Biography for J. Edgar Hoover
In 1924, at the age of 29, John Edgar Hoover became the third director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). By the time he died in office 48 years later, he had created a powerful federal government crime-fighting agency. Hoover was born on January 1, 1895 in Washington, D.C. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1916 and a master's degree in law in 1917 from George Washington University. After being admitted to the bar, he began his long career at the FBI (established in 1908 as an arm of the Justice Department). In 1919, he was appointed special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in charge of the drive against political radicals that accompanied the "red scare" of the postwar years. The mass arrests of radicals in 1919, known as the Palmer raids after Attorney General Palmer, were actually directed by Hoover. Hoover was appointed director of the FBI as a result of the Teapot Dome scandal, in which several government officials in President Warren G. Harding's administration were implicated in the secret sale of federal oil lands. President Calvin Coolidge, Harding's successor, hoping to keep his own administration free of the scandal's taint, appointed the distinguished jurist Harlan Fiske Stone as his attorney general; Stone named Hoover as the FBI director. After assuming control of the FBI, Hoover established nonpolitical recruiting and training methods, consolidated and expanded the central fingerprint bureau, created the voluntary Crime Reporting Program (1930) so the FBI could compile and publish annual crime statistics, and created the FBI laboratory in 1932. Anticommunism was the force that brought Hoover to power, and it was the force that defined both his career and the shape of the FBI from the 1920s to the late 1960s. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt greatly increased the power of the FBI when he assigned it the task of protecting internal U.S. security and ferreting out enemy spies. The organizing principle behind Hoover's task was vigilance against all who would threaten lawful governmental authority—in particular "Communists, subversives and pseudoliberals." Such a broad definition of the "enemy" gave the FBI under Hoover's ironfisted control tremendous investigative latitude. Hoover decided early on never to collaborate with other government agencies in the collection or dissemination of information. His agents gathered all the information he requested, then he alone decided who would have access to it. He stood ready to answer a president's request for the most personal information about anybody, but the FBI's files remained closed to everyone—even presidents. They were an important source of his power. Shrewdly aware of the value of publicity, Hoover carefully avoided committing the limited resources of the FBI to the immense tasks of enforcing the drug laws and defeating organized crime. It took the vigor of both President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to force Hoover to assign his agents to fight organized crime and the determination of President Lyndon B. Johnson to push the FBI into enforcing civil rights laws. By the time Hoover launched the COINTELPRO, or counterintelligence program, against African-American radicals and the so-called New Left radical student movement in the late 1960s, his power and public esteem had begun to deteriorate. When records stolen from the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania concerning the agency's domestic security operations—which included illicit wiretapping and false character-destroying efforts—were published in March 1971, the nation was stunned. Hoover immediately shut down all COINTELPRO operations, but his reputation never recovered. He continued to head the FBI, however, until his death at age 77 on May 2, 1972. He had held the job for 48 years and served under eight presidents. Richard Gid Powers, Hoover's biographer, summed up Hoover's career in this way: Hoover was at the very midst of the combat over the most important issues of the first three-quarters of the 20th century—communism and racial justice. . . . From the beginning there were conflicting strains in Hoover of idealism but also of an almost savage sense of self-preservation. I don't think he will be understood as a sheer ogre. But the final assessment of him will be less than favorable. As time goes on he will be seen as a complex and significant figure who tested the outer limits of permissible political behavior. Today, the FBI fulfills a wide range of necessary federal law enforcement tasks, the foundations for which—from the training academy at Quantico, Virginia to the Uniform Crime Report statistics and sophisticated crime laboratory—were laid by Hoover.