Born in Washington, D.C., the son of a low-level federal bureaucrat, Hoover earned a bachelor of laws (1916) and a master of laws (1917) from George Washington University. He was an assistant in the alien registration section of the Department of Justice during World War I, where he monitored alien radicals in what became a lifetime antiradical crusade.
Appointed head of the General Intelligence Division in 1919, Hoover continued to monitor radical activities, culminating in the series of deportation raids subsequently dubbed the Red Scare of 1919-1920. Because Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer purposefully exploited these raids to promote his unsuccessful candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hoover was untarnished by the public’s subsequent reaction to revelations of the bureau’s abuses of power, which focused on Palmer. Following Warren Harding’s election, Hoover’s administrative skills and diligence won him promotion to assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935), a post he held until appointed director by Attorney General Harlan Stone in 1924. Hoover held that post until his death in 1972.
A lifetime bachelor with few nonprofessional interests, Hoover devoted his considerable talents to furthering the power of the FBI. Having inherited an agency beset by scandal, Hoover moved quickly to restore public confidence by improving the quality of bureau employees and by ostensibly working within the limits of a powerful states’ rights tradition. A more professional organization evolved and, responding to the seeming crime wave of the 1930s, the public came to accept the need for a federal law enforcement role. But while publicly opposing the creation of a national police force and emphasizing the limits to the bureau’s responsibilities, Hoover remained committed to monitoring what he considered immoral and dissident activities. Because this was risky and contradicted his public posturing, the director proceeded cautiously and secretively.
Hoover’s keen sense of public relations and careful cultivation of reporters, members of Congress, civic leaders, and conservative organizations won him a powerful constituency. An administrative genius, he devised sophisticated records procedures to preclude the discovery either of his authorization of illegal investigative techniques (break-ins, wiretaps, bugs) or the accumulation of derogatory personal information. Finally, Hoover willingly serviced the political and policy interests of presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon to obtain their issuance of secret executive directives expanding FBI authority. As a result, the bureau not only increased in size (from 890 agents in 1940 to 7,002 in 1952, and 10,000 in 1970) but became an autonomous agency operating independently of executive, congressional, or judicial oversight.
Hoover successfully neutralized demands for independent investigations of the bureau’s conduct and his administration during his forty-eight-year tenure as FBI director. His power, however, moved Congress in 1968 to enact legislation requiring Senate confirmation of futureFBI directors and limiting their tenure to ten years. Because Hoover’s death coincided with the furor created by the Watergate affair, it marked the end of an era. Thereafter, Congress and the media became more vigilant in monitoring the powerful agency Hoover had helped forge and legitimize.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.