Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Career of J. Edgar Hoover


Hoover (left) with Truman and Howard<br />McGrath (right)
Hoover (left) with Truman and Howard
McGrath (right)

By the time Truman was in the White House, Hoover had become a master at handling potentially hostile superiors. The relationship between Hoover and Truman did not get off to a good start and it was necessary for Hoover to use his special methods for developing a White House dependence on the FBI.

Truman made it clear to Hoover that he did not want personal contact with the Director and insisted that communication be made through the Attorney General or through Truman's aide, Brigadier General Harry Vaughan.

Hoover responded to this rebuff with his quiet "I'll fix you" approach. Hoover allowed Vaughan and other Truman aides to direct the Bureau in the surveillance and investigation of a number of prominent people in the government. The bait was taken and Truman, without his knowledge, had been compromised by the requests of his subordinates.

Truman fired Francis Biddle and replaced him with an employee that Biddle had tried to fire for incompetence Tom Clark. While Clark was a man of very dubious morals and ethics, he got along with Hoover just fine, mostly because he did not interfere with FBI.

At the end of the war, Truman fired Hoover's enemy William Donovan and abolished the OSS that he had managed so successfully. In the overseas intelligence vacuum created by the dismantling of the OSS, Hoover again put forth a proposal to extend the scope of the FBI to intelligence gathering overseas. He sent to Truman his "Plan for U.S. Secret Worldwide Intelligence Coverage."

Truman had no intention of letting Hoover extend his power and, in fact, was planning to limit Hoover's existing power. He had already substantially cut back the Bureau's 1946 request for appropriations.

Helen Bentley (AP)
Helen Bentley (AP)

In 1945, the Bureau began to realize that there was very troublesome evidence that several major Soviet spy rings were operating right under its nose. The famous Alger Hiss case began innocuously enough with a dowdy, highly neurotic informant named Helen Bentley.

Bentley was an educated and well-travelled woman who had joined the American Communist Party and eventually became a courier for Jacob Golos, a Soviet agent, and also his lover. After Golos's death in 1943, she functioned briefly as a courier for another Soviet network in the U.S.

Bentley did not know the content of the documents she couriered, but did know the names of fourteen individuals in the two spy networks. Of the fourteen names, almost half had worked with the OSS and the rest had worked in the Treasury Department. The most prominent individual on the list was Harry Dexter White, who was the key advisor to one of Hoover's enemies, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau.

Alger Hiss with Truman (AP)
Alger Hiss with Truman (AP)

As Bentley was interrogated, many other names surfaced, particularly the name of Alger Hiss, a very prominent man who was already known to the FBI. Some years earlier in 1939, a former Communist called Whittaker Chambers had identified Alger Hiss and his brother Donald, two State Department employees, as Communist Party sympathizers.

By March of 1945, Alger Hiss had been named acting secretary general of the United Nations and the allegations, if true, could have serious consequences. With the approval of the attorney general, the Bureau launched a very thorough surveillance of Alger Hiss and his wife Priscilla. The surveillance included wiretaps, burglary and electronic bugs, but no evidence of espionage was uncovered.

Spy or not, Hoover was determined to get Hiss out of government, which was complicated by civil service rules. Hoover decided that he would leak the information to force Hiss to resign. It was not until December of 1946 that Hiss did resign and that was to accept a prestigious post as the head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In addition to the allegations about Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers also implicated Harry Dexter White as instrumental in infiltrating the government, especially the Treasury Department, with Communist spies. Hoover ordered complete surveillance of White, but was not able to turn up any concrete evidence of espionage.

In 1947, an enduring symbiotic relationship developed between Hoover and the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC announced that it was investigating Communist influences in the American movie industry and Hoover pulled out all the stops to help it. The Bureau provided an anonymous white paper on Communism in Hollywood, a list of individuals who belonged or once belonged to the Communist Party or to Communist front organizations, and a list of cooperative witnesses.

Hoover with Nixon
Hoover with Nixon

HUAC repaid Hoover when Hoover worked with Truman's opponent Thomas E. Dewey to defeat Truman in the 1948 election. Hoover's strategy to embarrass Truman in the election year included arranging for Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers to appear before a federal grand jury. Young Republican Congressman Richard Nixon was a HUAC member and cooperated closely with the goal of spotlighting Communists in Truman's administration.

In August of 1948, Hiss dared Whittaker Chambers to repeat his accusations outside the confines of HUAC. Chambers did and Hiss filed a slander suit. Subsequently, Whittaker Chambers proved to be less than an ideal witness.

Chambers changed his story in a number of regards: (1) previously Chambers had denied any Hiss involvement in espionage. Hiss was only a Communist sympathizer who was to influence U.S. government policy. Suddenly, Chambers produced a number of documents, allegedly typed on the Hisses' old Woodstock typewriter, that summarized State Department reports and four notes in Hiss's own hand, (2) Chambers kept stretching out the date at which he left the Communist Party. Initially, he had said 1935, then 1937, and finally late February 1938. The Hiss documents bore dates between January 5 and April 1 of 1938, (3) when it was proven that Hiss could not type, Chambers claimed that it was Priscilla Hiss who had typed the documents, not Alger, as he had previously testified.

To the relief of Richard Nixon, who led the investigation of Hiss, the Bureau suppressed the contradictory statements. Hoover also allowed Nixon to take the credit for the "pumpkin papers," rather than have Truman's Justice Department have the glory.

At the beginning of December of 1948, Chambers took two members of the HUAC investigation team to his garden where he had hidden five rolls of microfilm in a hollow pumpkin. At least some of the microfilm represented State Department documents and communications, which resulted in the indictment of Hiss for perjury.

Chambers continued to change his story as he talked to FBI agents, wavering on whether Hiss was actually a member of a Washington Communist group and whether Hiss had actually given Chambers the State Department documents. However, when it came time to testify, he said that Hiss was a member of the Washington Communist cell and that he had given the documents to Chambers. To complicate matters even further, Chambers confessed to being an "ex-homosexual."

Hoover was dismayed that the first Hiss trial ended with a hung jury. Several months later, Hiss faced another trial on the same charges, but this time with a known Soviet agent testifying that she and Hiss had met in 1935 to determine who would recruit a mutual friend of theirs into the Washington cell. In January of 1950, the jury convicted Hiss on both counts and was sentenced to five years for each count.

Judith Coplon (AP)
Judith Coplon (AP)

In that same general time period, another spy case surfaced involving an employee of the Justice Department. Through the brilliant code breaking expertise of Meredith Gardner, the Bureau was told that decoded secret messages indicated that a female spy was working in the New York office in 1945 and had been subsequently transferred to the Washington area.

Only one individual fit that profile, 28-year-old Judith Coplon, who was immediately placed under strict surveillance. The Bureau arrested her in March of 1949 when she had taken a number of FBI reports to New York for a meeting with a Soviet UN official. She was convicted in June of 1949 for stealing government documents and later convicted for conspiracy to transmit documents to a foreign power. The crimes carried a cumulative sentence of twenty-five years, which was later overturned by an appeals court.

McCarthy (left) with Hoover (right)<br />(National Archives)
McCarthy (left) with Hoover (right)
(National Archives)

The 1952 election was full of sexual innuendo. The Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson had been plagued with rumors of his arrest for homosexuality, whereas his vice presidential choice, Senator Estes Kefauver, was allegedly a womanizer. Against the Republicans, the Democrats had a copy of General Marshall's letter to Eisenhower admonishing him on his plans to divorce Mamie to marry his wartime driver Kay Summersby. Hoover had been the one of the sources of the Stevenson and Kefauver material, but Pentagon files were the origin of the Eisenhower document.

Relationships between Hoover and the White House improved dramatically when Eisenhower replaced Truman. "Ike" respected and admired Hoover and intended to give him his full support. Vice President Richard M. Nixon was already deeply in Hoover's debt from Hoover's help on the Alger Hiss case.

Eisenhower with Hoover (UPI)
Eisenhower with Hoover (UPI)

Herbert Brownell, the new attorney general, got along just fine with Hoover. Brownell gave Hoover the approval to use microphone surveillance, but only in national security cases permission that Hoover extended to other cases under the Kennedys. From Brownell's point of view, "The methods were left to the discretion of the FBI."

With a highly supportive chief executive, an indebted vice president, a trusting attorney general, Hoover had the best of all environments in the Eisenhower years. He had reached the height of his power.

As Gentry aptly summarized: "Hoover's power did not stop at the majestic doors of the U.S. Supreme Court. All appointments to the Court were first cleared by the FBI, which conducted a full field investigation. During the Eisenhower years, the president filled four vacancies on the Court. Hoover approved all four, and himself picked one."

One of the biggest of the FBI spy cases began when the Bureau identified British atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs as a Communist. As part of this investigation, FBI agents obtained a confession from chemist Harry Gold who then implicated David Greenglass. Greenglass further implicated his wife Ruth, his sister Ethel Rosenberg and his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenberg Conspiracy is also a feature story in The Crime Library.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (UPI)
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (UPI)

As soon as Greenglass was arrested, a number of Julius Rosenberg's most intimate friends disappeared. It was decided that Julius was the head of a large spy ring and he was arrested in July of 1950. The Bureau considered breaking Julius to be the key to identifying and capturing the whole network. His wife Ethel was to be used as leverage in getting Julius to talk.

Initially, there was no real case against Ethel but she was arrested anyway to put enormous pressure on her husband to talk. Eventually, in February of 1951, David and Ruth Greenglass implicated Ethel as the person who typed up all of the espionage information that had been given to Julius.

The trial of the Rosenbergs and their co-defendant Morton Sobell began March 6, 1951. The defense did not do a particularly good job and both Rosenbergs when called to testify did not help their case. Julius's continued use of the Fifth Amendment and Ethel's contemptuous attitude alienated the jury. In less than a day, all three were found guilty on all counts.

Hoover was hearing rumors that Judge Kaufman was going to sentence both of the Rosenbergs to death. Neither Hoover nor any of the FBI top echelon wanted the death penalty for Ethel, so Hoover urged the attorney general to seek the death penalty only for Julius and Morton Sobell and seek a long prison term for Ethel and her brother David Greenglass.

Judge Kaufman did not take Hoover's recommendation and sentenced both Rosenbergs to death. Sobell was given thirty years and Greenglass fifteen years. The execution was delayed by appeals until June of 1953. Up until the last moments, they were told by a rabbi that their lives would be spared if they agreed to confess.

Hoover's strategy of leverage did not work. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg went to their deaths without confessing or implicating any other members of their network.

Not long after the Rosenberg executions, the cosy relationship between Joseph McCarthy and Hoover began to deteriorate. McCarthy was getting out of control and had begun to criticize President Eisenhower for being too soft on Communists. McCarthy was becoming a liability to Hoover in many different ways.

While Hoover had a great deal of damaging information on McCarthy's heavy drinking, fabricated military record, illegal campaign financing and compulsive gambling, none was more disturbing to Hoover than several credible allegations of child molestation. Close friends of the senator were quoted as warning other friends not to leave McCarthy alone with young girls. Two such documented incidents occurred with girls under the age of ten.

By the spring of 1954, Hoover was complaining to the president that McCarthy was actually impeding the Bureau's investigation of Communists. There was some concern that McCarthy was trying to get himself elected president in the 1956 and was doing everything he could to undermine the Eisenhower administration.

Hoover cut McCarthy off from any Bureau support just before the March, 1954, hearings involving the U.S. Army. McCarthy's downfall was swift. By year-end, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to sanction him. All of his support rapidly eroded and a few years later he died of alcohol-related disease.

Over the years, Hoover had become completely obsessed with the Communist menace. Communism represented the destruction of everything that Hoover valued as American. Powers sees Hoover as "the earnest Christian soldier defending church, school, and home... 'The very essence of our faith in democracy and our fellow man is rooted in a belief in a Supreme Being,' Hoover said. The religious underpinnings of Americanism, he said, consisted of a belief in the dignity of the individual, in mutual responsibility, in the concept of life as having a meaning that transcends political systems..."

To further protect the American system from the evils of Communism, Hoover initiated the COINTELPRO in 1956. Counter Intelligence Program was the full name of this campaign to infiltrate and disrupt the activities of the Communist Party in the United States. COINTELPRO went far beyond the FBI's previous information gathering and prosecution of law breakers and spies. COINTELPRO was aimed at destroying the party by "dirty tricks," undercutting party leadership with false rumors, and manipulating party policies by infiltration at a leadership level.

Whatever Hoover did to destroy the American Communist Party paled next to what the Russians themselves did. 1956 was a very bad year for Communist public relations. Early in the year, Khrushchev's speech on the crimes of Joseph Stalin made chilling reading. But when the Communists crushed dissent in Poland and Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary, the Communist Party in the United States was essentially finished.

Oddly enough, Hoover did not seem to comprehend that the Communist threat in the United States was moribund. The Christian soldier marched on. He ordered the ghost writing of Masters of Deceit which was the mass market rationale for continuing the anti-Communist crusade. The book, which was published in 1958, was an overwhelming success, staying on the best seller list for more than thirty weeks and selling more than two and a half million copies. The venture was personally and financially very rewarding for Hoover, even though it was written by government employees on government time.

Inevitably, Hollywood got into the act and turned Don Whitehead's FBI-authorized book The FBI Story, itself a best seller when it was published in 1956, into a movie in 1959. Ultimately, the television series "The FBI" which began in 1965, ran for nine years. This venture also was very profitable for Mr. Hoover.

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