Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Career of J. Edgar Hoover

Roosevelt Years

One would not have expected Hoover to get along with FDR or his attorney general Francis Biddle, who was appointed in 1941. Both Roosevelt and Biddle came from the liberal patrician backgrounds that Hoover generally hated. However, Hoover had a remarkably good relationship with both men. As a result, Hoover and the Bureau prospered significantly during Roosevelt's administrations.

Hoover standing in back of FDR (AP)
Hoover standing in back of FDR (AP)

In August of 1936, FDR called for a private meeting with Hoover to discuss what Hoover later described as "subversive activities in the United States, particularly Fascism and Communism" and that FDR wanted Hoover to discreetly provide him with a "broad picture" of both movements.

Hoover interpreted this presidential request as permission to resume domestic surveillance activities since the European political situation was worsening. By late fall of 1939, Hoover had completely resurrected his General Intelligence Division and had set up a Custodial Detention list of those individuals who should be rounded up in case of war.

Gentry points out that the FBI "expanded tremendously in authority, jurisdiction, and size [during FDR's first two administrations]. The president had also given his patriarchal blessing to its director, first by refusing to replace Hoover, then by standing up for him when he came under fire."

None of this advantage came free for Hoover. FDR requested surveillance of Huey Long, a potential political rival, and additional investigations were completed on many of the president's opponents.

4936 Thirtieth Place NW<br />(Natl Archives)
4936 Thirtieth Place NW
(Natl Archives)

In 1938 when Hoover was forty-three, the most important person in his life, his mother Annie Hoover, died. Probably suffering from cancer, she was an invalid for several years. Always the devoted son, Hoover paid for full time nursing at their home. His brother and sister did not contribute to the cost of this long-term nursing care, which became a source of deep animosity between Hoover and his siblings.

His devotion to his mother was very special. He gave her many gifts and called her several times a day when he was away from Washington. As the Seward Square area in which they had always lived became less safe, he urged his mother to move away with him to a better area of town. But move she would not, so Hoover lived with her until her death.

Hoover's antique-studded living room<br />(Archives)
Hoover's antique-studded living room

A year later, he found a house in the Rock Creek Park area of the city at 4936 Thirtieth Place. While his mother was gone, she was definitely not forgotten. In the new house, there were photos of her everywhere.

Incredibly enough, Morris Ernst, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union, became a staunch supporter of Hoover and his FBI during this period. A deal was struck between the two men whereby the ACLU promised to purge itself of any known Communists and Hoover would keep Congressman Martin Dies' House Un-American Activities Committee away from the ACLU. Hoover cultivated Ernst shamelessly and then dropped him when he had no further need for him.

William J. "Wild Bill"<br />Donovan (AP)
William J. "Wild Bill"
Donovan (AP)

After the war broke out in Europe, Hoover lobbied vigorously to expand the FBI jurisdiction globally to become the one U.S. intelligence agency. He was furious when he found that his goal had been thwarted by his old nemesis, William Donovan.

FDR, in particular, was anxious to have a close relationship between the FBI and its British intelligence counterparts. Things went along well until it was clear to Hoover that the head of the British intelligence team was supporting Donovan in his bid to start a new agency which was to eventually to be called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA.

After Roosevelt appointed Donovan to head up this important new intelligence agency, Hoover went completely sour on any cooperation with the British intelligence operatives. The consequences of this attitude were controversial when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The British double agent Dusko Popov, who reputedly inspired Ian Fleming's creation of James Bond, was approached by the Germans to become their spy. Popov did so, but reported everything he did to the British.

When the Germans sent Popov to set up a large spy ring in the U.S., he was asked to gather some very provocative information for the Japanese. The Japanese request, called the "Japanese questionnaire," involved a lot of extremely specific information about Hawaii and Pearl Harbor. British Intelligence and Popov came to the conclusion in August of 1941 that the Japanese were preparing an invasion of the United States at Pearl Harbor.

The FBI was very unfriendly to Popov. Hoover disliked double agents, especially wealthy playboys like Popov who showed up at Hoover's favorite New York City nightclub, the Stork Club. Hoover added the "Japanese questionnaire" to other evidence he had that the Japanese were very interested in Hawaii, but he did nothing with the information from Popov or other sources.

Gentry claims that it is possible that with the thousands of reports that the Bureau received, it was difficult to determine which ones were legitimate. "Still, it is difficult to explain that Hoover...didn't warn the president that two German agents had been ordered to study the defenses of Pearl Harbor for the Japanese, and that the last had been told it was 'of the highest priority,' indicating that a time factor was involved."

When America finally did get into the war, the Bureau expanded rapidly. In just two years, the FBI almost doubled in size from 7,420 employees to 13,317. Special agents more than doubled to 5,702.

Wiretaps and other electronic surveillance expanded dramatically, although Hoover was never honest with his congressional watchdogs when they questioned him about the extent of the wiretapping. The FBI even burglarized to get what it wanted.

A stroke of luck gave the Bureau a terrific publicity opportunity to create a myth of invincibility. In June of 1942, a Coast Guard patrolman saw four men struggling in a raft near Amagansett, Long Island. The men called themselves fishermen, but the patrolman was suspicious and reported the incident to his superiors.

When the FBI got wind of it the next day, the Coast Guard had already found explosives, as well as German uniforms and cigarettes. The four men and the submarine that landed them were gone.

Hoover was worried about sabotage and even the beginning of a military invasion, so with FDR's concurrence, he ordered a news blackout of the story and the largest manhunt in FBI history.

The four men had split up and obtained hotel rooms in New York City. At that point, the leader of the four, George J. Dasch told his partner Ernst P. Berger that he had no intention of carrying out his sabotage mission because he really preferred the American cause. Berger agreed with him and wanted to take off with the $84,000 the German military had given them.

Instead Dasch took the money and eventually got in to see Hoover. Not only did he turn over the funds to the FBI, but also he was an excellent source of information on the sabotage training he and his colleagues received and the sabotage targets they were given. Also, he identified seven other colleagues that were in on the venture, who were eventually arrested.

Hoover refused to give out the details of this sensational story, preferring to let the Germans think that their intelligence networks were compromised by FBI agents instead of George Dasch's voluntary betrayal of his mission.

Eleanor Roosevelt<br />(FDR Library)
Eleanor Roosevelt
(FDR Library)

One of the most potent enemies Hoover made during the war years was the president's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. They were clearly at opposite ends of the table when it came to the Bureau's tactics, but it was two incidents that caused their animosity to become very personal.

The first was the background check on Edith Helm, who had been the First Lady's social secretary for over ten years. When Mrs. Roosevelt complained to Hoover, he responded that if the FBI had known who Edith was, the inquiry would not have proceeded. But shortly afterwards, another of Mrs. Roosevelt's assistants was also subjected to an investigation. The First Lady put the blame squarely on Hoover and he never forgave her for it. As far as he was concerned, she was an enemy of the Bureau and needed to be neutralized, so he stepped up his surveillance of her.

He decided on his own that she was a lesbian because she had two acquaintances among the many people she met that were "known" to be of that persuasion. Hoover also twisted surveillance information showing that the First Lady allowed her rooms to be used by a friend to have a discreet rendezvous with his girlfriend into an allegation that the First Lady herself was having an affair. This derogatory information was simply stored until the time was right to use it effectively.

Another time, Hoover was approached by the White House and asked to investigate Sumner Welles, a key state department official. Welles, it turned out had a drinking problem, which led him to make offensive homosexual advances to black railway employees. Hoover took on the assignment with relish because Welles was, from Hoover's viewpoint, "soft" on Communists. The Bureau report resulted in Welles' resignation and the end of his career as an expert in Latin American affairs.

Thursday, April 12, 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt asked to see the vice president. In a quiet voice she told him that the President was dead. Thereafter, things would be very different for Harry Truman. And, things would be very different for J. Edgar Hoover.