Another J. Edgar Hoover?
WHAT created J. Edgar Hoover? He reigned with an iron fist as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years, until the day he died in 1972. By then, Hoover had evolved into an untouchable autocrat, a man who kept secret files on millions of Americans over the years and used them to blackmail presidents, senators and movie stars. He ordered burglaries, secret wiretaps or sabotage against anyone he personally considered subversive. His target list included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, even Eleanor Roosevelt.
Yet when Hoover showed up for his first day of work at the Department of Justice in June 1917, he was a bright 22-year-old, just out of law school. He still had boyish good looks and was cocky and driven. The country had just entered World War I, and Hoover had avoided the wartime draft. Instead, he was ready to help win the war at home, to save the country from spies and subversives.
What changed this young eager beaver into the crass, cynical tyrant of later years?
The fact is, Hoover learned his attitudes and worldview from teachers at the Justice Department during his early years there, when the country was going through a period much like today’s war on terror.
In March 1919, Hoover landed a dream assignment on the staff of new Atty. Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer just in time to participate in the first Red scare, in 1919-1920, and its signature outrage, the notorious Red Raids, also known as the Palmer Raids. For Hoover, it would shape his outlook for life.
On the night of June 2, 1919, bombs exploded in nine cities across the United States, leaving two people dead, including one of the bombers. One of these bombs destroyed Palmer’s Washington home, almost killing him, his wife and his teenage daughter.
These bombs capped months of escalating upheaval during which the country convinced itself that we sat on the verge of a Russian-style socialist revolution. The first Red scare came on the heels of multiple traumas: World War I, the Russian Revolution and subsequent Bolshevik uprisings in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Argentina. In the United States, the economy had collapsed, prompting waves of strikes, riots and political violence.
Americans vowed vengeance after the June 2 bombings, and the targeted Palmer pledged to crush the reign of terror. He ordered a massive preemptive strike, a nationwide roundup of radicals. To manage the operation, Palmer chose his talented new staff counsel, young J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover seized the opportunity. With Palmer’s blessing, he laid plans for a series of brutal raids across the country. Backed by local police and volunteer vigilantes, federal agents hit in dozens of cities and arrested more than 10,000 suspected communists and fellow travelers. They burst into homes, classrooms and meeting halls, seizing everyone in sight, breaking doors and heads with abandon. The agents ignored legal niceties such as search warrants or arrest warrants. They questioned suspects in secret, imposed prohibitive bail and kept them locked up for months in foul, overcrowded, makeshift prisons.
It turned out that virtually none of these prisoners had anything to do with violent radicalism. Nearly all were released without being charged with a crime. Palmer’s grand crackdown was one big exercise in guilt by association, based primarily on bogus fears of immigrants being connected to vilified radical groups such as the recently formed American Communist Party.
Still, Hoover relished his moment on the national stage. He appeared twice at Palmer’s side during congressional hearings, and he faced off against future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in a Boston courtroom in raid-related cases. Behind the scenes, Hoover demanded more arrests, higher bail and fewer rights for prisoners.
Ultimately, the public recoiled in disgust at the excesses and illegality of the raids, and Palmer saw his political career destroyed. But his young assistant fared much better.
Hoover never lost his anticommunist religion, nor his disdain for and distrust of “liberals” who defended “subversives” on grounds of free speech and civil liberties. He also never lost his sense of entitlement to bend the rules, either to protect the country or to protect himself.
Almost 90 years later, today’s war on terror exists in an echo chamber of the 1919 Red scare. The federal government demands more powers at the expense of individual rights: secret CIA prisons, enhanced interrogation techniques, suspension of habeas corpus. Even the president openly claims powers that are beyond the reach of laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The same kinds of teachers who transformed the straight-laced, young Hoover in 1919 seem to be on the loose again in Washington. And that raises a troubling question: Are we today creating a whole new generation of young J. Edgar Hoovers, dedicated government agents learning the wrong lessons from the war on terror, who will stick around to haunt us for decades to come?