J. Edgar Hoover is seen speaking during a convention of former special agents in Washington, DC. Bob Daugherty/AP
Edgar Hoover ran the FBI For 48 years, serving under eight different presidents. Hoover turned the agency from a relatively powerless group into one of the most efficient investigative forces in the world.
He had the FBI fight several threats to the country, including communists, gangsters, and Nazis. But he also had the agency spend decades harassing people of color, anti-war protestors, women, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Hoover was known for keeping files on almost anyone with power and influence, including Supreme Court justices, senators, congressmen, and presidents, as well as actors and writers. The list included President John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Felix Frankfurter.
In 1972, after he died, then-US Attorney General Laurence Silberman reviewed some of Hoover’s secret files. He later said of it, “J. Edgar Hoover was like a sewer that collected dirt. I now believe he was the worst public servant in our history.”
J. Edgar Hoover sits at a desk with a stack of papers before him. Bettmann/Getty Images
In 1919, US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer liked Hoover’s efficiency and political leanings and appointed him head of the Radical Division of the Bureau of Investigation when Hoover was 24 years old.
The Radical Division had a staff of 25 and focused on monitoring radicals — from pacifists to socialists or anarchists — arresting them and deporting them. The raids resulted in thousands of arrests and 556 people being deported. The agents didn’t use warrants.
The raids were known as the “Palmer Raids,” and within a few years, public opinion had turned against the raids and Palmer was forced to resign. Hoover kept his job though and in 1921 was appointed the bureau’s assistant director.
J. Edgar Hoover in his office. Herbert K. White/AP
In response, he launched a covert program called Counterintelligence Program, or “Cointelpro,” in 1956. The program had agents gathering information and attempting to disrupt or destroy communist groups.
Later, the program attempted to do the same thing to anti-war and civil rights groups, women’s rights groups, and student associations.
According to Beverly Gage, who wrote “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century,” agents were “writing anonymous letters, spreading rumors, using informants as provocateurs, planting false stories in the press.”
J. Edgar Hoover is shown at his desk at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Bettmann/Getty Images
He had files on Supreme Court justices, senators, congressmen, and presidents, as well as on actors and writers. The list included President John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Felix Frankfurter.
The files weren’t only filled with reliable information either. They often had rumors about sexual relationships and ties to supposed radical groups.
Loch K. Johnson, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia, told The New York Times, “It wasn’t just spying on Americans. The intent of Cointelpro was to destroy lives and ruin reputations.”
From 1956 to 1971, Hoover OK’d at least 2,000 illegal actions by the FBI to target different groups, according to Lerone A. Martin, author of “The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism.”
J. Edgar Hoover sits at a desk with his eyes closed. AP
He didn’t take the idea of a criminal network seriously, and while the FBI’s New York office had 400 agents monitoring “subversives,” it only had four agents looking at organized crime.
Reportedly, Hoover thought it would be too complicated and didn’t want the FBI’s reputation to be tarnished by the investigations, Selwyn Raab wrote in “Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires.”
In 1957, he was forced to admit there was a problem after 58 members of the mafia were caught and arrested meeting in a house in upstate New York. The incident prompted the FBI to establish a mafia task force.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine
A photo of J. Edgar Hoover’s funeral. John Duricka/AP
In private, Nixon reportedly said, “Jesus Christ! That old cocksucker!”
But in public, it was all decorum. He said Hoover had been, “One of the giants… a national symbol of courage, patriotism, and granite-like honesty and integrity.”
In the days after his death Nixon ordered his staff to get any secret files that Hoover kept in his office, but they were too late.
Hoover’s secretary, on his orders, had destroyed them.
However, an official count still found 883 files he’d had made on senators and another 772 on congressmen.