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Rebroadcast: Understanding J. Edgar Hoover's America.

This rebroadcast originally aired on December 9, 2022.

J. Edgar Hoover, former FBI director.

History has cast him as powerful, paranoid, a man not afraid to use the power of the FBI to intimidate and investigate his critics. But that’s how he’s seen now.

What about then?

“He was more popular than most of us remember in these days,” historian Beverly Gage says. “That’s really important because it means that his story, the things that he did, the things that he stood for, were also popular.”

So popular that he held his job for 48 years and eight presidencies.

“He really had his fingers in almost everything that happened in American politics from the 1920s up through the 1970s,” Gage adds.

“How his power worked is really critical to understanding how politics and social movements and culture worked itself over the course of that period.”

Today, On Point: Understanding J. Edgar Hoover’s America.

Guests

Beverly Gage, professor of 20th-century U.S. history at Yale University. Author of 2023 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: J. Edgar Hoover was the quintessential government man. He grew up in Washington, D.C. He went to college there in 1913, got his first job there, and then spent his entire career there — a legendary 48 years as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. And Hoover devoted most of that career to hating and going after communists.

J. EDGAR HOOVER [Tape]: The Communist Party of the United States is a fifth column, if there ever was one. 

CHAKRABARTI: That was Hoover testifying at a congressional hearing on March 27, 1947. He goes on to say that the Communist Party was “far better organized than the Nazis,” and that their goal was to overthrow the U.S. government. Hoover’s goal? To destroy them.

HOOVER [Tape]: Communism, in reality, is not a political party. It is a way of life, an evil and malignant way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic. And, like an epidemic, a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting this nation. 

CHAKRABARTI: Including his five decade career against communism, J. Edgar Hoover is also known for how he took down his enemies: through intimidation, blackmail, and illegal wiretapping through his famous counterintelligence program, now known as COINTELPRO.

NEWS BROADCAST [Tape]: Lawyers under oath to place into the record a litany of FBI dirty tricks and illegal activities conducted against the women’s movement, war protesters, civil rights groups and individuals deemed a threat to domestic security. 

CHAKRABARTI: That was a news broadcast covering the 1975 congressional hearing on an investigation into the practices of the FBI under Hoover. Lawyer Frederick Schwarz testified that the worst offenses were directed at civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when, in 1964, the FBI sent King a tape recording of his alleged adultery, along with a letter telling him to commit suicide.

FREDERICK SCHWARZ [Tape]: The Bureau went so far as to mail anonymous letters to Dr. King and his wife, which were mailed shortly before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And finishes with this suggestion: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it.” This exact number has been selected for a specific reason. It has definite practical significance. It was 34 days before the award. “You are done.”

CHAKRABARTI: Again, these congressional hearings took place in 1975, three years after J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972. While alive, Hoover’s public image was remarkably different. On May 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson changed the law so that Hoover would not be forced to retire at age 70 — making J. Edgar Hoover, effectively, the FBI director for life.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON [Tape]: Edgar, the law says that you must retire next January when you reach your 70th birthday. And knowing you as I do, Edgar, I know you won’t break the law. But the nation cannot afford to lose you. And therefore, by virtue of and pursuant to the authority vested in the President of the United States, I have just now signed an executive order exempting you from compulsory retirement for an indefinite period of time. And again, Edgar, congratulations and accept the gratitude of a grateful nation. 

CHAKRABARTI: And that is what Hoover did. J. Edgar Hoover remained the head of the FBI until the day he died — May 2, 1972 at the age of 77.

Now, there is much more to be learned about J. Edgar Hoover and much more that his life reflects about America in the 20th century. Both things are richly revealed in the new biography, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. It’s by Beverly Gage, Professor of 20th century U.S. history at Yale University and she joins us now. Professor Gage, welcome back to On Point.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thanks, Meghna. It’s great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Of the many astonishing things that I learned about Hoover from reading your book, one that jumped out at me almost immediately was that he held the assistant FBI director job at the age of 25. And then when he was just 29, he became director of the FBI. I mean, that is astonishingly young. Beverly, what presaged that in his life that allowed him to reach such heights in Washington at such a young age?

GAGE: Well, he was definitely a go-getter and was full of energy and ambition when he was a young man. And he also just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And I think that that’s actually a big part of the story of his life. He happened to graduate from law school in 1917, at just the moment the U.S. was entering World War I. And so he went right into quite a lot of responsibility in the Justice Department. And that sort of thing happened over and over again in his life. At the moment that there was some sort of crisis or emergency, he was the available man.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, so let’s then go back to the earliest days of his life, because, again, I didn’t know that he was not just a government man, but a Washington, D.C. man through and through. And it’s, of course, Washington, D.C.  at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So can you talk about his childhood in D.C. and the influences that then he carried through his whole life?

GAGE: You’re right. He is an almost pure creature of Washington. He’s born there. He dies there. He never lives anywhere else. And he’s, I think, a creature of the city in lots of other ways as well.

First of all, even in the late 19th century, he’s born into a family with a tradition of federal government service, which was pretty unusual at the time because the federal government wasn’t very big. It didn’t do very many things. For instance, there was no Bureau of Investigation at that point. But he comes of age in this tradition of government professional career service that’s just kind of taking off as he’s growing up.

And then the other thing that I think is really important about Washington is that in that moment, it is truly a southern city. And during the years that Hoover was growing up there, it’s a city that was actively segregating and coming up with new laws enforcing racial segregation in new ways. So he went to segregated schools. His employment was always segregated, and I think that had a really dramatic effect on his own racial outlook.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, and it’s not just living in a segregated environment that had the impact. I mean, he was an active participant in it. The story that you tell about his fraternity at George Washington in the first part of the 20th century. Can you please tell that story, Beverly? Because it’s kind of mind-blowing.

GAGE: It really surprised me when I began to do that research as well. So I think it’s pretty widely known that Hoover had racist views, that he was racist. But one of the things that I wanted to try to figure out in this biography was where did those ideas come from? Washington is one part of the story.

But then I began to look into his college fraternity, which was this organization called Kappa Alpha. He was very devoted to Kappa Alpha, became its chapter president, was active as an alum for many, many years, drew many of the first generation of FBI officials out of Kappa Alpha. And it turns out that Kappa Alpha was an explicitly Southern segregationist fraternity that had been created in 1865 to kind of carry on the “lost cause” of the White South in the aftermath of the Civil War. And by the time Hoover joined it, its kind of national standard-bearers, its most famous alums were people like Thomas Dixon, who was a famous novelist in that moment, who wrote the books upon which Birth of the Nation, the sort of famously racist film of 1915 celebrating the Ku Klux Klan, was based.

And so you can just see Hoover’s mind being shaped by this broader environment, but by this very specific institution, which he was very devoted to and really loved his whole life.

CHAKRABARTI: Beverly, it’s a hallmark of how richly researched your bio is because the details are astonishing. That even by the 1950s, Kappa Alpha was still so devoted to this “lost cause” mythology that they held Confederate dress balls, shows in blackface, secession ceremonies. And so these were the type of things that Hoover participated in.

GAGE: Yeah. We don’t have evidence that in the 1950s he was participating in the sense that he was showing up at those events because he’s a big celebrity by that point and he’s a little reclusive. But he is certainly still very loyal to Kappa Alpha. They give him, during those same years, their highest national award for an alum. He writes sympathetic things for their journal. And he is kind of still in the thick of all of that.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, the reason why I wanted to point that out is because presumably when he was in Kappa Alpha in college at George Washington that he was participating in those same kinds of grotesque rituals. But the broader point that you make in the book is that this is the kind of environment that then informs, in a sense, the internal culture that he builds up as director of the FBI. I mean, in your words, “a model for the overwhelmingly male, virtually all white, sociable, but hierarchical and ritual bound FBI that Hoover created.” Right?

GAGE: That’s right. So when he becomes director in 1924, as you said, at this incredibly young age of 29, his initial vision for the Bureau, which is pretty small at that point and doesn’t have a lot of — there’s not a lot of federal jurisdiction in those years. His vision is really that he’s going to create it as this very tight knit group of professional, college educated lawyers and accountants who are just a lot like him. A lot of them went to GW or were in Kappa Alpha, his college at George Washington University. And he kind of kept control over all of it and really built the Bureau in his own image.

CHAKRABARTI: We’re already getting some comments on Facebook about this relationship between Hoover and the country that he lived in. And a listener on Facebook is saying: “Hoover didn’t go from being a hero to a villain. He was the same person the entire time. We, or rather the majority population, changed over time. Hoover always saw people of color as threats to the established order, manipulated by what he called communists.” Remark on that quickly, Beverly.

GAGE: I think that there is a lot of truth to that. So one of the things that was really fascinating to me in writing his biography was to see just how popular he really was for most of his life with most Americans. And he today is largely considered a villain.

When you say “J. Edgar Hoover,” when I would tell people I was writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, they would say, “Oh, why do you want to spend so much time with that terrible man?” And I think rightly has that reputation. But one of the things that I really wanted to recover was

And that says a lot not only about Hoover, but about our country at large and some of the parts of history that we don’t like to talk about as much.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, Professor Gage, let me ask you, why did you want to write a bio about Hoover? Because, I mean, you’ve been working on this for a long time, since 2008 or 2009? I mean, what was the genesis of like, “Hey, I am going to write a bio about Hoover?”

GAGE: Well, I’m very self punishing. So that was really the idea. I didn’t think it would take quite as long as it did. But I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a really big project and that was part of the appeal.

Some of it was that Hoover was this amazing vehicle to tell a big story about the 20th century and about parts of our history that we maybe don’t think about as much, whether that is some of what we were just talking about or simply the growth of the federal government itself, the national security state. And Hoover really embodies all of that.

And then the second piece was that there were lots and lots of new records that had come out since the last generation of biography. And so I am a history nerd, and I wanted to get my hands on those records. But, as it turns out, there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of pages of such records. And so, yeah, so it took a while to do.

CHAKRABARTI: How many pages do you think you actually went through of documentation?

GAGE: Well, it’s funny because FBI agents, and Hoover himself, loved to produce paper. And that’s really great on the one hand, if you are a historian, it’s a lot of what you want to know is written down. But of course, it means you’ve got a volume problem. So I certainly went through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. I mean, it may have gotten into the millions — not necessarily reading every word of every investigative report, some of which are still pretty heavily redacted, but making my way through really just a vast array of material.

CHAKRABARTI: Good Lord. Okay. Well, so let’s talk a little bit more about the sort of foundational influences in Hoover’s life before we get to what he did as as FBI director. Because in the book you write about religion in J. Edgar Hoover’s life. He was raised a Protestant and he kept his faith the entire his entire life. And here’s a little bit about what Hoover himself said about that.

HOOVER [Tape]: The moral strength of our nation has decreased alarmingly. We must return to the teachings of God if we are to cure this sickness. 

CHAKRABARTI: So talk about religion in Hoover’s life, Beverly.

GAGE: I think it was a really core element, not only of his childhood and his personal makeup, but of the way that he presented himself to the country and politically. The sort of puzzle that I’m trying to work out in the book is that on the one hand, Hoover is a standard bearer for a kind of professional expert, investigative, “just the facts,” nonpartisan government service that we would tend to think about as maybe a progressive or a liberal tradition.

And then on the other hand, he’s a really powerful and very outspoken social conservative on lots of issues, race and communism, but on religion as well. And it’s kind of strange to think about the FBI director giving these kind of stern moral lectures, which he loved to give, as your clip suggested, to mothers and fathers, to the nation at large, kind of admonishing people to go to Sunday school, to return to their moral core. And some of that had to do with the struggle against atheistic communism. Others was his kind of individualistic moral approach to crime and law and order. But I think it’s really core to understanding him as as a cultural figure and for understanding how he built the FBI.

CHAKRABARTI: Actually, Beverly, I’d like to flip the script on that a second, because you said it’s kind of strange. I’ll be honest, in my lifetime, it does not seem strange. Because we hear such overt pronouncements of Christianity from politicians all the time. I mean, every president attends that National Prayer Breakfast, for example. What’s strange to me is that — are you saying that it was unusual for someone like Hoover to do that in the mid 20th century when when he was head of the FBI, that those sort of talking about religion and values was was not the norm?

GAGE: Well, I think the key is that Hoover wasn’t a politician. He was an appointed government servant whose main duty and loyalty was supposed to be just the enforcement of federal law. That was his job. And so the idea that alongside that, he made himself into this incredibly powerful social commentator and cultural icon and outspoken political voice, I think those are the pieces that are interesting to put together.

CHAKRABARTI: Huh. Interesting. Okay. Can you tell me then about — what was the reputation of the FBI when he became director again at the age of 29?

GAGE: Yeah, it was not good. He actually came out of two different scandals that had happened when he was there and he was involved in both, but managed to survive.

One was public backlash against the Palmer raids, which were a series of deportation raids aimed at anarchists and communists and other radicals. He had helped to engineer those as a 24 and 25 year old. But there was a lot of criticism of those on civil liberties grounds. He survived that scandal only to enter the Warren Harding years as the assistant director of the Bureau.

And the Harding years had a whole series of pretty basic corruption scandals, you know, poker games, whiskey dealing, bribery, the whole range of things. And Hoover was there as an assistant director, but he managed to survive that, too. So the funny thing is that then, when he became director, he really came in as a reformer, as someone who was supposed to clean up the Bureau, make the bureaucracy work well, get rid of the corruption, get rid of all of the kind of invasive political investigations. And that actually is how he made his name in his early years as director, doing quite a lot of what he set out to do. The course we know as time went on that that didn’t work is very good. Or I did.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Then there’s this interesting thread of how in reforming the FBI internally, he also was quite savvy about reforming its external image. And Hollywood plays a role here. Because we have a clip, for example, from a 1959 Warner Brothers film called The FBI Story. It stars Jimmy Stewart, and it was co-produced by J. Edgar Hoover. And then later in 1965, a popular TV series was made about the Bureau called “The FBI.” It ran for nine seasons. So this is the clip we have from that that TV series.

TV CREDITS [Tape]: “The FBI.” A QM Production. Tonight’s episode: “The Monster.”

CHAKRABARTI: “The FBI.” Professor Gage, talk about how these films and theories that Hoover used them to change the public’s view of the FBI.

GAGE: I liked your voice on that because people of a certain generation who heard that I was writing about Hoover would in fact come up and say, “Oh yeah, ‘The FBI.'” It was kind of a coming of age show for many people in the sixties, I think.

But public relations and Hollywood especially were really critical to Hoover’s career. And again, it’s sort of a story where he was in the right place at the right time. The 1930s was a moment when the FBI was starting to move into crime fighting in a new way. Its agents were starting to carry guns. They were having battles with the likes of John Dillinger. And that happened to be the moment that Hollywood imposed on itself the film codes. And one of the film codes said that you can’t make movies in which the criminal wins anymore.

And that confluence of things — Hollywood went casting about for heroes and they found many of them in the story of the FBI. So Hoover got lucky there. But

Sometimes under Hoover’s byline, sometimes just about the great things that the FBI was doing. And, you know, his view was that the work of government was not self-evident. And if you wanted public support, if you wanted appropriations, you really had to to sell it. And that’s what he thought he was doing.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, you mentioned John Dillinger, and I think also the Bureau went after Machine Gun Kelly as well. But from your biography, we learn that J. Edgar Hoover also persistently went so far as to deny the existence of organized crime, which seems very strange to me. I didn’t really understand that. Why is that?

GAGE: Yeah, it is funny and requires explanation because in the thirties he really made his name, as you said, fighting all of these big celebrity criminals. But as time went on, he particularly was resistant to the idea that there was something called a “mafia.” So he knew that there was plenty of organized crime. He just tended to say, “That’s at the local level.” He didn’t want to be the one in charge of it. And he denied until there was irrefutable evidence that there was a kind of organized national crime syndicate.

Once that starts to become really evident in the fifties, the FBI does begin moving pretty aggressively into organized crime investigations, but not as aggressively as Robert Kennedy, who became attorney general at a very young age in 1961, would have liked. And the battle over that, whether Hoover had done enough on organized crime, became one of many sources of extreme tension between those two men.

CHAKRABARTI: So are you saying that it was just mostly a lack of evidence apparent to Hoover in the thirties and forties that made him resistant to the idea of organized crime?

GAGE: Well, I think there were a couple of things going on. One was a real jurisdiction question. I mean, Hoover always used the question of federal jurisdiction in whatever way he wanted.  Where he didn’t want to do something, he would claim there was no federal jurisdiction for it and sometimes that was in fact, the case. When he did want to do something, he would, you know, kind of skirt around the law and sometimes do things secretly. So that isn’t a total explanation. But it is also true that there weren’t a lot of federal laws to work with — the RICO laws, those sorts of things that we think about as these tools for organized crime investigation didn’t exist at the time.

And I think another important element is that he was very nervous about his agents doing that sort of investigation because he had built the FBI’s reputation on being clean-cut and corruption free. And there’s a lot of temptation in organized crime investigations. So he was nervous about that as well. There have been suggestions over the years that he was tied in with organized crime or they were blackmailing him in various ways. So those things are very hard to pin down with any sort of documentation that a historian would really grab onto. But they are certainly part of the public story and there’s been a lot of speculation about those things.

CHAKRABARTI: We’re definitely a little later going to talk about Hoover’s battle against communists and his the expansive use of the power that he had as head of FBI. But I’m wondering this first part of his career as FBI director, again, just reflecting back on the whole purpose of your book, which is to help us understand better the country at that time, too. What connections or lessons would you draw about what Hoover did and was able to do, let’s say, until the late 1940s that tell us more about America?

GAGE: I’d say a couple of things. One is that you can see the way that the federal government grew in these kind of fits and starts in response to emergencies, sometimes the Great Depression or the Second World War, in ways that nobody really intended. And I think that that’s part of the story of Hoover’s life. It’s part of the story of the FBI that you can see all of this kind of happening in this emergency mode, and then we end up stuck with these methods and institutions in his case without a lot of accountability.

And I guess the other piece I think that’s really critical from those years is that you can see the ways in which he in particular built his power institutionally in ways that were going to go on to shape nearly everything that happened in American life. Every social movement that happens after the 1940s, every major political figure has to contend in some way with the FBI and with this institution that Hoover built, really, to enforce his own worldview.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Gage, you had talked about how every president — well, I mean, eight of them over Hoover’s time as FBI director — had to contend with Hoover because he had so much power in Washington and therefore an impact on almost every social movement in this country for the period of a half-century. And of the many remarkable things about that is that frequently he was extremely, spectacularly hypocritical in his persecution of some of these issues and some of those social movements. For example, in the book, you talk about how J. Edgar Hoover really publicly despised gambling, but he was a frequent gambler himself. Let’s just listen to a little bit about how Hoover talked about gambling:

HOOVER [Tape]: The gambling problem must be viewed as a piece of the entire crime picture. Organized gambling is a vicious evil. It corrupts our youth and blights the lives of our adults. It becomes a springboard for other crimes: embezzlement, robbery, and even murder. 

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Gage, an you help us tease apart the sources of that hypocrisy?

GAGE: It is true that Hoover loved to go to the racetrack and he was performative about only putting in $2 bets. So keeping this all within limits. In fact, a former agent at the FBI became the head of the Racing Association. And so that was one of many issues where his personal behavior didn’t always match up with his public statements.

Two other very obvious ones that you see in the book, are, of course, famously that

And probably the biggest one — certainly in his professional life — was the fact that he promoted himself as an icon of law and order. And yet, when you look at what the FBI was doing behind the scenes, they were often skirting the edges of the law, if not sometimes acting illegally themselves.

CHAKRABARTI: You said famously Hoover had this longtime relationship with Tolson. I actually think it’s not that well known amongst many people, because in reading your book, the level of detail in it was truly eye-opening to me. I mean, maybe it was an open secret in Washington, but I think a lot of folks nowadays wouldn’t know this about him. And it’s especially shocking because, I mean, the lavender scare ruined the lives of many, many good people. And so it’s just hard to square the fact that Hoover himself was living this life with Tolson, but was willing to destroy the lives of others.

And he even talked with presidents about this. Because we have some tape here from an October 31, 1964 call. And again, this is just days before the 1964 presidential elections. And President Lyndon B. Johnson calls Hoover to talk about his closest aide, Walter Jenkins, who had been arrested for having sex with a man in a Washington bathroom. And here’s a clip from that call:

JOHNSON [Tape]: He worked for me for four or five years, but he wasn’t even suspicious to me. But I guess you’re going to have to teach me something about this stuff.

HOOVER: You know, I often wonder what the next crisis is going to be.

JOHNSON: I swear I can’t recognize them. I don’t know anything about it.

HOOVER: It’s a thing that you just can’t tell sometimes, just like in the case of Jenkins — no indication in any way. And I knew him pretty well. And (inaudible) did also. And there was no suspicion, no indication. There are some people that walk kind of funny and so forth that you might kind of think of that often may be queer but there was no indication of that.

CHAKRABARTI: Beverly Gage, when Johnson says to Hoover in that call, “I guess you’re going to have to teach me something about this stuff.” Can you dare posit what he might have been meaning?

GAGE: That is an amazing comment. And I think there are two ways to read it. One is a kind of insider, “Edgar, we all know that there are these stories and rumors about you.” The other is, “Edgar, you’ve been in charge of having to police the sex lives of federal workers, in particular” for 20 years at that point. It was, in fact, federal policy that if you were gay, you could not be employed in the federal government. And it was the FBI that did most of those investigations, which really peaked in the fifties during the lavender scare. So what did Johnson mean there? We can we can read it in a couple of ways.

That episode that they’re talking about is also interesting in its own right, Walter Jenkins. It’s a very sad story. He was a prominent Johnson aide, as you said, was caught having sex with another man. And it was a big issue right in the run up to the 1964 election. Johnson does a couple of things. One, he calls on Hoover and says, “Do an investigation. Make sure that we can defend ourselves, that there’s no national security issue,” because the suspicion was, or the accusation was, that if you were gay, you could be blackmailed into, say, giving secrets to the Soviets because it was so combustible.

So Hoover does that investigation and clears everyone. And then on the other hand, he’s actually, in the end, kind of sweet and thoughtful toward Jenkins himself and really sees this as a kind of human tragedy. And part of the end of that phone call, or a similar phone call, Johnson says, “You know, you’ve just been really kind of been a mensch here, Edgar.” And Hoover and Johnson were pretty good friends. So it’s a complicated story.

CHAKRABARTI: I wonder what insight you have, though, into how Hoover existed in this space. Is it a “fine for me, but not for you” just kind of simple selfishness or something else? And the reason why I ask is because I think in this day and age, Professor Gage, a lot of Americans look at some of the the the politicians and elected leaders they thought they once recognized but don’t recognize that person anymore. And I’m just wondering, is there anything that you learned from researching this aspect of Hoover’s life that helps you understand how someone can behave so differently publicly than than they do in their own private lives?

GAGE: Yeah, well, it’s worth saying that we actually don’t know whether Hoover and Tolson were lovers. We know that they were a very firmly embedded social couple, that they cared about each other deeply, but we don’t know what they were doing sexually to the degree that that matters. And of course, they themselves not only denied but aggressively policed any suggestion that they were a gay couple. So

So part of it was that he just policed this in very aggressive ways and in ways that very few people would have the power to do. And then I think he was just not an introspective person. He was very self-protective. He was very aggressive about looking after his own self-interest. And he wasn’t inclined to, I think, ponder his own contradictions himself.

CHAKRABARTI: I will say, though, that in your book, you note that in some of the letters that Hoover wrote to a young FBI agent in the mid-thirties, Melvin Purvis, you say that Hoover’s letters were “by turns funny, tender, solicitous and flirtatious as well.” But you mentioned Hoover sending FBI agents to people’s doors if they even dared to whisper under their breath about a potential relationship he had with a man.

That brings us back to this question about his abuse of power, not only in terms of the lavender scare, but his pursuit of civil rights activists. We played that tape earlier about what the nation discovered later regarding what the FBI did with Dr. King. His pursuit of communists, real and imagined. I mean, what allowed Hoover to so expansively use and abuse the power he had as director of the FBI?

GAGE: I think there are a couple of key things that help us make sense of that. I think our image is that Hoover was crafty and doing everything in secret in a backroom. And there is some truth to that. I mean, so the FBI’s ability without any mechanisms of accountability to start its own secret programs was pretty profound during Hoover’s years. And the reforms of the 1970s after his death were mainly geared in that direction to try to bring some scrutiny and some transparency to what the FBI was actually up to. But I think there are a couple of other things that are really important as well.

One is that he actually had pretty widespread support, often from the White House, sometimes from the public at large to engage in these kinds of campaigns. He was incredibly popular and widely supported in Washington at the peak of the Red Scare in 1953 and 1954, this era that we tend to describe to ourselves as being a kind of peak era of civil liberties abuses. Hoover had popularity ratings that went into the seventies, eighties and nineties, as he is being very explicit, not about every detail of FBI investigations, but about the broad sweep of the anti-Communist campaign. And in fact, he is seen as the kind of responsible alternative to someone like Joseph McCarthy.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So of the many lessons that we can draw from Hoover’s life and influence in the FBI, there’s something that you said earlier that really caught my attention, Professor Gage, and that is we see sort of an expansion in when Hoover really uses his power in the way that he did of the acceptance of the growth of a national security state. That was roughly what you had said.

And that just reminded me, things went so far, as we heard Johnson at the beginning of the show there essentially, through an executive order saying, “J. Edgar Hoover, you can basically be FBI director for life.” Now, of course, the law has been changed since then. But, you know, after 9/11, we saw another massive expansion of the national security state. And it just made me think that here is the perfect example of how, maybe even under the slightest bit of social pressure — the attacks of 9/11 were not a slight, but a major social pressure — but the United States is pretty willing to put vast amounts of power in the hands of very few. That’s one of the things that I see coming out of your book that really leaped out at me.

GAGE: That’s absolutely right. And most of the moments when Hoover gets a big expansion of power are these moments of national emergency where things have to be done quickly, where there’s not a lot of time to do advance planning and in which if you are there, as he often was, with the skills and the bureaucracy and the enthusiasm and the willingness to kind of step up, you can accrue an awful lot of power. And I think that that has been true at many moments since then as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Moments of national emergency. I mean, through Hoover’s life, we have the Cold War is being seen as this long-term national emergency. But some of the other things that allowed Hoover to expand his power weren’t necessarily emergencies. They were, you know, Americans fighting for their rights. And yet, nevertheless, he was able to use under the aegis and approval of various presidents, those very powers.

GAGE: Yeah. And I think in our contemporary imagination, that’s the period of Hoover’s life that still has the most power, the most resonance are his attacks on the civil rights movement, on King, on the Black power movement, the new left student activists, the antiwar movement, the women’s movement. All of that that’s going on in the sixties. And part of the project of my book is to explain how did we get to that moment?

And it’s an outrageous moment. I should say that King letter that you mentioned, I found the first unredacted copy of it in the National Archives, which was probably my favorite archive find of this whole project. But how did we get to that moment? And that’s really what the book is about in many ways.

CHAKRABARTI: What would you say is an aspect of Hoover’s legacy that you didn’t know before your long research for this book but you came away with?

GAGE: I guess I ended up being most surprised about the moments that I could agree with what he was doing. And he does have, despite this track record, a few redemptive moments. He opposed Japanese internment in the Second World War. He took a big campaign against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. And so I think even J. Edgar Hoover has has a complicated story for us all.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. The same man whose fraternity embraced the Southern “lost cause” myth. Amazing. Well, Beverly Gage, thank you, as always, for coming on the show.

GAGE: Thanks. It was great.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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