Beverly Gage: When J. Edgar Hoover Tried to Destroy the Left, Liberals Helped HimHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, civil liberties, FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO, surveillance
Beverly Gage is professor of twentieth-century American history at Yale University. Her new book is G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.
Michael Brenes teaches history at Yale University. His new book is For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy.
Few figures deserve the animus of the Left more than J. Edgar Hoover, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). During his forty-eight years in power — stretching from 1924 to his death in 1972 — Hoover presided over a counterintelligence witch hunt that treated members of the American Communist Party as treasonous, and infiltrated and surveilled left-wing movements. The FBI’s record under its Hoover-era COINTELPRO program is particularly notorious — from the harassment and wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr. (including sending a message that sought to goad him into suicide) to the murder of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in Chicago in 1969. Yet Hoover was celebrated by liberals and conservatives alike in his time, his power unchecked.
Historian Beverly Gage’s new book, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, tries to understand how such an undemocratic figure like Hoover — at the helm of an undemocratic institution — was able to wield such influence within a formally democratic government. Drawing on unclassified FBI records and Hoover’s personal papers, Gage paints a nuanced, instructive portrait of Hoover that places him within the growth of the national security state, the rise of the United States as a global power, and the evolution of liberalism and conservatism after World War I.
Fellow historian Michael Brenes spoke to Gage about J. Edgar Hoover and his relationship with liberals, the far right, and emancipatory movements today.
Your book goes beyond Hoover the man, showing how his story is representative of the broader history of the United States. What made you come to this conclusion?
We tend to think of Hoover as a one-dimensional villain and a rogue actor — essentially, as someone who operated outside of normal checks and constraints. It’s true that Hoover often acted in secret, with little accountability. But he could not have remained FBI director for an astonishing forty-eight years without having some other skills as well.
He was a consummate bureaucrat who came of age with an expanding federal government. He made his name espousing many of the key values of the progressive state: efficiency, objectivity, professionalism, scientific methods. Though we rarely think of him this way, those ideas helped to make him enormously popular, both inside and outside of Washington. We can’t understand his career or his influence without taking that “administrative” story into account.
Hoover’s persecution of socialists, communists, and radicals was never sufficiently challenged by Congress or the White House. You argue that Hoover was an organizational mastermind, that he knew the inner workings and machinations of the FBI’s bureaucracy more than anyone else. Is this how Hoover was able to wield such outsized influence, to suppress the Left so thoroughly?
Anti-communism was the great cause of Hoover’s life. He viewed that cause expansively: as a national security matter, but also as an existential struggle for the country’s soul. In 1919, at the tender age of twenty-four, he became the first head of the Justice Department’s new Radical Division, which pioneered techniques of surveillance and deportation aimed at left-wing radicals. But his greatest influence came in the 1940s and 1950s, when he became the nation’s most famous and best-respected anti-communist.