J. Edgar Hoover, Controversial Head of the FBI for Five Decades

Photograph of J. Edgar Hoover testifying at HUAC hearing.
J. Edgar Hoover testifying at HUAC hearing.

Getty Images

J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI for decades and became one of the most influential and controversial figures in 20th century America. He built the bureau into a mighty law enforcement agency but also perpetrated abuses that reflect dark chapters in American law.

For much of his career, Hoover was widely respected, partly because of his own keen sense of public relations. The public perception of the FBI was often inextricably linked to Hoover's own public image as a tough but virtuous lawman.

Fast Facts: J. Edgar Hoover

  • Full Name: John Edgar Hoover
  • Born: January 1, 1895 in Washington, D.C.
  • Died: May 2, 1972 in Washington, D.C.
  • Known For: Served as director of the FBI for nearly five decades, from 1924 until his death in 1972.
  • Education: George Washington University Law School
  • Parents: Dickerson Naylor Hoover and Annie Marie Scheitlin Hoover
  • Major Accomplishments: Made the FBI into the nation's top law enforcement agency while also acquiring a reputation for engaging in political vendettas and violations of civil liberties.


The reality was often quite different. Hoover was reputed to harbor countless personal grudges and was widely rumored to blackmail politicians who dared cross him. He was widely feared, as he could ruin careers and target anyone who aroused his ire with harassment and intrusive surveillance. In the decades since Hoover's death, the FBI has grappled with his troubling legacy.

Early Life and Career

John Edgar Hoover was born in Washington, D.C., on January 1, 1895, the youngest of five children. His father worked for the federal government, for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. As a boy, Hoover was not athletic, but he pushed himself to excel in areas that suited him. He became the leader of his school’s debate team and was also active in the school’s cadet corps, which engaged in military style drills.

Hoover attended George Washington University at night while working at the Library of Congress for five years. In 1916, he received a law degree, and he passed the bar exam in 1917. He received a deferment from military service in World War I as he took a job in the U.S. Department of Justice, in the division that tracked enemy aliens.

With the Justice Department severely understaffed due to the war, Hoover began a fast rise through the ranks. In 1919, he was promoted to a position as a special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Hoover played an active role in planning the infamous Palmer Raids, the federal government’s crackdown on suspected radicals.

Hoover became obsessed with the idea of foreign radicals undermining the United States. Relying on his experience at the Library of Congress, where he had mastered the indexing system used to catalog books, he began building extensive files on suspected radicals.

The Palmer Raids were eventually discredited, but within the Justice Department Hoover was rewarded for his work. He was made the head of the department’s Bureau of Investigations, at the time a largely neglected organization with little power.

Creating the FBI

In 1924, corruption in the Justice Department, a byproduct of Prohibition, required the reorganizing of the Bureau of Investigations. Hoover, who lived a quiet life and seemed incorruptible, was appointed as its director. He was 29 years old and would hold the same post until his death at the age of 77 in 1972.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hoover transformed the bureau from an obscure federal office to an aggressive and modern law enforcement agency. He began a national fingerprint database and opened a crime laboratory dedicated to using scientific detective work.

Hoover also raised the standards of his agents and created an academy to train new recruits. Once accepted into what came to be viewed as an elite force, the agents had to adhere to a dress code dictated by Hoover: business suits, white shirts, and snap-brim hats. In the early 1930s, new legislation allowed Hoover's agents to carry guns and take on more powers. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a series of new federal crime bills, the bureau was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Photo of J. Edgar Hoover with Shirley Temple
J. Edgar Hoover with child film star Shirley Temple. Getty Images 

To the public, the FBI was always portrayed as a heroic agency battling against crime. In radio shows, movies, and even comic books, the “G-Men” were incorruptible protectors of American values. Hoover met with Hollywood stars and became a keen manager of his own public image.

Decades of Controversy

In the years following World War II, Hoover became obsessed with the threat, real or not, of worldwide communist subversion. In the wake of such high-profile cases as the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, Hoover positioned himself as America’s foremost defender against the spread of communism. He found a receptive audience in the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (known widely as HUAC).

During the McCarthy Era, the FBI, at Hoover’s direction, investigated anyone suspected of communist sympathies. Careers were ruined and civil liberties were trampled.

FBI Poster Warning Against Espionage
An F. B. I. poster signed by J. Edgar Hoover warns civilians against saboteurs and spies. Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

In 1958 he published a book, Masters of Deceit, which expressed his case that the United States government was in danger of being toppled by a worldwide communist conspiracy. His warnings found a steady following and no doubt helped inspire organizations such as the John Birch Society.

Hostility Toward the Civil Rights Movement

Perhaps the darkest stain on Hoover’s record came during the years of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Hoover was hostile to the struggle for racial equality, and was perpetually motivated to somehow prove that Americans striving for equal rights were in fact dupes of a communist plot. He came to despise Martin Luther King, Jr., who he suspected of being a communist.

Hoover’s FBI targeted King for harassment. Agents went so far as to send King letters urging him to kill himself or threatening that embarrassing personal information (presumably picked up by FBI wiretaps) would be revealed. Hoover’s obituary in the New York Times, published the day after his death, mentioned that he had publicly referred to King as “most notorious liar in the country.” The obituary also noted that Hoover had invited reporters to hear tapes recorded in King’s hotel rooms to prove that “moral degenerates,” as Hoover put it, were leading the Civil Rights Movement.

Longevity in Office

When Hoover reached a mandatory retirement age of 70, on January 1, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson chose to make an exception for Hoover. Likewise, Johnson’s successor, Richard M. Nixon, chose to let Hoover remain in his top post at the FBI.

In 1971, LIFE magazine published a cover story on Hoover, which noted in its opening paragraph that when Hoover had become head of the Bureau of Investigations in 1924, Richard Nixon was 11 years old and sweeping up in his family’s California grocery store. A related article by political reporter Tom Wicker in the same issue explored the difficulty of replacing Hoover.

The article in LIFE followed, by one month, a startling set of revelations. A group of young activists had broken into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania and stolen a number of secret files. The material in the heist revealed that the FBI had been conducting widespread spying against American citizens.

The secret program, known as COINTELPRO (bureau speak for “counterintelligence program”) had started in the 1950s, aimed at Hoover’s favorite villains, American communists. Over time, the surveillance spread to the those advocating for civil rights as well as racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. By the late 1960s, the FBI was conducting widespread surveillance against civil rights workers, citizens protesting the Vietnam War, and generally anyone Hoover viewed as having radical sympathies.

Some of the bureau’s excesses now seem absurd. For example, in 1969 the FBI opened a file on comedian George Carlin, who had told jokes on a Jackie Gleason variety show which apparently poked fun at Hoover.

Photo of J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson
Hoover and his constant companion for decades, Clyde Tolson. Getty Images

Personal Life

By the 1960s, it had become clear that Hoover had a blind spot when it came to organized crime. For years he had contended that the Mafia did not exist, but when local cops broke up a meeting of mobsters in upstate New York in 1957, that began to seem ridiculous. He eventually allowed that organized crime did exist, and the FBI became more active in trying to combat it. Modern critics have even alleged that Hoover, who was always inordinately interested in the personal lives of others, may have been blackmailed over his own sexuality.

Suspicions about Hoover and blackmail may be unfounded. But Hoover’s personal life raised questions, though they were not publicly addressed during his life.

Hoover's constant companion for decades was Clyde Tolson, an FBI employee. On most days, Hoover and Tolson ate lunch and dinner together in Washington restaurants. They arrived at the FBI offices together in a chauffeur driven car, and for decades they vacationed together. When Hoover died, he left his estate to Tolson (who died three years later, and was buried near Hoover in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery).

Hoover served as FBI director until his death on May 2, 1972. Over the following decades, reforms such as limiting the term of FBI director to ten years, have been instituted to distance the FBI from Hoover's troubling legacy.

Sources

  • "John Edgar Hoover." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Gale, 2004, pp. 485-487. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Cointelpro." Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 2, Gale, 2010, pp. 508-509. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Lydon, Christopher. "J. Edgar Hoover Made the FBI Formidable With Politics, Publicity and Results." New York Times, 3 May 1972, p. 52.