Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Career of J. Edgar Hoover

Rise To Power

In the spring of 1917 after President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to Congress, men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one were ordered to register for the draft. Hoover, along with completing his master's degree in law and taking the bar exam, registered for the draft. Why did this young man in perfect physical condition with ROTC training that would have qualified him for a commission not enlist?

Essentially, it was because he and his brother had just become the main sources of financial support for his mother and father. In April of that year, Hoover's father, who had been struggling with acute depression for several years, had been forced by his illness to retire from the Department of the Interior. Hoover's brother Dick had a wife and three children to support, so Edgar was the key contributor to his parents' upkeep. Even though Edgar's father had worked for the federal government for forty-two years, he did not get a pension to compensate for the loss of $2,000 in annual salary.

According to Harold Hitz Burton, a cousin of Hoover's who later became the Republican mayor of Cleveland who hired Eliot Ness and eventually a Supreme Court justice Edgar's uncle, William Hitz, offered to help Edgar get a draft exempt position in the Justice Department. William Hitz was also a good friend of John Lord O'Brian who would be Edgar's supervisor.

Hoover's first job in the Justice Department was a $900 a year clerk position in the files division. In less than a year, he was promoted to "attorney" with a salary of $1800 a year, which helped him ease the burden of his parents' financial support.

Even without the influence of his uncle, Hoover's rise in the organization would have been rapid. Many of the young men from the Justice Department had enlisted, leaving a vacuum of talent in Hoover's age group. And as Gentry points out: "He dressed better than most, and a bit on the dandyish side. He had an exceptional capacity for detail work, and he handled small chores with enthusiasm and thoroughness. He constantly sought new responsibilities to shoulder and welcomed chances to work overtime."

Another promotion came very soon. O'Brian selected him to be in charge of a new group in the Enemy Alien Registration Section. There he worked on complicated legal cases and kept registration statistics on enemy aliens.

During the war, Americans turned on anything and everything German. People were erroneously led to believe that a huge German espionage network was active in the U.S., undermining the American war effort. Many people believed that the government was not doing enough to counter this perceived threat and vigilante groups sprung up very rapidly. The American Protective League had an army of a quarter of a million amateur spy hunters. When the APL couldn't find enough German spies, they turned their attention to the International Workers of the World, a radical organization nicknamed the "Wobblies."

The APL and the Bureau of Investigation worked together to conduct raids on the IWW members and draft dodgers. While Hoover was probably not directly involved in these controversial roundups, he watched them closely and supported the raids.

Richard G. Powers in his Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover notes that "Hoover's wartime experience in the Alien Enemy Bureau did more than simply give him a foothold in the Justice Department. It accustomed him to using administrative procedures as a substitute for the uncertainties and delays of the legal process. The enemy status of the aliens Hoover supervised had stripped them of the protection of the Constitution, and so he got his first taste of authority under circumstances in which he could disregard the normal constitutional restraints on the power of the state.

A. Mitchell Palmer (AP)
A. Mitchell Palmer (AP)

At the end of the war, there was a new Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and O'Brian, Hoover's boss, resigned to go back into private practice. Hoover asked for O'Brian's help in keeping a position in the Justice Department now that the Alien Enemy Bureau was history.

1919 was a year of hysteria. The Communist revolution in Russia had spread to Central Europe and appeared to threaten other parts of the world. American newspapers spread the fear of Communist revolution like a virus. It seemed as though forces were gathering everywhere that threatened the American way of life. When a rash of strikes broke out that year, it looked as if the the war between American labor and American capital was imminent. Strikes, which had been outlawed during the war, still seemed to the American public as disloyal even though the war was over.

On June 2, Attorney General Palmer's house was bombed, killing the bomber and scattering his anarchist leaflets in the debris. This was an unparalleled opportunity for the young Hoover, who was antiradical to the core. Palmer launched a far-reaching attack on American radicals and Hoover was put in charge of the effort. His salary jumped from $1,800 to $3,000.

Palmer's desire to put Hoover in charge of his pet project was not surprising given Hoover's character: "With his straitlaced morality, his energy, his intelligence, and his complete lack of self-doubt, Hoover was the very model of the young middle-class crusader, obsessed with the crimes and failings of the lower orders, and suspicious of those in the upper classes who pampered them." (Powers)

Palmer's solution to this "national emergency" was to round up all of the radicals and deport them, disregarding the fact that many of the radicals were not aliens at all and that the Justice Department had no authority to deport aliens. Palmer set up the General Intelligence Division (GID) under Hoover to collect and organize all information on radicals that was sent in from other law enforcement groups, federal, state and local.

Hoover responded to this new challenge immediately. "The former librarian set up a card index system listing every radical leader, organization, and publication in the United States...within three months he had amassed 150,000 names and by 1921 some 450,000."(Gentry) Information coming into the GID was both fact and unsubstantiated rumor.

He immersed himself in reading everything he could get his hands on about the Communist movement. To fight this enemy he had to thoroughly understand it and its objectives. He was preparing himself to become the most knowledgeable person in government on the subject. As Powers points out, Hoover's growing files on various radical movements gave him "a semi-monopoly over a sort of information so difficult to obtain, so extensive in coverage, and so commonly inaccessible as to make its independent verification almost impossible."

In 1919, two new left wing political parties were formed: the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party of America. Neither of these parties had any real power except to galvanize the anti-Communist efforts of the federal government. Most specifically, Hoover established himself as the bastion of anti-Communist activities, quickly positioning himself as the expert on the subject.

By the end of 1919, Palmer was ready for the Bureau of Investigation to begin the raids to round up the radicals and deport them. The raids were scheduled to occur simultaneously in thirty-three cities on January 2, 1920. The targets were the leaders and members of the two Communist parties.

Hoover had two goals for these raids: (1) arrest the largest number of people possible to make a dramatic impact on public opinion and the morale of radicals, and (2) preserve records and membership rolls which could be used for deportation purposes.

More than ten thousand people were arrested, although almost half of those were released after a few days either because they were not aliens or there was no credible proof that they were Communist party members. For the most part, arrest warrants were issued after the arrests and search warrants were superfluous.

The New York Times reported that "meetings open to the general public were roughly broken up. All persons present citizens and aliens alike without discrimination were arbitrarily taken into custody and searched as if they had been burglars caught in a criminal act. Without warrants of arrest men were carried off to the police stations and other temporary prisons, subjected there to secret police-office inquisitions commonly known as the 'third-degree,' their statements written categorically into mimeographed question blanks, and they were required to swear to them regardless of their accuracy."

At this point in time, Hoover initiated a publicity effort carefully orchestrated to inflame the American public's fear of the radicals and to generate favorable coverage of the Palmer raids. He gave an interview to the New York Times in which he stated that three thousand of the radicals that had been rounded up in the Palmer raids were ideal candidates for deportation.

Powers describes the inordinate attention to detail that Hoover gave to the prosecution of the radicals: "What emerges from Hoover's obsessive attention to the details is how much they meant to him, not just as the ingredients of his success, but as moral issues in themselves. These cases really mattered to him."

In fact, some 1,600 deportation warrants were issued, but Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post canceled more than 1,100 of them. Every time there was a criticism or obstacle put in the way of Hoover's attempt to rid the country of the radicals, he opened a file on the person, persons, or organization that opposed him. Louis Post was no exception.

Hoover then authored a detailed analysis of the radical movement in The Revolution in Action which envisioned the world with armed Communists in every country silently awaiting Moscow's sign to begin the international revolution. He ended his analysis with this warning: "Civilization faces its most terrible menace of danger since the barbarian hordes overran West Europe and opened the dark ages."

Hoover's propaganda machine predicted daily that the forces of Communist revolution would rise up on May 1, 1920. Troops were called in to major cities and police forces were prepared for trouble. May 1 came and went quietly, deeply cutting to the the credibility of Attorney General Palmer, the Bureau of Investigation and J. Edgar Hoover.

Critics of the Palmer raids had joined forces condemning the Justice Department for the raids. The most damaging was the study by the National Popular Government League, a highly credible urban reform group. Some of the most prestigious names in American jurisprudence endorsed the study. Palmer was rapidly becoming a serious political liability just one month before the Democratic Convention was to begin. In November of 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding was elected president and the federal government career of Palmer was on the wane.

The frenzy called the Red Scare was winding down because there was so little substance to it in the first place. Additionally, major employers were alarmed at the resultant tightening of immigration quotas that threatened to choke off the steady supply of cheap immigrant labor. Powers explains: "The most important factor in the decline of the Red Scare in 1920 was the world situation. It had been the possibility of revolution that had made Americans see their own strikes and political violence as local manifestations of a terrifying international conspiracy. By late 1919 that analysis no longer seemed convincing, or even plausible. Not only had the revolution failed to spread during 1919, but it lost the footholds it had gained outside of Russia."

Harding's new Attorney General was Harry M. Daugherty who was pleasantly surprised to find that Hoover's GID files contained information on Harding's political opponents as well hundreds of thousands of radicals. Fortunately for Hoover, he had gained a reputation for being a non-partisan bureaucrat who would serve his masters loyally. When Daugherty planned to replace all the Democrats in the Justice Department with Republicans, Hoover lobbied for the job he wanted most assistant chief of the Bureau of Investigation. And, on August 22, 1921, Hoover got what he wanted.

Hoover went to work for the newly-installed chief, William J. Burns, who had used his career in the Secret Service to launch a detective agency business for himself. Hoover made himself indispensable to Burns, accompanying and preparing him for the annual Bureau appropriations ordeal with Congress.

Long hours did not characterize the Bureau of Investigation culture under Burns, so Hoover had more time to himself than he had under Palmer. Still living with his parents, he took up golf and became more active in his Masonic lodge.

In 1922, the highly successful young bureaucrat became the sole support of his strong-willed mother. His father had died of the "melancholia" that had plagued him for years.

The massive corruption of the Harding administration did not miss the Bureau of Investigation. BI agents were used to work on Burns' detective agency business. Gaston Means, an accomplished con artist friend of Burns, became a BI official and used that position to peddle influence, fix criminal cases and sell bureau information.

This kind of behavior was an anathema to the rigidly moral J. Edgar Hoover, but there was not much Hoover could do about it. When Harding died on August 2, 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge took over the scandal-ridden administration. Eventually, Daugherty was brought to trial on fraud charges and Gaston Means was sentenced to two years in prison for larceny.

Harlan Fiske Stone<br />(UPI/Bettman Newsphoto)
Harlan Fiske Stone
(UPI/Bettman Newsphoto)

Coolidge's new attorney general was Harlan Fiske Stone, one of the most vehement critics of the Palmer raids that Hoover had so diligently supported. Stone was alarmed at the condition of the Justice Department and the Bureau of Investigation in particular. When Stone mentioned to colleagues that he was looking for a new BI chief, Lawrence Ritchey, Assistant Secretary of Commerce, recommended his good friend and fellow Mason, J. Edgar Hoover. This informal nomination was seconded by the an assistant attorney general, Mabel Willebrandt.

On May 10, 1924, Stone called Hoover to his office and told him that he wanted him to serve as the acting director until he could find the best man for the job. Hoover recalled his reaction: "I'll take the job on certain conditions. The Bureau must be divorced from politics and not be a catch-all for political hacks. Appointments must be based on merit. Secondly, promotions will be made on proven ability and the Bureau will be responsible only to the Attorney General."

Stone, of course, agreed to these conditions, but intended to carefully manage the overhaul of this highly corrupt agency. He and Hoover planned the total reconstruction of the entire bureau.

Richard Powers sums up the crucial lessons that Hoover learned in his early years in the Justice Department: "[Hoover became] the consummate professional who had learned to his pain the danger of slack management and loose control. What made him more than a bloodless bureaucrat, however, was the moralistic fervor he could bring to his efforts in matters of organization and discipline. Passionate in his beliefs, uncorrupted in his motives, and professional in his methods, Hoover had acquired formidable political skills...He learned how to build alliances...and had seen how he could direct his operations from a safe position behind an ambitious political figure...Having lived through defeat...he carried the knowledge that, in politics, he had to play to win but be prepared to lose."

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