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In the Company of Scholars Lecture Reconsiders the Life and Legacy of J. Edgar Hoover

February 5, 2013

“During Hoover’s forty-eight-year tenure, the FBI grew in responsibility and importance and achieved iconic status in both American political and popular culture,” Beverly Gage, professor of history, said in her January 22 “In the Company of Scholars” lecture.

Although Hoover was wildly popular in his lifetime, in recent years he has been seen as a “one-dimensional arch-villain who operated outside the bounds of American politics. There’s some truth to that characterization, but this is a good moment to put him in the context of the bigger story of the 20th century. Hoover was at the center of American politics. He used the tools of big government, but used them in an ideologically conservative way.”

Gage’s talk was based on her forthcoming book, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century (Viking). Hoover (1895-1972) died two months before Gage was born. “From today’s vantage point, it can be hard to recall just how popular he was in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and how thoroughly his support spanned the Washington political spectrum,” she says. “The first generation of scholarship about him in the 70s and 80s exposed his secrets and the truth behind his lies. Now another twenty years have passed and there hasn’t been another biography. My approach uses new sources that scholars have ferreted out through the Freedom of Information Act and databases that weren’t available before.”

All through his career, Hoover “mobilized the power of the FBI to go after people on the political left, providing support for anticommunism and granting it legitimacy. Hoover collected political intelligence and knew how to use it. He held office for forty-eight years not simply because he gathered secrets, but because large swaths of the public — including some of Washington’s most revered liberals — supported him, funded him, and cheered him on,” she says. He was revered for hunting down John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and other notorious criminals of the Depression era. Around the same time, Hoover began to conduct surveillance of domestic fascists and communists. In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the FBI’s jurisdiction to include “all cases of domestic sabotage, espionage, and subversion,” Gage explains.

In addition to his conservative political positions, “Hoover was one of the most important figures in 20th century America to articulate a view that we’d call ‘family values conservatism,’” Gage said in an interview. “He was outspoken on the sanctity of family and morality and religiosity. He talked a lot about God and religion as antidotes to the evils of atheistic communism.”

Despite his outspoken defense of traditional family life, “In his personal life, he had an intimate relationship with Clyde Tolson, second-in-command at the FBI, that was a functional marriage for forty years. If you invited J. Edgar Hoover to dinner, you invited Clyde Tolson. They traveled together and were a very public, well-established couple. They were accepted as a social couple, though we probably will never know what they were doing in the bedroom. Neither one had outside relationships, and there was a great deal of speculation and gossip about them going back to the 30s.”

Giving the man his due, Gage admits that as a bureaucrat, Hoover was “a masterful figure.” He took the tiny Bureau of Investigation and “made it into a massive, professional law-enforcement agency.” He was a great champion of using technical expertise for what he called “scientific law-enforcement,” establishing a national fingerprint database and forensic labs.

He was actually a more subtle and interesting figure on civil liberties questions than we give him credit for,” Gage says. “In some instances, he tried to hold the line against civil-liberty abuses. He was one of very few prominent officials who opposed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This is not because he cared about the Japanese-American population, but because he felt the FBI was perfectly capable of sorting out who was safe and who wasn’t. He saw it as an insult to the FBI that you had to round everyone up. Also, he thought that an indiscriminate mass action would result in serious backlash. He believed that it was bad policy and would produce bad PR.

Another example happened in the early 70s, when Nixon asked the intelligence agencies to cooperate in surveillance of anti-war activists and the New Left. Hoover refused to do it, again for rather self-interested reasons. He wanted to maintain sole control of the FBI and stood up against Nixon.”

Gage earned her BA from Yale and her PhD from Columbia University in 2004, where she won the Bancroft Award for writing the best U.S. history dissertation. Her teaching and research at Yale focus on the evolution of American political ideologies and institutions. She teaches courses on communism and anticommunism, American conservatism, and 20th-century American politics. She has appeared as a historical commentator on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer (PBS) and provided live coverage of President Obama’s second inauguration for PBS. In 2009, she received the Sarai Ribicoff Award for teaching excellence in Yale College.