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Terror by Index Card: Investigating the Real J. Edgar Hoover

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

Originally Written in May 2023. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover has been characterized as the ultimate American villain. Several

writers have portrayed him as a political Nosferatu, lurking in the shadows of 8 different

presidential administrations where he wiretapped and extorted his way to power. This image not only resonates in print, but with our popular culture. In Amazon’s alternate history series Man in the High Castle, where the Axis powers won World War II, Hoover is the only major American historical figure who survives the war; serving as director of the American Reich Bureau of Investigation (ARBI) of the Nazi Empire (1).


Rehabilitating our collective image of Hoover is historian Beverly Gage’s G-Man: J.

Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. Published in 2022, Gage’s massive

book is the first comprehensive biography of Hoover in almost 30 years (2). Taking advantage of the trove of documentation that has been declassified since the early 1990s, Gage was careful to avoid “slipping into timeworn stereotypes of him [Hoover] as a single-minded Machiavellian operator (3).” She instead presented a humanized version of Hoover as a bureaucratic “genius,” who was able to organize and harness mass amounts of information that transformed the FBI into an effective crime-fighting and intelligence-gathering organization (4).

Gage’s book reintroduced the reader to Hoover by examining his decades spanning career with a fresh perspective. While Gage devoted the first four chapters to Hoover’s adolescence, she argued that joining the George Washington University chapter of Kappa Alpha, a fraternity that championed the Lost Cost narrative of the Civil War, was a focal point in his life. Kappa Alpha not only shaped the racial views Hoover harbored, but a fraternity made up of white, gentile young men served as the model for Hoover’s ideal FBI agent (5). A second focal point in Hoover’s college years was his job as a clerk at the Library of Congress. Gage wrote that it was here that Hoover learned how to organize and retrieve mass amounts of information that awarded him “the technical and professional skills to successfully navigate a government career (6).” If Hoover’s college years inspired how the FBI took shape, his early career at the Justice Department’s Radical Division acted as a primer on the lessons of politics and bureaucratic survival. Public reaction to the 1919 Palmer Raids was the first instance of negative criticism against Hoover, which he responded to with an aggressive campaign of digging into the background of his critics (7).


Hoover, December 1924.

While Gage didn’t deny that Hoover had an appetite for “dirty tricks,” she dispelled the long-held belief that Hoover blackmailed his way into staying in power once he became director of the FBI in 1924. She portrayed Hoover, initially, as a reformer to the bureau, who found the idea of wiretapping as “a form of ‘entrapment’ and deception better suited to gangsters than to government officials (8).” Instead of a blackmailer who intimidated presidents into reappointments, Gage depicted Hoover as an administrator who was constantly anxious about being dismissed. What damaging information he possessed was revealed not to threaten, but rather to avoid a potential national crisis (9). Gage wrote that “the truth is that Hoover stayed in office for so long because many people, from the highest reaches of government…wanted him there and supported what he was doing (10).” She demonstrated that Hoover compromised his position on the “unscientific” method of electronic surveillance during the “Public Enemy Era,” a time of crime-fighting metamorphosis for the bureau, where Hoover authorized illegal wiretaps on gangland associates (11). Gage charted how this ethical compromise led Hoover to authorize electronic surveillance against any perceived threat: from suspected communists to members of organized crime. While Gage devoted the latter half of her book to the abuses of Hoover’s COINTELPRO domestic intelligence program, she didn’t portray the FBI as an unrestrained American version of the Gestapo. When President Nixon requested Hoover create an intelligence program for the White House, Hoover denied Nixon’s request because he “worried that the taps would be exposed—thus subjecting the FBI to charges of political spying or, worse yet, suppression of the free press (12).

While Gage may appear to be a Hoover apologist, she doesn’t excuse his racism but

rather attempts to rationalize his decisions. For example, Gage wrote how Hoover’s experience as an agent during the bombings of the First Red Scare implanted the eternal threat that revolutionary far-left movements posed to the United States (13). Hoover suspected the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King were harboring communists, which made King a legitimate target for surveillance and counter operations (14). Gage was also apt to mention that Hoover only began his surveillance on King after the approval of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who also viewed King as a potential liability (15). The flaw in Hoover’s rationale was that while there were communists in the Civil Rights movement, it was not a communist campaign, and only posed a threat to America’s existing racial order.

Gage’s book also brought nuance to two of the largest myths surrounding Hoover: his

denial of the existence of organized crime and his long-time relationship with Clyde Tolson.

Hoover and Tolson at the Louis-Sharkey fight. August 1936.

Gage wrote that Hoover and the FBI were far more proactive in combating organized crime than previous historians have concluded. To combat the “brutally enforced code of silence” of the Mafia, Hoover found electronic wiretapping to be the only effective method to investigate crime bosses (16). Due to the illegal nature of how this information was obtained, it could not be used to arrest and convict members of criminal syndicates. Hoover kept his 1953 Top Hoodlum program a secret from the Justice Department to protect the bureau, not because he disregarded the existence of organized crime. One alleged myth that Gage did find credible was Hoover’s sexual relationship with his longtime Associate Director Clyde Tolson (17). Though there was no definitive evidence to prove this, Gage concluded that the intimacy shared between the two men in photographs, invitations to social events, and their daily routine suggested something more than just a lifelong friendship (18). To Gage’s credit, she explored Hoover’s sexuality soberly, avoiding the salaciousness of previous works.

The purpose of this article is to place Gage’s analysis into the context of the existing

historiography on J. Edgar Hoover. If there is a legion of misconceptions and myths about

Hoover to dispel, it is worth exploring where they originated. Most of the books discussed were published between 1987 and 1993. Despite working with a similar number of sources, each author presented a distinct perspective of Hoover. Due to the length of his career and the multitude of avenues this paper could traverse, particular attention will be paid to Hoover’s wiretapping and alleged blackmailing, his perception of organized crime, and his relationship with Clyde Tolson.

The first work being discussed is historian Richard Gid Powers' 1987 book Secrecy and

Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Aside from Gage’s G-Man, Powers’ book is the best piece of scholarship that approached Hoover as a person instead of a villainous caricature. Powers explored Hoover’s humanity through his relationship with Clyde Tolson. While Gage openly advocated that there was a sexual relationship between the two, Powers only went as far as describing their sentimentality as a “spousal relationship” with “bonds that grew stronger and more exclusive with the passing years (19).” Both historians used Hoover’s surviving photo album containing pictures of Hoover and Tolson as evidence of intimacy between the two men.

A departure between the two books was Hoover’s response to the emerging threat of

organized crime. Powers repeated the myth that Hoover simply ignored the existence of the

Mafia and had to be “dragged kicking and screaming” into investigating alleged crime bosses (20). Powers incorrectly dated the Top Hoodlum program as beginning in 1957 and wrote that it was only instituted in response to a potential rivalry with the McClellan Committee (21). Powers further described the bureau’s efforts towards organized crime as “backward and out of touch,” contradicting the picture of effectiveness that Gage painted of the bureau in G-Man (22). This view of Hoover’s relationship to organized crime was discarded in Gage’s book, which portrayed Hoover’s response to the Mafia as far more motivated. Gage wrote that Hoover instituted his Top Hoodlum program in 1953, four years before the McClellan committee (23). While Gage admitted that Hoover may have denied the existence of organized crime before 1953, once he reviewed the intelligence from the wiretaps, Hoover “accepted the new reality” of a national body of organized criminals operating in the United States (24).

Another book that misconstrued Hoover’s relationship with organized crime was Athan

G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox’s highly regarded 1988 biography The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition. Instead of the McClellan Committee, Theoharis and Cox attributed Hoover’s creation of the Top Hoodlum program in response to the 1957 Appalachian conference, where local police uncovered a secret summit between mobsters from across the country (25). Theoharis and Cox wrote that “An embarrassed Hoover then granted the existence of the so-called Cosa Nostra and launched a code-named Top Hoodlum program….(26)” This conclusion was disproven by Gage, who dated the Top Hoodlum as operational before the 1957 Appalachian conference.

While well-written and exhaustively researched, the main detriment of Theoharis and

Cox’s analysis was that Hoover was not the subject of it. Theoharis, who worked for the 1976

Church Committee that exposed several of the FBI’s abuses of power, seemed to be more

interested in expounding upon recently declassified files than Hoover (27). The Boss didn’t present Hoover as a person, but rather as an authoritarian personality, little more than the Robert Ludlum portrayal referenced in the book’s introduction (28). This view of Hoover granted him far too much agency, casting presidents as little more than puppets to be manipulated in games of political chess. While Theoharis restrained himself from using the word “blackmail,” he insisted that Hoover’s strategy was more of a “subtle use of information and misinformation” that could be released to neutralize potential political threats (29). Theoharis and Cox’s “single-minded Machiavellian” portrayal of Hoover was discredited by Gage, who wrote that Hoover wasn’t constantly reappointed due to threats, but rather from broad support (30). Hoover didn’t “strong-armed the rest of the country into submission,” but was rather was celebrated and supported by 8 U.S. Presidents (31).


One writer who didn’t hesitate using the term blackmail was Helter Skelter co-author

Curt Gentry in his 1991 biography J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. Gentry portrayed Hoover as the political Nosferatu mentioned in the introduction of this paper. With Gentry bringing no new information or understanding to Hoover as a person, his book served as nothing more than just a chronicle of Hoover’s alleged crimes. According to Gentry, Hoover’s Top Hoodlum program was a treasure trove of blackmail information. Gentry wrote:

With the information obtained from this massive, secret intelligence campaign, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would neutralize one U.S. senator (Edward Long of Louisiana), destroy another (Cornelius Gallagher of New Jersey), hear talk of assassinating a president and an attorney general of the United States (John F. and Robert F. Kennedy), and obtain enough blackmail material to persuade another chief executive (Richard M. Nixon) to extend his tenure as FBI director (32).

His source for this quote was cited as an unidentified 1959 SAC (Special Agent in

Charge) letter (33). Such little documentation makes it difficult for the reader to potentially

corroborate any of these claims. With there being no Senator Edward Long of Louisiana, it is not known if Gentry originally meant Senator Edward Long of Missouri or either Governor Earl Long or Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, who were both in office during the dated SAC letter. Gage debunked the claim that Hoover blackmailed President Nixon to extend his tenure as Director by quoting Nixon Advisor John Erlichmann, who said Nixon reneged on his own decision to fire Hoover (34).

Gentry proved no more competent with his sources when addressing rumors of Hoover’s

sexuality. As proof that Hoover was a homosexual, Gentry cited an FBI transcription of a recorded conversation between Philadelphia Mafia capo Angelo Bruno and one of his associates discussing how Attorney General Robert Kennedy wanted to fire Hoover because he was a homosexual (35). Gentry’s entire foundation of sources for his evidence was either declassified FBI files taken at face value or conspiratorial-minded books like John H. Davis’ Mafia Kingfish, which claimed that New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello organized the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (36).

Hoover and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Circa 1963.

Equally conspiratorial and illogical was journalist Anthony Summer’s 1993 book Official

and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Summers discarded any tact when

approaching Hoover’s sexuality, writing that Hoover paraded around New Orleans bars dressed as a woman, participated in orgies, and portrayed Hoover and Tolson as an “old couple” who were not physically attracted to one another (37). According to Summers, Hoover’s blatant sexual misconduct left him vulnerable to being blackmailed by the mob, which he allowed to operate freely until the Kennedy administration (38). Summers further departed from reality by saying that the Mafia, namely New Orleans boss Carlos Marcello, blackmailed Hoover into covering up the assassination of President Kennedy (39). Instead of focusing on Hoover as the blackmailer, Summers claimed that Hoover was the one being blackmailed, acting as an instrument of organized crime. Summers’ claims relied on untrustworthy and fabricated firsthand accounts of Hoover’s alleged sexual affairs, and, much like Gentry, referenced equally conspiratorial secondary sources like Mafia Kingfish (40). His portrait of Hoover is beyond a caricature and more of a character in an Oliver Stone film.

The final work being analyzed is Athan G. Theoharis’ 2004 book The FBI and American

Democracy: A Brief Critical History. Published after 9/11, Theoharis’ book is not a biography of Hoover, but rather a study of how the FBI obtained intelligence and used it to thwart potential threats (41). Theoharis focused his book on what he considered to be the two major intelligence failures of the FBI: countering Soviet espionage and the 9/11 terror attacks (42). This view of the FBI’s ineptitude contradicts Gage’s version of the FBI as being an effective crime-fighting organization. Despite these two major points in the bureau’s history being the focus of Theoharis’ analysis, he continued to recycle antiquated views on Hoover from his earlier book The Boss. Theoharis again dated the beginning of Hoover’s Top Hoodlum program as 1957, in response to the Appalachian summit (43). Theoharis also continued to avoid using the term “blackmail” to describe how Hoover harnessed information as a weapon to retain power (44). Both Gage and Theoharis considered Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government a serious threat; where they differed was why the FBI failed in convicting potential spies. Gage maintained that Hoover had information on numerous Soviet spies operating in the U.S., but “often the best evidence could not be revealed, for fear of exposing illegal methods or of letting the enemy in on key secrets (45).” Rather than reveal his wiretapping program to the Justice Department, Hoover kept illegally obtained information a secret to protect his information network. Theoharis maintained that the bureau was distracted and “targeted radical activists and organizations” like “artists, writers, college professors, and reporters” instead of Soviet agents (46).


While both authors endorsed opposite interpretations of the FBI, both of their claims merit

consideration. While Gage maintained that the bureau couldn’t offer up information obtained illegally, her work also supported Theoharis’ reasoning that the bureau wasted resources on far- left radicals instead of investigating Soviet agents (47).

All the books discussed produced a different variant of Hoover. While both Powers and

Theoharis’ works continue to merit scholarly value, Gentry and Summers’ biographies on

Hoover can be dismissed as mere fiction. Gage’s G-Man not only humanized a figure that has long been viewed as an irredeemable villain, but also presented to the reader a greater

understanding of how his authority was “created, policy by policy, law by law, step by

excruciating step (48).” Gage’s analysis of newly declassified records is a welcome perspective to replace tired, long repeated myths. A “definitive” study of Hoover cannot truly exist because of the sheer volume of documentation to digest, but Gage’s accessible biography will serve as the new standard for both a general audience and academics. Published in an era of self-disclosure with the internet and social media, G-Man reminds the reader of a time when there was privacy to invade.

Hoover and President Richard Nixon, Circa 1971.

Notes:

1. Actor William Forsythe portrayed Hoover in the third and fourth seasons of the series.

2. Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century (New York: Viking Press, 2022), xiii.

3. Gage, G-Man, xiii.

4. Gage G-Man, xiv.

5. Gage, G-Man, 37.

6. Gage, G-Man, 43.

7. Gage, G-Man, 76.

8. Gage, G-Man, 111

9. Gage, G-Man, 531-532.

10. Gage, G-Man, xiii.

11. Gage, G-Man, 161.

12. Gage, G-Man, 694.

13. Gage, G-Man, 686.

14. Gage, G-Man, 552.

15. Gage, G-Man, 553.

16. Gage, G-Man, 487.

17. Gage, G-Man, 138.

18. Gage, G-Man, 139.

19. Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 172.

20. Powers, Secrecy and Power, 333.

21. Powers, Secrecy and Power, 334.

22. Powers, Secrecy and Power, 335.

23. Gage, G-Man, 486.

24. Gage, G-Man, 487.

25. Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox, The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 304.

26. Theoharis and Cox, The Boss, 4.

27. Theoharis and Cox, The Boss, ix.

28. Theoharis and Cox, The Boss, 33.

29. Theoharis and Cox, The Boss, 33.

30. Gage, ­G-Man, xiii.

31. Gage, ­G-Man, xiii.

32. Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), Kindle ebook, Location 9386.

33. Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover, Location 9379.

34. Gage, G-Man, 707.

35. Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover, Location 10813.

36. Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover, Location, 17706.

37. Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1993), 249-256.

38. Summers, Official and Confidential, 241-245.

39. Summers, Official and Confidential, 331.

40. Summers, Official and Confidential, 331.

41. Athan Theoharis, The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief Critical History (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 2004), 1.

42. Theoharis, The FBI and American Democracy, 3.

43. Theoharis, The FBI and American Democracy, 131.

44. Theoharis, The FBI and American Democracy, 103-104.

45. Gage, G-Man, 246.

46. Theoharis, The FBI and American Democracy, 70.

47. Gage, G-Man , 394 48. Gage, G-Man, xiv.



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