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Book Review: Young J. Edgar

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Kenneth Ackerman, a Washington lawyer and amateur biographer, has penned Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, a book focusing on the experiences of John Edgar Hoover during the Palmer Raids of 1919. Ackerman, who has previously written books about Boss Tweed and James Garfield, largely ignores questions of Hoover’s sexual proclivities in favor of an analysis of his early bureaucratic career in the Justice Department. Hoover played a much larger role in the Palmer Raids than is commonly thought, and the Raids may have played a very significant role in making young John Edgar into the man known as J. Edgar Hoover.

Talk of the Red Scare immediately invokes images of Joseph McCarthy, Alger Hiss, and the Rosenbergs, but the events of the 1950s were in some ways a replay of script written in 1919. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, an anarchist organization attempted a series of bombings against major government officials, including Attorney General Alexander Palmer. These bombings, though ineffective, spurred a long series of raids against suspected anarchists and communists in the United States. These supposed radicals were concentrated in immigrant communities, always a source of concern for Americans. The Palmer Raids, as they came to be known, detained thousands of immigrants (and not a few American citizens), and resulted in the deportation of considerable numbers to the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The raids also helped break up the fractious leftist political community in the United States.

I’m of two minds about the Palmer Raids and the First Red Scare. It’s unassailably true that the Raids involved the brutal violation of the civil rights of thousands of Americans and many thousands of immigrants. Fears of communism were used to attack labor organizations, groups that argued for racial equality, and pacifists protesting US involvement in World War I and the Russian Civil War. On the other hand, several groups associated with the radical left did indeed advocate the violent overthrow of the United States government. That’s fine and well as a debating position, but in the context of social disruption at the end of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and various disturbances in Europe, it can hardly be surprising that such rhetoric encountered pushback. Moreover, some leftist groups went well beyond verbal advocacy of revolution, and engaged in terrorist attacks against government officials and public spaces.

Still, the crackdown on suspected leftist terrorists inevitably came to include attacks on unions and labor groups, racial minorities, and immigrants of all kinds. Local business elites helped plan and fund raids against labor organizations and immigrant communities in some cities. Although Ackerman doesn’t deal with the question in depth, civil rights agitation in the South and elsewhere would eventually be connected to fears of communism. Americans who criticized the raids, including a young Felix Frankfurter, came under investigation by the Justice Department. The country eventually came to its senses, and more quickly than in the 1950s. Palmer ran unsuccessfully for President in 1920, after which his political career essentially ended. Woodrow Wilson, crippled by illness, slowly withdrew his support for the increasingly unpopular actions of his Attorney General.

Ackerman splits his focus between the raids and the character of John Edgar Hoover, then a young bureaucrat in the Justice Department. Hoover cut his teeth on the Palmer Raids, and was deeply involved in their planning, execution, and defense. Hoover helped make the Palmer Raids, but Ackerman argues that the Raids also helped make Hoover. In criticizing British rule of India, Edmund Burke noted that young Britons went to India, found themselves with the power of life and death over their colonial charges, and returned to Britain as little tyrants. The same, Ackerman suggests, happened to Hoover. The Palmer Raids were a formative experience for the ambitious young man, and helped inculcate in him not only a hatred for enemies of America, but also a contempt for civil liberties and any legal impediments to fighting the way he wanted to fight. Ackerman goes on to suggest that the rhetoric associated with the War on Terror, and the contempt for civil rights and legal procedure at the Justice Department during the Bush administration, may be producing another generation of little Hoovers.

Hoover justified his actions in terms of a defense of “America,” but it remains unclear precisely what that meant to him. Defending “America” doesn’t really mean anything; America is, after all, simply a collection of people, territory, and values. We can agree that some of these things are worth protecting, and others not, and these choices inform how we make value trade-offs; civil liberties in exchange for security from terrorists, for example. For Hoover, liberal Jewish “Harvard” lawyers like Felix Frankfurter represented a threat to “America” that required FBI surveillance, while the Ku Klux Klan and associated Southern lynch mobs were merely a local problem. Failing to specify what it is about America that you propose to protect can be strategic, as it allows you to do pretty much anything you like, but I’m nevertheless interested in how Hoover himself defined the America that he was so eager to protect. He obviously didn’t have much of an interest in civil liberties, or in the value of dissent, or freedom from state surveillance. Indeed, it’s hard to determine what exactly he did believe in. Ackerman is of the view that Hoover simply wasn’t philosophical enough to think in terms of protecting particular values at the expense of others. He undoubtedly thought about the rhetorical uses of protecting “America,” but it’s unlikely that he delved into a lengthy consideration of what that meant. Accordingly, for Hoover there were no trade-offs; he protected America from its enemies, abroad and at home, whether they were citizens or no.

When I spoke with Ackerman, he mentioned that his evaluation of Woodrow Wilson had dropped considerably over the past few years, as more detailed studies of the Wilson administration emerged. Wilson was not directly involved in the Palmer Raids, as he was concerned with events in Europe and later suffered a debilitating stroke. However, Ackerman is of the view that Wilson would not have made any effort to prevent Palmer from acting. Wilson and Palmer were close friends and political allies, and it’s unlikely that Palmer would have done anything that he believed Wilson would not have approved. Precedent for the kind of attacks on dissidents that the Palmer Raids involved had been set, with Wilson’s approval, in World War I. As Wilson also presided over the expunging of African-Americans from the ranks of the federal bureaucracy, his general views on civil rights should be in deep question.

I wish that Ackerman had dealt in more detail with the color line in the United States and how racial concerns mapped onto the right-left divide. The late 1910s and early 1920s saw considerable racial unrest in the United States, and leftist groups later made inroads both into the civil rights movement and into the elite African-American intellectual community. Hoover himself was from Washington D.C., which in 1920 was plainly a Southern town. I asked Ackerman why no political alliance of consequence had developed between northern immigrant communities and African-American groups, and while he allowed that the Raids may have forestalled such a development, structural factors weighed heavily against an alliance coming together. Nevertheless, Young J. Edgar is a strong book, certainly worthy of a read by anyone interested in the history of civil liberties violations by the US government in the 20th century.

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