A Look at G-Man J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century

G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century by Beverly Gage

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

J Edgar Hoover

A new biography of J. Edgar Hoover has arrived, and in light of my rather sparse understanding of Hoover as well as the history of the FBI I thought it would be a good read, and I was right.

Beverly Gage has given us a thoughtful biography of a giant of American law enforcement. The book is over 700 pages long, but Hoover’s tenure was so long, and his impacts so large, that a multi-volume work could have easily been done. Professor Gage, even with the enormous amount of material to cover, does so in a way that gives us a good view of Hoover’s rise to the pinnacle of power and authority in federal law enforcement. Hoover’s reputation is now in tatters and the book does not shy away from criticism of the subject. In so doing Professor Gage still tries to strike a balance, and I believe that she has found that balance correctly.

John Edgar Hoover started out as a Justice Department functionary that took over and built the then called Bureau of Investigation. Before taking over as Director Hoover got his start as the head of what was called the “radical division” of the Bureau, charged with tracking, arresting and deporting “subversives.” In many ways Hoover never really gave up that function, as he waged a life long battle against any and all groups deemed “subversive.” Hoover’s rise was greatly aided by his proficiency in utilizing the index card system he learned, and developed himself, while working for the Library of Congress. His ability to track information, and people, through this system, made him a superstar.

Hoover has been vilified for much during his nearly half a century tenure as the Director of the FBI. Much of the vilification can be justified, but this book shows us that much of what Hoover did was not only sanctioned, but actively pushed for, by Presidents of the United States. Hoover became adroit at politics, making himself indispensable to Presidents, providing what was considered vital intelligence to them. FDR, with WWII to deal with, used Hoover and the FBI to combat domestic subversion, real and imagined. Hoover was resistant to standard police work until a crime wave of bank robberies by criminals that captured much publicity forced his hand, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, and others were simply too much for local law enforcement. They traveled across state lines and essentially forced Hoover to take on a role that he had not sought for the FBI. He did take it on successfully and used that effort to further build support and resources for the FBI. His astute political handling of the publicity surrounding this battle created an image of the FBI as serious crime fighters.

The book, as mentioned, covers a lot of ground, and every reader may take a different piece of the story as the most significant. Hoover’s ability to balance different political cross-currents, especially with the many Presidents he served, was fascinating to me. He had some real trouble with Harry Truman, and was really at loggerheads with his boss Robert Kennedy during the Kennedy Administration, but even during those difficult periods Hoover managed to keep his political balance. His political skills were substantial.

Hoover, in the law enforcement area, recognized early that setting the FBI up as a competitor to local law enforcement would bring nothing but problems for him, setting up a potentially potent political roadblock to future growth and funding for the Bureau. Hoover instead moved to make the FBI a resource for local law enforcement, providing services that he built from scratch, including a nationwide fingerprint database as well as creating the FBI crime lab. Hoover’s achievements in these areas were truly monumental, deserving of the credit that Professor Gage gives to him.

Hoover’s lifelong commitment to combatting communism is a big part of the book. This obsession brought Hoover, especially in later years, to make some decisions that were frankly abhorrent. This area of the book is indeed fascinating, showing us Hoover, despite his strong anti-communist bent, keeping Joe McCarthy at arms length. His willingness to work with the House Un-American Activities Committee was done on his terms. He was very adept at avoiding getting the FBI involved directly in matters that he was not comfortable with, even if he hovered in the background.

Hoover’s closest friendships with Presidents would likely be Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Hoover went way back with Nixon, working with him when he was a Congressman serving on HUAC. They became very close over the years, and Hoover would play a significant, if indirect role, in some of the decisions Nixon made as President that led to his downfall. By the time Nixon became President, in 1969, Hoover was discerning that what had previously been done by the FBI by way of illegal activities (illegal entries, illegal wiretapping and a host of other activities) could no longer be performed without a high risk of detection and legal jeopardy. When young Nixon staffer Tom Huston came up with an inter-agency plan for an intelligence war on the left Hoover, participating in the task force, simply placed roadblock after roadblock in the way. Nixon, understanding that Hoover’s opposition was politically fatal, withdrew the proposal. With Hoover’s refusal to be of assistance after the leak of the Pentagon Papers Nixon decided to act on his own, creating the “Plumbers Unit” working directly from the White House. That decision, driven by Hoover’s unwillingness to engage in the type of activities demanded by Nixon, did indeed eventually bring Nixon down. Hoover’s friendship with LBJ is covered, and for me it showed how LBJ both understood people, and was able to manipulate even those with political skills. When LBJ had Hoover and Tom Dewey issuing a report on racial unrest many were perplexed when the conservative Hoover, through the report, cited “underlying economic and social conditions” as one of the root causes.

“Against all odds, Johnson ‘maneuvered his anticommunist FBI director into issuing a report that endorsed the war on poverty[and] helped blunt the Goldwater challenge,’ one historian noted. Though Hoover had spent forty years insisting that the FBI could not be swayed by political concerns, he turned out to be as susceptible as anyone to Johnson’s masterful blend of praise, coercion, and power.”

Gage, Beverly: “G-Man J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.”
Pg 600-601

Hoover’s massive infiltration operations against many organizations are highlighted, and his relentless attacks on Martin Luther King are parts of his record that have helped to bring Hoover’s legacy to the low point it is at today. Professor Gage does not give Hoover a pass in these areas. In todays world Hoover would not likely be as much of a darling of the right as he was in his day. His FBI expanded federal power in law enforcement, which would not likely be a popular position today with many conservatives.

Hoover had ambitions that included the FBI acting as the foreign espionage service for the U.S. In fact Hoover had started in this field in Latin America, and politically opposed the creation of the CIA. While not covered greatly it was one of the few bureaucratic battles that Hoover lost. (Harry Truman saw it differently)

Professor Gage has written what many are calling the definitive biography of the most important American law enforcement figure of the 20th century. I would have to agree. This book is highly recommended.

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