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The Ultimate G-Man: How J. Edgar Hoover Built the FBI

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 3, 2023 3:03 am

The Ultimate G-Man: How J. Edgar Hoover Built the FBI

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 3, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, hen J. Edgar Hoover took over in 1924, the FBI was a much smaller organization. Hear about the following five decades from biographer Beverly Gage.This Day in History in 1972, J. Edgar Hoover died.

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Exclusions apply. And we return to our American stories. Up next, the story of the most important lawman of the 20th century, the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Although he himself never arrested anybody, his influence over his bureaucracy took what would become the FBI from a corrupt and nearly powerless body to the investigative behemoth that it is today. And we're telling this story because on this day in history, in 1972, Hoover died. Here to tell his story is Beverly Gage, author of G-Man, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Making of the American Century.

Take it away, Beverly. Well, I found him really interesting as a person in part because I thought that he had become such a kind of caricature in our own time, this sort of one-dimensional villain. And when I saw him pop up in history, he was a little more complicated than that. He was actually really popular for most of his life.

And then I also thought he was just a great vehicle for talking about some of the big themes of the 20th century. He became FBI director in 1924, and he never actually retired. He just died on the job without ever being forced out of office. And that meant that he was there under eight different presidents.

Four were Democrats and four were Republicans, which I think is a lot harder to do now and almost impossible for people to imagine in our own kind of partisan world. So what that really meant is that he got the job under Calvin Coolidge. He then stayed on through Herbert Hoover and the dawn of the Great Depression.

It is a contest between two philosophies of government. He stuck around for Franklin Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt's three-plus terms in office. So the New Deal of the Second World War.

A base which will live in information. He stayed around under Harry Truman. So as we started getting into the Cold War, McCarthyism, the fight against communism.

The world will know that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He was there from both Eisenhower terms. He was there under John Kennedy.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other thing, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. He was there under Lyndon Johnson. And finally, he was there under Richard Nixon and died at the very end of Nixon's first term in office. So he was there for 48 years, this huge swath of time. He shaped every movement from the labor movement to the civil rights movement to the conservative movement. He had his fingers in pretty much everything. I think the kind of popular Hollywood depiction is that he had the goods on everyone and he kind of coerced everyone into keeping him in office by threatening to reveal their secrets.

And there is some truth to that, particularly toward the people of the United States. He was there for the end of his life. But I think he was also really, really useful to most of these presidents. He did what they wanted, for the most part. They thought that he was politically advantageous to them and he kind of served their agendas.

And so it's another reason they didn't fire him. He was born in 1895 in Washington and Hoover always had very idyllic descriptions of his own childhood, right? It was the time of innocence when everyone was good and got along and, you know, obeyed the moral code, et cetera, et cetera, in the way that many people later mythologized their own childhoods. But when you really look at the historical record, you can see a much, much more complicated story. He came from a Washington family, a family that had worked in and around the government for a long time, which was actually pretty unusual in the late 19th century. But it was a family that nonetheless had been pretty troubled. His grandfather committed suicide in a very dramatic and public way.

He basically tied himself to a stake in the Anacostia River and drowned himself while leaving behind a note denouncing many of the people in his life. And that incident was precipitated by a banking crisis of the era that brought down the German-American bank that his family had been very invested in. You know, all of your friends, in this case in the German-Swiss communities, put their money in the bank. There was no federal deposit insurance. So if there was a run on your bank, you often just lost all of your money.

And in this case, it meant that the leadership of the bank had lost much of the money of their own community. And then there was the big shadow of his own father, who really suffered from pretty severe depression. He died when Hoover was just in his 20s.

And the death certificate says he died of melancholia, which was sort of the term of the time for depression, and of inanition, which basically means that he just he kind of just stopped functioning, stopped eating, just sort of lost the desire to live. But Hoover's mother was incredibly important to him, not least because, you know, his father was absent in so many ways. Hoover was also kind of the pet of the family. He had an older brother and an older sister, but they were 15 and 16 years older than he was. He had had a sister who was just a couple of years older, but she had died as a toddler. And he was kind of this amazing late in life child.

He was born on New Year's Day, you know, this kind of new gift to the family. And he was very close to his mother his whole life. And in fact, he lived with her in his childhood home until the day she died long after he had become a national celebrity. She was an interesting person in her own right. She came from a kind of family of Swiss diplomats who had come to Washington in the 1850s. And, you know, I think she really saw her role as kind of holding everything together, providing Hoover's moral education, providing some stability and love in what were often pretty difficult circumstances.

But he was deeply loyal to her. So that material was really interesting for Hoover's psychology. And then I think Washington itself is really important for thinking about his world view. First of all, the fact that he comes of age in the federal city. He's born on Capitol Hill.

He never lives anywhere else besides Washington. He comes of age at a time when the government was beginning to grow by leaps and bounds. And then he comes of age in a city that is actively segregating on racial lines. You know, we tend to think of segregation as being this kind of static thing.

You put up signs and people use different water fountains. But in fact, it was a really very, very aggressive process of separating people, building segregated institutions. And that was a big piece of his childhood, too. And I think is a lot of where he got his racial views. Hoover is a really interesting combination of different political strains that we don't see operating together all that often. You know, on the one hand, he is from his very early life kind of imbued with this progressive, scientific career, federal service tradition that we would tend to associate, I think, with liberals or progressives. And then on the other hand, on lots of issues, particularly cultural issues, race, religion, law and order, anti-communism. He's a very devout conservative. And he sort of puts those two traditions together to build the FBI and build this bureaucracy.

But sometimes those things are just in conflict. And I think you can see that in cases like his sort of complicated history around race and civil rights enforcement. So there's no question that Hoover had pretty deeply racist views in many ways. But he did also, even as he was investigating the civil rights movement, really going after figures like Martin Luther King. He also was going after the Klan, white supremacist groups, etc. And I think in those latter cases, it was often his belief in law enforcement and the need to enforce federal laws, whether you liked them or not, that really led him to go after groups like the Klan, particularly when they were groups who were employing violence. And you're listening to author Beverly Gage tell the story of J. Edgar Hoover, a man replete with paradoxes and contradictions like so many of us.

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That's Goldco.com slash iHeart. And we continue with our American stories and the story of the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, the most influential man in law enforcement during the 20th century and in our nation's history. Here telling the story is author Beverly Gage, and she's written G-Man, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Making of the American Century. Go to Amazon or the usual suspects and pick up this book. Let's get back to the story.

Here again is Beverly Gage. His first job in the federal government was not at the Justice Department, but was in fact at the Library of Congress. It's not entirely clear how he got the job, but he certainly had plenty of kind of mid-level connections in Washington. You know, some of his relatives belong to the same club as the head of the Library of Congress, but a lot of kids from his high school did what he did, which was to stay in Washington, go to school at a place like GW, which was at that point actually really mostly a night school for future federal servants, so you worked for the government by day in some sort of clerk's position and you went to GW at night, and that's basically what Hoover did.

I think what's really interesting about that as his first job is that these are the years when the Library of Congress classification system, which was sort of the rival to the Dewey Decimal system, was coming into being just as a way to organize information and retrieve library books, so he's learning all about that at the Library of Congress, and it was actually pretty cutting-edge stuff for its time. It was hugely useful to him when he went into the Justice Department and the Bureau. You know, we tend to think about Hoover and law enforcement, but he was not a policeman. He actually didn't do investigations. There's really no evidence that he himself ever investigated. There's really no evidence that he himself ever investigated or solved any sort of crime. He never really made arrests except for a few kind of showy, stagey arrests when people pointed this out in the 1930s. He and his skill set was the bureaucracy and the file system, and he was really good at it. So from his very early years right out of college, he went straight into the Justice Department and never left, and it was clear that a lot of his talents very early on were in keeping massive numbers of records. His first job was in helping out with German internment and registration during the First World War, and it turned out he was so good at that that he got a promotion at the age of 24 to lead a new part of the Bureau that was called the Radical Division, which was basically the federal government's first attempt to keep tabs and to keep files on left-wing radicals in the United States. Almost all law enforcement in this country then, as well as now, but especially then, was really done at the local and the state level.

The federal authorities basically didn't have a lot of jurisdiction to do very much, and so until 1908, the Justice Department had no investigative division, but they were starting to get some new duties, particularly antitrust investigations, where they were tired of going to the Treasury Department and basically begging for investigators from the Secret Service, and so they decided they needed or wanted their own investigators, and that's really how the Bureau of Investigation was born. But even at that, they didn't have all that much to do during those early years. It was a real grab bag, and they were not a super professional organization, and there were a lot of civil liberties abuses as well as corruption.

There were lots of accusations that they, particularly during the war, used a lot of physical violence when they were trying to, say, arrest someone who was due for deportation. It was the early years of Prohibition. There was a lot of bribery going on. There was a lot of backroom dealing.

There were poker games. There were a lot of people who ended up deputized by the Bureau of Investigation, who didn't really have any qualifications. The Attorney General was brought up on impeachment charges more than once for everything from outrageous labor injunctions to spying on senators.

Their files were disorganized, right, sort of very basic things. So Hoover was actually there for most of that, but he was seen as the man who had kind of kept himself apart, sort of the squeaky-clean youngster who was close to it all but kept himself enough apart from it that he was able to make the leap into something else. He became head of the FBI when he was just 29 years old.

Of course, it was a much smaller organization, but even at that, it was a pretty extraordinary thing because, of course, most of the people working there were older than he was, at least many of them. So the man who really gave him the job was the Attorney General in 1924, who was a pretty famous law professor named Harlan Stone, who went on then to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I think when he first looked to Hoover was just looking kind of for a placeholder. Stone ended up firing Hoover's boss, who was a famous kind of swashbuckling private detective named William Burns. And he kind of just needed someone to hold the bureaucracy together while he went around looking for who the real director ought to be. But Hoover was pretty determined in that year to show Stone that he was the right choice for that.

So when he was appointed acting director, he just engaged in this kind of flurry of energy and of trying to appeal to Stone and appease Stone and impress Stone. A lot of that entailed firing some of the kind of dead weight at the Bureau, beefing up professional standards, make the FBI, which was still just called the Bureau of Investigation, sort of into an elite model for the rest of law enforcement. So they didn't have, you know, very broad law enforcement jurisdiction. But what Hoover thought they could do was, number one, kind of set high standards and number two, sort of perform certain kinds of scientific and professional services.

Two police departments throughout the country that would be really useful. So on the kind of personnel front, he hired only people with college educations or mostly people with college educations. He liked lawyers. He liked accountants. He wanted his core to be these sort of professional men. And in order to do that, he waged battles again and again to keep his agents out of of civil service rules so that he could be the one who personally picked them, hired them, fired them, rather than having to go to some, you know, pool of qualified applicants. It's the reason when you think of an FBI agent, right? Even today, I think we have a very specific vision of who that person is, right?

All white guy in the suit and the shiny shoes and the hat. People who were a lot like him and who shared his values. You know, Hoover really thought that appearances mattered. He had very strict standards for everything from, you know, how high the shades at the Bureau of Investigation on the windows ought to be so that people could look in and see, you know, precision at work to whether you could wear galoshes and like eat in the office. I mean, everything had a rule under Hoover.

He was very concerned about presentation as well as practice. And then he found a bunch of different areas, which are still things that the FBI does. So that included the fingerprint division in which the FBI became a repository for criminal fingerprints.

They began collecting the first national crime statistics. He set up the famous FBI lab, which was full of, you know, chemists and other scientists using the latest technology. And he set up a training academy not only for his own agents, but to bring in policemen from around the country to be trained in the latest kind of professional techniques. And that was his vision. And it was very important to the bureau then. I think it remained important throughout his life. And I think in some ways is really still part of the DNA of the FBI. And you're listening to author Beverly Gage tell one heck of a story, a complicated story, a powerful story of J. Edgar Hoover. When we come back, more of the story of J. Edgar Hoover here on Our American Stories. We'll see you next time.

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Now let's get into some of the greatest cases here again, is author Beverly Gage. Well, John Dillinger was a kind of small time to big time bank robber, basically. He was in the early 1930s, part of a kind of generation of criminal operators, often operating in the Midwest, often using various new technologies like fast getaway cars, and high-powered guns that had just come in to create and carry out pretty dramatic acts of robbery, murder, et cetera. John Dillinger in particular was very famous because he would rob banks and then he would manage to evade the police. And most famously, you know, when the police in Indiana finally managed to lock him up in Nineties, finally managed to lock him up in 1934, he ended up whittling a fake gun in his cell, tricking all of the guards into thinking that he had a real gun and escaping from jail, once again having already been someone in the headlines saying, no jail can hold me.

So by the time he and Hoover began to sort of become adversaries, Dillinger was already very famous and he was more famous than Hoover. But in the 1930s, the FBI did begin to get jurisdiction over bank robbery and kidnapping, in particular as federal crimes, and that sort of led them on the Dillinger manhunt. You know, it became one of these really legendary stories, but the truth is the Bureau really didn't know what they were doing when they first started out, and one of the biggest embarrassments of that period for Hoover was a moment when they thought that they had figured out where John Dillinger was sort of hiding out with his gang out in the woods in Wisconsin at a lodge called Little Bohemia. These Bureau agents who are pretty new to this kind of criminal law enforcement, many of them have never shot a gun before. They sneak up to this lodge, don't really know what they're doing.

There are dogs there. The dogs bark, warn the Dillinger gang. The Dillinger gang escapes. Some civilians come pouring out of the lodge and have Bureau agents shoot the civilians. Members of the gang ultimately shoot a few Bureau agents, and it's a real disaster for Hoover. And he's under a lot of pressure from the Roosevelt administration. Hoover is paying attention to this from Washington. He is trying to orchestrate it all.

He's putting a lot of pressure on his agents to do this. So it didn't start out very well, but in the final equation, after a lot of manhunting and a lot of headlines and a lot of pressure, they do manage to track down John Dillinger largely through an informant who turned to them and gave them information, someone that Dillinger was staying with in Chicago, and they managed to kind of entrap him as he's going to see a movie. And they have a very bloody shootout, and the FBI finally guns down John Dillinger, you know, in cold blood in the light of day there in the streets of Chicago, and it becomes one of the great FBI legends. He is incredibly adept at responding to crisis and kind of rising to the moment when the war comes along and both Roosevelt and the British intelligence authorities come to Hoover, and they say, you know, the moment has come. We need a domestic intelligence agency. You need to become a counterespionage agency, and they really don't have much skill in it. Franklin Roosevelt even tells Hoover to go ahead and set up a special spy service to cover Latin America, sort of the whole Western Hemisphere. And, you know, Hoover says, uh, okay, we will go ahead and do that. And really has no agents who speak Spanish. They have no idea what they're doing. But he kind of is able to turn on a dime, very diligently sets about learning how to think about espionage, and they improve really dramatically, really quickly.

There's usually a little bit of a learning curve to really come through. And you see that again and again that as the challenges and the politics of the moment shift, he has enough control over his bureaucracy that he's able to make the institution turn pretty quickly, too. Ladies and gentlemen, I have some very sad news for all of you and people who love peace all over the world. Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee. You know, the FBI had its successes and failures, as any institution does, but the investigation into the assassination of Martin Luther King was the largest investigation of Hoover's career. It was, of course, one that the FBI was under a lot of pressure and suspicion for because Hoover had been so openly critical of King, so disdainful of King. The FBI's campaign to undermine and discredit and disrupt the life of Martin Luther King is one of the most outrageous things that Hoover's FBI ever did, and it really was an escalating series of efforts that went from what started in the late 50s and early 60s as an investigation of a couple of advisers and colleagues who had been in the orbit of the Communist Party and were now close to King, so starting in this national security-type investigation that then extended into placing wiretaps on King's home, beginning to put bugs in his hotel rooms and recording his sex life, to then engaging in really active intimidation and disruption operations, trying to spread that information around in Washington, in the press, and even going so far as to write up a fake, threatening letter, anonymous letter, to King, sending along some of the reels of tape from those hotel room recordings, trying to get him, as King interpreted, to kill himself, as others have said, to drop out of public life, but engaged in a whole array of really outrageous, sometimes illegal, dirty tricks aimed at King, who, of course, was doing nothing illegal and, in fact, was engaged in a campaign of racial justice that the FBI was deeply opposed to. What that meant in April of 1968, when King was assassinated, was that many people blamed the FBI for helping to, you know, create an environment in which that assassination was more likely. Some people suspected the FBI even then of being involved, and for Hoover, it really meant that the FBI was then under enormous pressure to show that it could solve this assassination, even though it had shown such animosity to King himself. And so that became an incredibly large, very difficult investigation to figure out what had happened.

So Hoover really set out, you know, I don't remember the exact numbers, but I think there were something like 2,000 agents working on the King assassination at its peak, and it really was a matter of tracing the little bits of evidence that were available, the gun that had been left behind, you know, engaging in sort of large-scale forensic investigations and then ultimately trying to get on the trail of this man who had changed his name many, many times and was pretty adept at hiding from the authorities. There are two big moments in that investigation which really proved to be big breaks. One was the suspicion, based on what they were learning of Ray's movements, that he might be a fugitive from justice.

He might be someone who had broken out of prison at some point, therefore had been changing names. And so that sent them into being able to look to those records of prison escapees and that was a big breakthrough. And then the other was deducing that he might have been fleeing the country, maybe through Canada, and so they actually literally sat down with the cooperation of the Canadian authorities and began to go through every single sort of passport material that they could find that seemed like it might be related to Ray, just, you know, a kind of paperwork effort of a tremendous scale. That's how they finally tracked down Ray in England. And then the big challenge was getting him back to the United States without him meeting the fate that Oswald had met because of Oswald had, of course, himself been assassinated while in police custody and Beethoven was very, very worried that that was going to happen in this case as well. Now, there are lots of people who are still critical of that investigation, sometimes for good reason, but it was a pretty extraordinary feat of detective work in its day. And a terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Monty Montgomery and what a story Beverly Gage told. She's the author of G-Man, J. Edgar Hoover, and The Making of the American Century. Pick it up wherever you buy your books.

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