History Thread: Beverly Gage’s G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (2022)

Few figures loom larger in America’s liberal demonology than J. Edgar Hoover. In his forty-eight years as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover transformed a minor arm of the Justice Department into the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agency. Hoover streamlined the Bureau into an effective crime fighting body, capable of using scientific methods and expanded jurisdiction to battle crooks across state lines, while also combating spies and terrorists. But, needless to say, it came at a cost. Even as the FBI became the face of American crime fighting, it also came to embody all the excesses of the Cold War surveillance state: warrantless wiretaps, “black-bag” burglaries, COINTELPRO campaigns against “subversive” organizations, from left wing activists to Civil Rights groups and queer Americans. Even worse, the Director used his power to harass, intimidate and blackmail personal enemies. Absorbed into public consciousness are even more lurid claims: that Hoover engineered the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, that he attended orgies and cross-dressed while targeting LGBTQ bureaucrats. Any author writing in 2022 faces an uphill battle trying to humanize Hoover, and one wonders if it’s worth the effort.

Beverly Gage’s G-Man answers with a strong “yes, but.” Gage claims to be no admirer of Hoover, and her narrative consistently demonstrates his shortcomings, most already aired in earlier books by Curt Gentry (The Man and the Secrets), Tim Weiner (Enemies) and others. (More specialist works by the likes of Douglas M. Charles, who’s written extensively about Hoover’s campaigns against pornography and “sexual deviance,” are unlikely to have reached the general reader.) But Gage also portrays Hoover as a complex figure, a man capable of greatness along with malevolence, almost to the point of being a tragic figure. Arguably, there are cases where history vindicated Hoover; surely, there are moments where Hoover had sincere, if flawed motivations in pursuing misguided policies. Even so, whether Gage’s attempts at sympathy are effective or themselves misguided is an exercise for the reader.

The Compleat Bureaucrat: Hoover in 1919

Like writers before her, Gage spends a decent amount of time on Hoover’s troubled background, with a domineering mother, a mentally ill father and a soupcon of family tragedy, including an aunt brutally murdered and a grandfather who committed suicide. New to her portrait, though, is an emphasis on Hoover’s involvement in Kappa Alpha, a Southern fraternity he attended while at George Washington University. Kappa Alpha was a southern invention, whose alumni included Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman (an acquaintance of Hoover in his early years) and indeed valorized the Klan, the Confederate Lost Cause and white supremacy. Gage treats the Order almost as Hoover’s Rosebud, explaining his deep-seated racism, his militant conservatism and his obsession with clean-living and manly virtue. More prosaically, Hoover used his Kappa Alpha connections to advance his career, while many of his FBI proteges came from the order.

Unable to serve in the First World War due to family obligations (namely, his father’s deteriorating condition), Hoover joined the Justice Department when its chief goal was hunting “subversives.” This cast a broad net: German spies, would-be revolutionaries like Emma Goldman, radical labor organizers like the Wobblies or draft-dodging “slackers.” Hoover played an ignominious role both in the wartime round-up of these figures and, in particular, the postwar Palmer Raids targeting communists, anarchists and other, largely foreign-born radicals. As Gage stresses, the leftist threat during these years wasn’t completely imaginary, with anarchists engaging not only in strikes but bombings and assassination attempts (one would-be killer blew himself up on Attorney General Palmer’s doorstep). But neither were the wholesale abuses of civil liberties, and the government’s inflammation of Red-baiting into a national hysteria, justified by the modest threat posed by these groups.

Palmer Raids

For the ’20s and ’30s, Hoover labored in semi-obscurity, as the Bureau of Investigation reverted to small-time crime solving. The Bureau was in bad odor due to the peripheral involvement in the scandals of the Harding Administration; their powers were severely restricted, relying on local police to make arrests and not even carrying firearms. But Hoover spent these years productively, reshaping the Bureau into his own image, with strict physical criteria that ranged from sensible (high standards of physical fitness) to bizarre (phrenological fretting over “pear-shaped heads”). Agents were expected to be prompt, well-educated, impeccably groomed and above all loyal. And Hoover’s involvement in high profile murder cases, from Charles Lindbergh’s son to the Osage Indian murders in Oklahoma, slowly but surely redeemed the Bureau’s profile.

Hoover’s big break, of course, came in the ’30s: the slaughter of four lawmen in the Kansas City Massacre, along with a rash of kidnappings and bank robberies, convinced Federal officials to expand the Bureau’s powers considerably. Despite worries about Hoover creating an “American Gestapo,” and chiding from liberal critics over its tactics, the Bureau jumped on the opportunity, chasing down criminals like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd while working with Hollywood and the press to shape their image. Hoover went from unknown bureaucrat to the face of American law enforcement, befriended by journalists like Walter Winchell and engaging in a whirlwind social life at the Stork Club and other establishments. Even as he espoused clean living and public decency, Hoover indulged in the perks of celebrity, attending horse races and boxing matches while hobnobbing with celebrities (he was briefly engaged with actress Dorothy Lamour). And more than a few associates wondered at his relationship with Clyde Tolson, the Associate Director who became Hoover’s inseparable companion.

Partners in crime: Tolson and Hoover

Hoover’s sexuality is handled more bluntly than Gentry’s book, which treads delicately around it, or Weiner, who unconvincingly claims Hoover was asexual and had no time even for Tolson. While Gage swats away Anthony Summers’ accounts of a debauched, cross-dressing Hoover attending public sex parties, she treats his same-sex attraction matter-of-factly, less as a controversy than fact. Certainly Hoover’s sexuality was an open secret in Washington at the time, although few dared repeat the rumors publicly. And in Hoover’s flirtatious correspondence with Melvin Purvis, the lawyer-turned-Special Agent responsible for Dillinger and Floyd’s deaths (whom he later discredited, then banished from the Bureau), it’s hard to come away with any impression but that of an unrequited crush. What speaks most powerfully are the photo inserts of Hoover and Tolson, intimately photographed on vacation and in Hoover’s home, revealing more than paragraphs of text ever could.

Publicly Hoover leveraged his success not only into celebrity but increased power. Franklin Roosevelt viewed Hoover’s “War on Crime” as an extension of the New Deal, giving the Bureau authorization to spy on subversives. Hoover grudgingly investigated fascist groups like the Christian Front and the German-American Bund, while devoting much time to the Communist Party, which experienced a resurgence in the “Popular Front” era of the ’30s. Hoover’s actions ranged from admirable (his vocal opposition to Japanese internment, the greatest blot on Roosevelt’s Administration) to authoritarian (using the Smith Act as a justification to attack socialist and communist groups). Still, Hoover’s record during the Second World War was positive, foiling Nazi saboteurs in the US and disrupting Axis spy networks in Latin America. Hoover might have viewed the war as an unalloyed triumph if not for William Donovan’s OSS, which captured the public imagination through its daring exploits in Europe and later became the basis for the Central Intelligence Agency, Hoover’s intractable rival.

Hoover the Red hunter

The Director, and Gage’s narrative, enter more contentious grounds with the postwar Red Scare. Hoover’s concerns about Soviet spies in government were somewhat vindicated by release of the NSA’s Venona program. Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White and Julius Rosenberg (if not necessarily his wife Ethel) were indeed spies; the Soviet Union took advantage of the Popular Front alliance with liberals to infiltrate the Manhattan Project, government institutions, labor unions and the entertainment industry. Certainly, many liberals then and later embarrassed themselves defending Hiss, the Rosenbergs and others when even circumstantial evidence strongly suggested their guilt.

But conservatives have used the Venona revelations to claim Hoover and his demagogic allies, whether Joe McCarthy in the Senate or Richard Nixon and others in the House, were “right” in their persecution of workaday leftists, bureaucrats and gay and lesbian Americans. In reality, as in the previous Red Scare of 1919-1920, a real threat was inflated beyond proportion to justify full-scale repression, which affected more than government bureaucrats and Hollywood screenwriters as popularly imagined. As before, Hoover showed little willingness to restrain his agents or discourage ideologues, taking full advantage of the fear over communists real or imagined.

Gage rightly identifies Hoover as the primary driving force behind the Red Scare, much more than McCarthy or others, with his alarmist reports on espionage, public announcements of Communist perfidy and feeding information to HUAC, McCarthy and others. Yet here, she begins to soften her confrontation with Hoover’s dark side. She claims Hoover considered McCarthy as a distasteful rogue, which can be fairly attributed to Eisenhower and other mainstream Republicans but less to Hoover, who socialized with the Wisconsin Senator and his deputy, Roy Cohn. One wonders if this distinction matters: as Gage notes, Hoover also cultivated a friendship with Pat McCarran, the right-wing Nevada Democrat who pushed repressive anti-communist and anti-immigration legislation through Congress without McCarthy’s headline grabbing recklessness. And Hoover’s longtime support for Nixon, from feeding him files about Alger Hiss to giving his 1960 campaign disparaging information about John F. Kennedy. Were these “responsible” Red-hunters really so different from their uglier counterparts? The record is doubtful.

Pat McCarran: a responsible McCarthy?

Similarly, as Hoover confronts the Civil Rights Movement Gage seems compelled to balance criticisms with defenses. The Director did support anti-lynching legislation in the ’40s, viewing lynch mobs as a threat to law and order, though since it amounted to little one wonders how much this should be stressed. Similarly, treating COINTELPRO-White Hate (his ’60s campaign against the Ku Klux Klan and its allies) as an unmitigated success feels overstated. It’s true to a degree: Hoover’s crackdown on the Klan did ultimately cripple the organization, which helped undermine resistance to integration in the South. But it’s worth remembering that Hoover had to be prodded into action by Lyndon Johnson, in conjunction with the president’s Civil Rights initiatives. And trying to present the presence (and possible involvement) of Bureau informant Gary Thomas Rowe at the murder of Viola Liuzzo as a *triumph* for the Bureau strikes this reviewer as egregious special pleading.

But it’s impossible to spin Hoover’s campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. as anything but pathological obsession, and Gage doesn’t try. She notes that Stanley Levison’s ties to the Communist Party might have given Hoover legitimate grounds for investigation, but this was an entry point rather than a primary motivation. King disparaged Hoover and the FBI publicly for their inaction against white supremacists, ignored warnings to distance himself from Levison and Bayard Rustin (whose communist connections and homosexuality made him doubly suspect) and, most of all, upset Hoover’s view of how Black Americans are supposed to behave, both in his politics and his sexual escapades. There’s no generous interpretation possible; no fretting over communist ties could ever justify the infamous King suicide letter, or sending King’s wife recordings of his extramarital affairs, any more than it justified Hoover’s role in the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton or driving actress Jean Seberg to suicide.

King meets the Director

Even-handedness becomes a trend in later chapters. Gage makes a persuasive case that Hoover’s obliviousness towards organized crime is exaggerated, but overstates her argument by claiming an aggressive anti-Mafia campaign for which there’s minimal evidence before the Kennedy years. His distaste for far-right groups like the John Birch Society is highlighted, but undercut by Hoover’s unwillingness to investigate such organizations, which took part in the anti-Civil Rights activities he was nominally fighting. Hoover’s role in shaping the conclusions of the Warren Commission is discussed, but in a way that exculpates Hoover for covering up evidence damaging to the Bureau, namely destroying James Hosty’s records on Lee Harvey Oswald’s activities in Dallas. And, back again to Martin Luther King, Gage stresses the FBI’s immense manhunt for assassin James Earl Ray without mentioning how several Bureau officials celebrated King’s death, and downplaying Hoover’s reluctance to inform his nemesis of death threats, which fueled conspiracy theories about Hoover’s complicity in the assassination.

Gage stands on firmer ground arguing that Hoover’s abuses were less the responsibility of one man than a government and society that condoned them. While Hoover became an avatar for conservative America in later years, many of his worst abuses were enabled by liberal Democrats: FDR’s authorizing Hoover to hunt for “fascists and communists” in the ’30s, Harry Truman (despite his personal loathing for Hoover) instituting loyalty oaths for civil servants, the Kennedys authorizing wiretaps against Civil Rights leaders, Lyndon Johnson using the Bureau for nakedly political purposes like spying on the Mississippi Freedom delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Certainly, Presidents weren’t above using Hoover’s power to their own ends; Johnson also employed the Bureau to cover up the scandal involving Walter Jenkins, Johnson’s aide who was arrested for public homosexuality soon before the election.

Similarly, Gage downplays the claim, argued by Gentry and others, that Hoover maintained power through blackmailing powerful men; while Hoover’s “Official and Confidential” file contained damaging information against politicians and other public figures, Gage shows that he scarcely needed it. He cultivated friendships with Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, and remained broadly popular with the public, enough to the point where dismissing him seemed unthinkable. He repeatedly butted heads with the Kennedys, but there’s no evidence that Jack or Bobby ever seriously considered replacing him. His reputation endured until the late 1960s, when he came to symbolize everything wrong with the United States government, and Hoover’s judgment questioned by his most loyal subordinates.

Gage’s account of Hoover’s last years show the Director, simultaneously, at his most powerful and pitiable. Tolson’s failing health reduced him to a shell of a man, while subordinates William Sullivan, Mark Felt and others jockeyed for position as Hoover’s death approached. But Hoover’s COINTELPRO operations continued to target Civil Rights, Black Power and student antiwar groups until 1971, when a burglary by freelance activists exposed the program. Hoover’s longtime friend Richard Nixon repaid him by forcing an ill-conceived intelligence program upon the FBI, then creating his Plumbers to circumvent Hoover’s influence. Still, even Nixon couldn’t budge Hoover from his post; the Director stubbornly remained in office until May 1972, just a month before the Watergate break-in doomed his protege’s presidency.

Is Gage’s book “definitive,” as many of its glowing reviews assert? Certainly as the first full biography of Hoover since the early ’90s, it makes a strong case. It’s more responsible than Summers, more balanced than Gentry, more accessible than Douglas Charles and Athan Theoharis’s scholarly work and more critical than Richard Gid Powers’ old Secrecy and Power, still cited as the definitive bio by many historians. But however forceful Gage’s insights and analyses, G-Man contains significant lacunae that undercut its persuasiveness. At the very least, it’s probably the closest we can come to a truly “balanced” biography of J. Edgar Hoover, and that’s an achievement in its own right.