By 1960, the FBI had open, “subversive” files on some 432,000 Americans. Hoover deemed the most sensitive files as “personal and confidential” and kept them in his office, where his secretary, Helen Gandy, could watch them. Today, with few exceptions, Hoover’s FBI files are open for any American to see at the National Archives. They make fascinating reading and paint a stark portrait of power run amok.
3. Hoover was a coward.
Critics often accused Hoover of cowardice, pointing, for instance, to the fact that he didn’t join the military in June 1917, when he finished law school and the country was entering World War I. Instead, he took a draft-exempt job at the Justice Department.
Hoover, by most signs, would have preferred to join his contemporaries going “over there” to fight the Germans. At Central High School in Northwest Washington, he joined the cadet corps and was its captain during his senior year. He relished the pomp and ceremony, marching in uniform and palling around with his fellow cadets.Later, at the Justice Department’s Radical Division, Hoover’s craving for action led him to participate in a raid in February 1920 against one of the most dangerous leftist groups of that period, the L’Era Nuova gang in Paterson, N.J. The agents carried guns and confiscated plenty of weapons and explosives. Hoover interrogated the group’s leader and extracted the only direct evidence about the 1919 anarchist bombings that prompted that year’s Red Scare.
Rather than fleeing the draft, the more likely reason that Hoover took the Justice Department job in 1917 was that his 61-year-old father, Dickerson Naylor Hoover, who suffered from mental illness, had been forced to leave his job as a government clerk without a pension, making young J. Edgar financially responsible for the family. If anything, Hoover’s guilt over staying behind probably added to his later zeal against subversives at home.
4. Hoover was African American.
There are two theories that Hoover had African American heritage. One has it that he was born to an African American mother and secretly adopted by the Hoover family, a theory based on discrepancies in certain birth and census records. However, genealogist George Ott investigated the claim, failed to substantiate it and said he believes it to be false.
More plausible are stories like that told by writer Millie McGhee in her 2000 book “Secrets Uncovered: J. Edgar Hoover — Passing for White?” McGhee, an African American, claims that, based on family stories and genealogical records, she and Hoover had a common ancestor, a great-grandfather, making him a distant cousin. Hoover’s father’s family had roots in Virginia and Mississippi in the antebellum South, where interracial liaisons were not uncommon. Some mixing in his family tree is a possibility but remains unproven.
Hoover’s attitudes on race reflected those in the old Washington, where he grew up, a largely segregated Southern city. As FBI director, he repeatedly refused to involve the bureau in investigating anti-black race riots or protecting black civil rights workers in the South, insisting that these were matters for local police, even after the Supreme Court’s 1954Brown v. Board of Education decision.
5. Hoover’s legacy is a stain on the FBI’s reputation.
Hoover leaves a bipolar legacy. For better or worse, he built the FBI into a modern, national organization stressing professionalism and scientific crime-fighting. For most of his life, Americans considered him a hero. He made the G-Man brand so popular that, at its height, it was harder to become an FBI agent than to be accepted into an Ivy League college.
But he also stands as a reminder that 48 years of power concentrated in one person is a recipe for abuse. It was mostly after his death that Hoover’s dark side became common knowledge — the covert black-bag jobs, the warrantless surveillance of civil rights leaders and Vietnam-era peace activists, the use of secret files to bully government officials, the snooping on movie stars and senators, and the rest. Hoover’s name, carved in stone at the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, should serve as a caution to the public and the dedicated professionals who work inside. The FBI’s license to intrude into people’s lives gives it a special public trust. If the daily reminder of Hoover’s excesses can help impart that message, it will be the best safeguard for the positive side of his legacy: a modern, professional, science-based and accountable detective force serving the public interest.
Kenneth D. Ackerman, a D.C.-based lawyer at OFW Law, is the author of “Young J. Edgar: Hoover and the Red Scare, 1919-1920.”