps. That was Hoover’s first job for the government, making those sorts of judgments.

He was so good at that kind of administrative work and those sorts of judgments that, when he was twenty-four years old, he was put in charge of something called the Radical Division at the Justice Department. It was effectively the government’s first peacetime surveillance effort that was explicitly aimed at left-wing radicals, at communists as the new communist parties were just forming in the United States, at anarchists, labor organizers, and so on. The main targets — in part because this was what a law would allow you to do — were noncitizens who were either anarchists or communists, and they became the targets of the Palmer Raids.

These were mass deportation raids, one in November of 1919 and one in January of 1920, that were aimed first at anarchists and then at communists. They’re known as the Palmer Raids for Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. But Hoover, as head of the Radical Division, really was the administrator who was in charge of planning them, of tracking them, of making them happen.

He ended up denying that for a lot of his career, because they became incredibly controversial. In some ways, this is the birth moment of civil liberties consciousness; the very early ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] is involved in pushing back against all of this. [The Palmer Raids] become incredibly unpopular.

But they were critical events in their moment. They were the first kind of scandal of Hoover’s life. And they were also his first really concerted attempts to contain the American left.

Micah Uetricht

You write in the book that, around the time of the Palmer Raids, “Hoover began an experiment unprecedented in federal history: the first systematic peacetime attempt to track the political opinions of noncitizens and to deport them en masse. He also began to collect information on native-born and naturalized citizens, assuming that the federal government would soon enact a peacetime sedition statute, allowing for the prosecution and jailing of US radicals. That initiative encompassed potentially hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans, anyone whose kindred agitations might bring them under federal scrutiny.”

This is the kind of mass surveillance program that now we have come to see as basically the norm in the United States. But he was doing so for millions of people that early on during the Palmer Raids, and he accomplished significant numbers of deportations of radicals. You even have a scene in the book where Hoover is on the very boat that Emma Goldman, the famed anarchist, is put on to be deported back to Russia; he personally took over the case by charging Goldman with a variety of crimes to get her deported to Russia. When that succeeds, he is there on the boat to see her off.

Beverly Gage

It was his first great political success, as he would have described it — the deportation of Emma Goldman. He bragged about it for the rest of his life.

There is this remarkable moment [when] she was being deported, along with the anarchist and her partner, Alexander Berkman, along with more than two hundred others who had been swept up in the Palmer Raids around Christmas of 1919. They’re being sent out of New York Harbor, back to Russia — revolutionary Russia, in this moment — and Hoover is there on the boat watching it all happen. He and Emma have some testy exchanges.

The Bureau is still pretty small during these years; they aren’t scaled up to being able to watch millions of people at that point. Nonetheless, I think we can see in this the birth of a certain form of federal political surveillance.

Micah Uetricht

Once the deportation of anarchists like Goldman and Berkman is accomplished, you say, that’s when he turned his attention to communists — he seemingly successfully extinguished the threat of anarchist agitation in the United States, in his mind, and then he could move on to a new target, which was these newly born communist parties in the United States at the time of the Russian Revolution.

Beverly Gage

The first Palmer Raids were in November of 1919, and they were aimed primarily at anarchists. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were not actually taken in the raids; they had longer deportation cases that were in the works, and Hoover threw them into the mix as well.

That first round of raids was pretty popular. So Hoover says, this is great. Let’s do a bigger, better round in January of 1920. In that moment, his targets become the newly formed Communist Party and Communist Labor Party — when the Communist Party splits off from the Socialist Party in September of 1919, there are not one but two communist parties formed, the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party. Hoover goes after both of them in that second round of raids.

Micah Uetricht

This is the first time the rubber really hits the road for Hoover in terms of his reactionary politics and his opposition to political radicalism, especially on the Left — when it comes up against a real case of trying to prosecute leftists. Can you talk about what he thought about radicals? What did he think radicals were up to? Why did he think that they had no place in American life — that essentially anyone who wanted to see progressive change happen in the United States and was willing to agitate about it was somebody who had to be uprooted and, certainly in the case of an Emma Goldman, literally had to be kicked out of the country?

Beverly Gage

Hoover prided himself on being the first federal official to really try to understand [leftism], as he framed it, and to write memos, legal briefs, attacking the communist parties as they were forming in 1919. His main aim very early on was to prove that both the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party were subject to deportation laws, which said you could deport people with anarchist beliefs but also people who advocated the violent overthrow of the government.

Hoover’s worldview was essentially that the communists — most revolutionaries, but the Communist Party in particular, as time went on — were part of a criminal conspiracy that was aiming at the violent overthrow of the US government. That was always important for making any legal case around these sorts of questions: that it was un-American and a threat to the entire social order.

This is incredibly consistent throughout Hoover’s career, although the flavor and emphasis change a little bit over time. During the teens, during these Palmer Raid years, his emphasis was on revolution and revolutionary violence. There was a lot of anxiety in 1919 and 1920 that you were going to see some sort of violent revolutionary action in the United States. There were bombs going off, there was a mass strike wave, there was a real wave of sympathy for the Bolsheviks. We now know what ultimately happened, but the world in 1919 looked like you might get a real eruption of not only mass strikes, but genuine revolutionary violence in the United States.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home in 1919, after it was hit with an anarchist bomb. (Library of Congress)

Later on, Hoover’s concern becomes things like [the communists] taking Soviet money and [conducting] Soviet espionage. All of these things evolve over time. But his sense that the communists posed the most important threat to the US social order is quite consistent throughout his career.

Micah Uetricht

In these early years of communist agitation in the United States and then throughout the rest of his life, Hoover is constantly reiterating this belief that all radicals, no matter what they profess, no matter what stripe of radicalism they subscribe to, are inherently violent. It becomes sort of comical throughout the book. If you find a radical saying they believe in the violent overthrow of the government, then obviously you found a radical who believes in violent overthrow of the government. If you find a radical who claims not to believe that they want to violently overthrow the government, that’s just a radical who is smart enough to tell the public that they don’t believe in the radical, violent overthrow of the government — but actually, we know that in their heart of hearts, that is what they’re aiming to do.

It reaches its peak of comedy, or tragicomedy, when you’re talking about movements like the civil rights movement, where he’s convinced that the same thing is going on in this movement whose leadership is largely black Baptist preachers and other types, who were pretty far from ever advocating anything like that kind of violence and in fact are constantly counseling the opposite. You still have Hoover saying, “No, they actually believe in violence and a violent overthrow of the status quo.”

It’s almost like a willful ignorance of the specificities of what these different kinds of radicals and progressive activists are arguing for and what they actually believe in, to the point where I had to question, is this what Hoover truly believes? Or does he just find it politically convenient — he only has a hammer and everything is looking like the same kind of nail?

Beverly Gage

It’s a great question, and I don’t think there’s any one answer to it. But there’s no question Hoover was a true believer, that he was a real anti-communist in his core. He also had lots of institutional and personal interests in promoting this way of thinking about the world, in terms of the kinds of work that he wanted to do with the FBI, in terms of the FBI’s and his own credibility.

One of the challenging things for me as a historian was to try to sort out and be fair about the places where there was evidence that some of what Hoover was saying was true, and then to still give some sense of the outlandishness of his ideological attacks, not only on the Soviet Union and the formal Communist Party but on fellow travelers. . . . He loved to go after people he called liberal dupes, anyone who was a progressive or liberal. You were really bad if you were actually a Communist Party member; you were pretty bad if you were a fellow traveler moving in the Communist Party but maybe not a party member — though you might be suspected of being a secret party member in that case.

But you were also still bad if you were, say, a progressive or liberal anti-communist who he felt was not being hard enough. Joining a communist front organization because you opposed fascism, say, was still going to bring you within the orbit of Hoover’s wrath and be the kind of person that he held in contempt and condemned.

Micah Uetricht

You say in the book — as do other historians of this period, like Ellen Schrecker, who wrote the book Many Other Crimes — that Hoover was not wrong in identifying many of the people he identified as members of the Communist Party or fellow travelers. In the popular memory, a lot of times people think about McCarthyism just as a period when a lot of innocent people got caught up in a great deal of hysteria that was whipped up by someone like Hoover and certainly by Joseph McCarthy. But Schrecker says that most of the people who the FBI identified as radicals, as communists, were indeed radicals.

That seems to beg the question: What was at stake in this period in history? It wasn’t just, do you have it right about whether someone is a communist — but if you are indeed right that they are a communist, what place should they have in American life? Hoover’s answer was obviously they have zero place in American life; that they need to be pulled up by the root from our society. But if we believe that this period was full of some serious excesses and infringement on civil liberties, that would seem to imply that there needs to be some place in American life for people who hold these beliefs, and that they actually do not deserve to be hounded out of the country or hounded out of public life — that a pluralistic society includes space for people who hold these kinds of radical opinions.

Beverly Gage

I think that’s absolutely correct. I found myself in many moments being surprised or disconcerted by the actual evidence that the FBI had of Communist Party complicity with Soviet espionage, of acceptance of Soviet money, of people who were probably lying when they said that they weren’t members of the Party. The Party did operate a secret apparatus; it had all sorts of secret operations — sometimes understandably so, since they were being persecuted by the government. But often, the FBI didn’t know what they were talking about when they said, “This person’s a party member,” or “This person holds these radical beliefs.”

The real question is, what do we make of that? What does that actually mean this person deserves — as a citizen, as a noncitizen? How do we want to think about the role of radical ideas in American life? It’s there that Hoover probably had his greatest impact.

You can imagine a different FBI director in the early Cold War. The United States was going to go after Soviet espionage; there isn’t any conceivable world in which that wasn’t going to happen. That might have meant that the FBI was going to go after certain members or leaders of the Communist Party. But you can envision a national security apparatus that stopped there that said, these are people breaking certain laws, [creating] direct threats to certain kinds of national security. And that’s what we’re engaged in [prosecuting].

Hoover did something much bigger and much grander. He’s not only engaged in these very targeted investigations. He understands it to be his personal and institutional mission to destroy the Communist Party. FBI agents go after a whole host of organizations — civil rights organizations, labor organizations, liberal and progressive organizations, that have nothing to do with the Communist Party per se. And Hoover himself engages in an ideological crusade through this PR apparatus, against this thing called communism, that entailed religion and race and how you were supposed to raise your family, and demanded that every American express their hostility to communism, and so on and so on. He had this vision, not of a kind of narrow national security threat, but of a grand existential threat to almost everything that he believed was sacred about American society.

Micah Uetricht

For someone like me, who is an editor at a socialist magazine, Jacobin, and works on podcasts like The Dig, I’ve always thought that one of our meta-tasks is not just to get into specifics about history and strategy and all that stuff, but to try to undo this thing that Hoover accomplished, which was to successfully say that these left-wing ideas have no place in American life. We’re saying, actually, yes, these ideas do belong in the debate here, they are legitimate things to talk about.

They are well within the bounds of acceptable conversation, because we’ve seen what happens if they don’t have a proper place within American life. It ends up not just getting rid of the radicals, but pulling liberalism far to the right. The legitimacy of liberal ideas is now in question. It’s not just the radicalism — it has a conservatizing, chilling effect on the ideas that are acceptable in the society as a whole.

Beverly Gage

To some degree, because of the things that figures like J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were engaged in in the ’40s and ’50s, the Left itself wrote some of that story out of its own past. There was such an imperative toward legitimacy, toward declaring yourself to be anti-communist, to be separated from the Communist Party, that some of the deeper history of radical commitments — the Left itself turned away from and denied and rejected [them].

One piece of this story that also was fascinating for me was the FBI’s own assessments of what makes for a successful movement and what destroys a movement, whether you’re talking about labor in the ’30s, civil rights later on, and so on. It would often send informants into meetings, not just to spy on people, and not just to advocate violence or something in the way that you might think. These were some of my favorites: first of all, to make the meetings really long and boring; to ask extraneous questions; to promote factionalism; to demand that people sign on to the manifesto.

The FBI has this pretty accurate analysis of what makes people not want to be in your movement anymore. A lot of it has to do with bad meetings. And they put a lot of time and energy into creating bad meetings for leftist organizations.

McCarthyism and the ’60s

Micah Uetricht

The history of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his right-wing anti-communist witch hunt is pretty well known. I was surprised to read in your book that Hoover kept McCarthy at arm’s length for much of his career and he did not jump in with both feet into the witch hunt that McCarthy was leading. Sometimes explicitly, he would say that the Bureau needed to keep its distance from McCarthy.

Can you talk about that relationship, and the two men’s different approaches to anti-communism, despite the fact that both of them were some of the country’s most zealous anti-communists during that period?

Beverly Gage

Today most people would consider J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy to be sort of interchangeable or imagine that they were these deep allies. They certainly shared an anti-communist outlook. To some degree, they socialized together; they knew each other reasonably well.

But Hoover was a much more careful person than Joe McCarthy was, and he was much more of an institution builder. McCarthy was only an important force in politics from early 1950 to late 1954. He did a lot of damage during those years; he had a lot of influence. But he came and went. Hoover was there long before McCarthy, and he was there long after McCarthy.

That’s partly because he was a much more careful and systematic actor than McCarthy was. What McCarthy was good at doing was getting headlines, lobbing accusations. In a Trumpian way — he’d throw out an accusation, and when people fact-checked it and said, “Wait a minute, that’s a lie,” he would just turn around and be on to the next one, or he would attack the person who was saying that what he said wasn’t true, and so on. He was a demagogue and a headline grabber.

Hoover was really different. He had this enormous institution at his disposal; he was engaged in the question of anti-communism much earlier than McCarthy. The Hollywood Ten, when the FBI helped to engineer the Hollywood hearings in front of HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] — that’s 1947, just to take one example, long before McCarthy. Hoover has relationships with all sorts of different congressional committees and institutions within the government who are engaged in this project with him. Hoover looked at McCarthy and said, “He is a loose cannon. He’s actually going to do more to discredit the anti-communist cause then he’s going to benefit it.”

Sometimes, he defended McCarthy personally; he said, “He’s a puncher because he believes so passionately in all of this.” But behind the scenes, he was often working to contain McCarthy. He didn’t want to be closely associated with McCarthy — he was mad when McCarthy hired former FBI agents to be his investigators, because he thought people would assume that these men had access to FBI information. So he worked with the Eisenhower administration ultimately to contain McCarthy, rather than to empower him.

Micah Uetricht

It was shortly after the peak of the McCarthy years that the American civil rights movement starts to really get into gear. From the very beginning, through his years at Kappa Alpha, Hoover is steeped in this kind of white supremacy and believes in a racial hierarchy in which white people are on top in the country. He sees any kind of civil rights agitation coming from the same old familiar sources: it’s actually the Communists who are at work, or whatever.

On the other hand, from the early years and well into the ’60s, at the height of the civil rights agitation, he also comes around to pushing back against the KKK and other forms of white racist violence against civil rights workers. He comes to see that kind of violence in a similar way to how he saw McCarthy: these reactionary yahoos are taking their project a little too far, and things are getting a little bit out of hand. And the hierarchy, as he wanted to see it maintained, couldn’t be maintained if there was disorder happening — if, for example, KKK members were murdering civil rights workers in the South. Can you talk about what his approach to the civil rights movement looked like, as well as how he handled some of the more extremist right-wing groups?

Beverly Gage

The big theme is that Hoover came out of the segregated city of Washington, DC. He was in Kappa Alpha. He has a highly racialized worldview. He resisted hiring black men as agents. He viewed most civil rights agitation as being corrupt, communist-inflected, suspicious, and dangerous, and he conducted surveillance of civil rights organizers of varying sorts from his very first moments in government. He’s looking at figures like A. Philip Randolph; he helped to orchestrate the deportation of Marcus Garvey.

This is very early on, in the teens and ’20s, before he was even director of the Bureau. This continues throughout most of his career, and then of course really comes to a peak in the ’60s.

On the other hand, he was a pretty canny operator. So there are some interesting moments when he makes alliances with organizations like the NAACP, in which he senses the winds changing a little bit. During the Truman years, he conducts some pretty aggressive antilynching investigations. He testifies before Truman’s Civil Rights Commission about the need to contain Southern white violence. He takes the initiative to investigate the Citizens’ Councils in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education as massive resistance is coming along in the 1950s.

J. Edgar Hoover with President Harry Truman in 1950. (National Law Enforcement Museum)

He’s trying to sense the country’s political direction, but particularly the political direction of his superiors at the White House and the Justice Department. He was a law man. He didn’t think that lynching, in particular — acts of racial violence in the South — [should go] unpunished. That is not his view of law and order; he doesn’t like the way that seems to delegitimize the police. He doesn’t think that lawbreakers should be allowed to run free; he doesn’t like mob violence. He particularly doesn’t like the way in which so much of white Southern resistance to civil rights is being articulated as resistance to federal authority, and particularly to federal law enforcement.

So you have these really interesting moments where civil rights organizers are being surveilled by the FBI. They’re denouncing Hoover for not doing enough about the obvious racism that was baked into the FBI during those years. But you also have massive resisters: the Ku Klux Klan, the Citizens Councils, all denouncing the FBI as this force of federal integration. One of George Wallace’s first big moments, when he’s when he’s a circuit court judge in Alabama in the 1950s, is to say that if any FBI agent sets foot within his jurisdiction, he’s going to have them arrested as foreign interlopers trying to enforce civil rights.

Micah Uetricht

Yet when the civil rights movement takes off in the ’60s and Freedom Rides are happening and other big civil rights campaigns are taking off throughout the South, young civil rights organizers are speaking out repeatedly about the FBI not moving to protect them on the Freedom Rides, for example. They’re constantly saying that the FBI doesn’t seem that interested in protecting them when they are trying to carry out these kinds of campaigns.

There’s this constant agitation from the civil rights movement that the FBI needs to be protecting them better. And there are times that Hoover and the Bureau say explicitly, our role is not to act as bodyguards — who are these activists who are essentially carrying out a suicide mission and trying to integrate these buses? So there’s constant agitation that has to happen before the FBI takes up that role of trying to protect them and to go after some of the more extreme incidents of violence that happened in the ’60s.

Beverly Gage

Right. Hoover is suspicious of the civil rights movement as a whole, partly because of his racial views, partly because he thought, quite rightly, for many years that the Communist Party was one of those standard-bearers of civil rights agitation. So anyone involved in civil rights might either be a communist or aiding and abetting the communists.

But then in the ’60s, as protest tactics begin to change, he gets a new objection, which is that civil disobedience, street protests, are forms of lawbreaking, even within the bounds of the law. His position is, if you want to go out there and provoke people as outside agitators and risk your lives, be my guest, but it is not the job of the FBI to protect you. So in instances like the Freedom Ride, or the Birmingham protests or any number of other occasions in which civil rights organizers, or black people in general, seem to be in danger and are calling for federal protection, Hoover says, “We’re not guards, we’re not policemen, we are investigators and professionals. And it’s your own fault.” With very few exceptions, he refuses to protect them.

Micah Uetricht

There are all kinds of documentaries coming out, like MLK/FBI, that talk openly about the role that the FBI played in surveilling and harassing and attacking Martin Luther King. I had a broad understanding that this was the case, and of course there’s the famous letter that the FBI sends to Martin Luther King that seems to be suggesting that he should commit suicide. That is in response to the surveillance of him having extramarital affairs allegedly.

But it wasn’t until reading your book and other books like Taylor Branch’s civil rights trilogy that can quote from the FBI transcripts of the wiretapping that they did on Martin Luther King and the rest of the civil rights movement, that I understood just how violently opposed the FBI was. It was basically open policy within J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that the role of the agency was not just to keep a neutral eye on what was going on with the civil rights movement — the goal of the FBI was to disrupt and destroy the civil rights movement. It’s shocking to read the internal correspondence in the Bureau that is arguing for that kind of disruption and attempted destruction, or to know the extent to which they were wiretapping civil rights leaders wherever they went.

Every conversation that civil rights leaders, MLK especially, were having, was recorded by the FBI. Especially given the way that Martin Luther King has become almost a new founding father of the twentieth century — certainly one of the great figures in American history — it’s shocking to see how Hoover could not give up on his belief that King was a dupe of the Soviet Union, that there were people in his orbit who were acting at the behest of the Soviet Union.

Beverly Gage

Looking at the documents myself, I often had that experience as well. I knew some of the basic outlines of this story, but to sit there, page after page for hundreds and then thousands of pages, and look at the energy that the FBI put into not only watching but actively disrupting and going after King in particular is quite stunning to see.

The FBI campaign against King is also suggestive of the ways in which something that did start as a national security investigation of sorts — some of the earliest surveillance of King and people in his orbit was around the question of whether a couple of figures in King’s orbit were still tied to the Communist Party, were secretly collaborating with the Communist Party while also working with King — turned into wiretaps on almost everyone in his orbit, which produced a whole host of new information both about political planning and movement strategy that’s being funneled to people like John Kennedy.

It also produced information about King’s personal life, such that by August 1963, in the aftermath of the March on Washington, the Bureau is beginning to talk about wiretapping King himself. That starts in late 1963, and they find out even more about his personal life. So what was once a national security investigation — and then accelerated because they’re mad that King’s criticizing the FBI — becomes intensely focused on his sex life.

So by early 1964, it’s not just phone wiretaps. It’s putting bugs inside King’s hotel rooms, and we say, ok, people get their hotel rooms bugged. But the difficulty of doing that meant you had to know where King was going — so it meant you had to be listening to all the phone calls, having informants in his office who are going to tell you ahead of time where he’s going when, what hotel he’s going to be in; you work with the hotel staff to then figure out what room he’s going to be in and what room your guys are going to be in to get the microphone planted in the lamp so that you could put it in his room; staff all of the listening posts — simply to find out who he was having sex with.

Now it turns out King was having sex with a lot of people. So the FBI got really obsessed with this. But then the whole thing comes to a head in late 1964, with not only these surveillance operations, but active disruptive measures: Hoover publicly denouncing King and the FBI threatening King privately.

Micah Uetricht

The part of Hoover’s career that he is perhaps most notorious for, and that you seem to imply in the book that soiled his legacy in the minds of many Americans, is the COINTELPRO operation against New Left groups that took off in the latter half of the 1960s. That was aimed at student groups that were opposed to the Vietnam War, Black Power groups that were emerging in the late ’60s, and many others.

The way that the American people first came to know about COINTELPRO was the result of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, breaking into a Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI and stealing over a thousand classified documents and then leaking them to mainstream newspapers, which then blew up into the story of what the FBI had been doing in their attempts to disrupt these groups.

It’s a deep irony that this group of New Leftists who never got caught by the FBI were essentially carrying out a kind of black-bag operation of the type that the FBI itself was so skilled in carrying out, so it was only via mimicry of the FBI methods that we even came to learn about what happened with COINTELPRO.

Beverly Gage

It was one of the most extraordinary operations ever directed at Hoover’s FBI. COINTELPRO, itself, I think, is interesting. It’s a familiar story in certain ways that the FBI conducted these very elaborate disruptive operations against the Black Panthers, against civil rights activists, against the antiwar movement and the New Left.

A couple of pieces of it were surprising to me and are a little bit less known. One is the fact that this really started in the late ’50s, in a formal sense, as an operation against the Communist Party. This is ’56, ’57. Because Hoover thought, with the Khrushchev speech, with all of the internal turmoil that the Communist Party was experiencing, that it was a moment when the FBI could go in and cause so much disruption internally that you do away with the communists forever. What started as an operation really aimed at the Communist Party expanded very rapidly into lots of other groups in the ’60s.

The second piece I found interesting was that they did have a series of COINTELPRO operations against the Ku Klux Klan, against neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups during this period, and they’re doing some of the same things to them that they’re doing to the Left. And they’re pretty committed to that too. It’s an interesting disjuncture, to see them going after the Klan and Martin Luther King in the same moment.

The last piece is that when this came out, it was a surprise of sorts to the public. People suspected these things were happening, though they didn’t know them. But there’s a considerable amount of evidence that Hoover did, at least in general terms, let the White House and his allies in Congress know that these sorts of disruptive operations were underway. We have this idea that it was super secret, that Hoover was doing it all on his own authority. But there’s lots of evidence that it was an open secret of sorts in the upper echelons of Washington.

Micah Uetricht

It took two New Left activists breaking into a random, isolated FBI office to bring these revelations to the public. On the other hand, presumably an incredibly high number of FBI offices throughout the country were sitting around with these files in their own filing cabinets. They were never leaked to the public, never given to journalists. So, it speaks to the kind of tight ship that Hoover was famous for running that every FBI agent must have known that this kind of operation was happening and yet no knowledge of it ever reached the broader public.

Beverly Gage

It’s funny — when Hoover died in May of 1972, [it was] right before the Watergate break-in, and certain parts of Watergate you can read as a crisis of succession at the FBI. Hoover’s third-in-command, the guy who thought that he was going to become the FBI director, is passed over by Nixon — a guy named Mark Felt. Mark Felt goes on to become Deep Throat, even as he is leading the FBI Watergate investigation, but you can hear Richard Nixon of all people lamenting on the Nixon tapes that by God, if Hoover had still been in office, that kind of leaking probably wouldn’t have happened, or Hoover would have worked with Nixon to contain it all. So Hoover and the FBI leaked when they wanted to, but Hoover, if nothing else, did run a very tight ship.