J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) was a long-serving director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), an American law enforcement agency that played an important part in Cold War security.
John Edgar Hoover was born in Washington DC, where he lived for the entirety of his life. His father was a religious stonemason and the Hoover children were raised in strict Victorian formality. Hoover attended Central High, where he overcame a bad stutter to become a successful debater.
After graduation, Hoover worked at the Library of Congress while completing a law degree at George Washington University. Hoover was recruited by the Justice Department and tasked with investigating enemy aliens and German sympathisers, during the final year of World War I. He later investigated suspected communists and radical unionists during the first Red Scare of 1918-19. Even when young Hoover was known as a workaholic, as incorruptible as he was fastidious.
In 1924 Hoover, then still in his late 20s, was appointed the director of the Bureau of Investigation. He remained in this capacity when the Bureau was reformed as the FBI in 1935.
Fanatical about the Bureau and its work, but also given to mood swings and fits of temper, Hoover was difficult to work with – but he had a long record of achieving results. Under his watch, the FBI investigated and prosecuted liquor bootleggers, gangsters, corrupt unionists, Mafiosi, Nazi agents and political radicals.
After World War II much of Hoover’s attention was given to dealing with communists, particularly Soviet spies and sympathisers. He developed a behind the scenes relationship with Joseph McCarthy, feeding the Wisconsin senator names and information about suspected communists. Some of Hoover’s Cold War investigations probed the sexuality of politicians, bureaucrats and public figures. During the Lavender Scare of the early 1950s, the FBI urged president Dwight Eisenhower to prohibit the employment of homosexuals, on the grounds that they posed a security risk.
In 1956, Hoover authorised the formation of COINTELPRO, or ‘Counter-intelligence Program’, a secret FBI branch tasked with infiltrating and disrupting domestic political organisations, particularly left-wing and civil rights groups. COINTELPRO was successful, however, some of its operations and methods, conducted with Hoover’s knowledge, were either illegal or purposely exaggerated the risks posed by communism.
In 1958, Hoover published a book, Masters of Deceit, in which he warned readers to be watchful against the perils of communism.
Already powerful before 1945, the Cold War and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s intensified Hoover’s power to the point where he was untouchable. Few dared to criticise or challenge him – and those who did often found the resources of the FBI turned against them.
Hoover remained as FBI director into his 78th year, until his death from a heart attack in May 1972.