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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 293

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This is the grave of J. Edgar Hoover.

Unfortunately born in 1895 and perhaps the worst person in all of American history, John Edgar Hoover was born in Washington, DC and his father was the chief of the printing division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. He followed his father into government work as soon as he could, at the age of 18 as a messenger for the Library of Congress. He attended George Washington University and then was hired by the Justice Department. But really, who cares about the details of this man’s early life. Let’s get to the meat.

Hoover was a despicable human being who would stoke fears of scary radicals to raise his own profile. That made him perfect for World War I Washington and the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution that led to the Red Scare. This is what made Hoover’s career. He started as a clerk in the Justice Department’s War Emergency Division but quickly showed his meddle in hating radicals and wanting to violate their constitutional rights. Soon, he headed the agency’s Alien Enemy Bureau, which gave him the ability to arrest people who were accused of violating the Espionage Act, that horrible relic of World I anti-radicalism. He caught the eye of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, himself a very bad man who would do more than any one person to fan the flames of the Red Scare. Palmer named him of the Radical Division in 1919, with the assignment of carrying out the notorious Palmer Raids on suspected radicals, many of whom were deported. Among the other targets was such liberals as Felix Frankfurter, who Hoover called “the most dangerous man in the United States.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Hoover continued to rise rapidly, being named head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1924. He held this office until his death in 1972. While continuing to monitor and harass radicals, Hoover sent his agents against the gangsters of the Prohibition Era, more to save his own job than because he cared. Always playing a bit of footsy with the mob, Hoover denied the existence of the mafia well into the 1950s. He had a good reason–mobsters routinely sent him good tips on the horses, using Walter Winchell as a go-between. It wasn’t until public exposure of the FBI ignoring the mob in 1957 that Hoover changed course and went after them intensely. After all, self-interest was always the centerpiece of Hoover’s ideology. During these years, he engaged in civil liberties violations whenever he could, especially seeking information on communists, where he had so many spies that sometimes probably a majority of communist meetings were made up on informants. Unfortunately, these were also years where presidents and attorney generals largely gave Hoover the room to expand his empire. Fears of Soviet and Nazi spies might have been real enough, but it opened the door for this terrible man to gather ever more power under his purview.

It was after World War II that Hoover again really sought to abuse power. He really wanted the opportunity during the Korean War. He had created a list of 12,000 supposed subversives and he wanted approval to suspend habeas corpus and detain them indefinitely. Luckily, Harry Truman chose not to go that direction. He was also targeting people such as Charlie Chaplin, who Hoover was determined was out to destroy America. Chaplin had his passport revoked in 1952. He did not return to the United States until 1972. In 1956, Hoover created a plan that would become notorious: COINTELPRO. Designed to be a dirty tricks agency to undermine communists, he first used it to target leftists and civil rights activists. When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference formed in the aftermath of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Hoover used his new toy to monitor civil rights activists. That included Martin Luther King, who Hoover believed was also trying to destroy America. Hoover believed this about a lot of people. After the March on Washington, Hoover stated:

In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech. … We must mark him now if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.

At that point, Hoover targeted King for his legendary harassment, tapping phones, bugging hotel rooms, and of course, taping King having sex with women, hoping to blackmail him out of the movement and urging him to commit suicide when he won the Nobel Prize in 1964. King did not hesitate to go on the attack, openly criticizing the FBI for not going after the white terrorists killing civil rights workers. Hoover publicly called King America’s most “notorious liar.” FBI agents probably infiltrated the Nation of Islam and attempted to expand the differences between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X that led to the latter’s 1965 assassination. And then there was the notorious targeting of the Black Panthers, with many assassinations carried out by FBI agents, such as that on Fred Hampton. When Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist, was murdered in Mississippi, the person who pointed her out was the FBI’s informant in the KKK on site. Hoover and his agents then created propaganda that Liuzzo was only interested in civil rights to have sex with black men and that she was a communist and a heroin addict. The existence of COINTELPRO was not even known until 1971 and it wasn’t until the 1975 Church Committee hearing that there was a thorough investigation of these horrors. By that time, Hoover was dead.

An inveterate racist, Hoover not only did horrible things to black radicals and to Martin Luther King, but he also made the FBI probably the whitest agency in the federal government by the 1960s. There was great tension between the civil rights movement and the FBI over the lack of black agents. How could the FBI fairly police the nation’s civil rights movement if all the agents were white? For Hoover, that was precisely the point.

Nobody really liked Hoover. He was not a nice man. Presidents either tolerated him or wanted to get rid of him by the late 1940s. But Hoover was so good at generating positive propaganda about himself and the FBI (see the 1965-74 television series) that they didn’t want to take the risk. Both Truman and JFK wanted him gone but in the end, decided the risk was too high. And it’s not as if Truman was shy about eliminating problematic people, as his firing of Douglas MacArthur demonstrated. But Hoover, that was even more dangerous. LBJ waived the government-mandated retirement age of 70 for Hoover and even as he was fading during the Nixon years, there just wasn’t anything anyone could do to get rid of him. Congressional conservatives loved him too much. He finally died in 1972.

This is only a very basic overview of Hoover’s great evil. One could go on for a long time about this. There is not a single good thing to say about this ogre. I’m not going to speculate about his sexuality because I really don’t care, but of course, feel free to engage in that topic which has caused the spilling of an awful lot of ink over the decades.

J. Edgar Hoover is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to cover more terrible Americans, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. A. Mitchell Palmer is buried in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania and Roy Cohn is in Queens. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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