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Understanding J. Edgar Hoover's America

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, gives a speech during testimony before a Senate committee in 1953 in Washington, D.C. (Bob Mulligan/AFP/Getty Images)
J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, gives a speech during testimony before a Senate committee in 1953 in Washington, D.C. (Bob Mulligan/AFP/Getty Images)

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J. Edgar Hoover, former FBI director.

History has cast him as powerful, paranoid, a man not afraid to use the power of the FBI to intimidate and investigate his critics. But that’s how he’s seen now.

What about then?

“He was more popular than most of us remember in these days,” historian Beverly Gage says. “That’s really important because it means that his story, the things that he did, the things that he stood for, were also popular.”

So popular that he held his job for 48 years and eight presidencies.

“He really had his fingers in almost everything that happened in American politics from the 1920s up through the 1970s,” Gage adds.

“How his power worked is really critical to understanding how politics and social movements and culture worked itself over the course of that period.”

Today, On Point: Understanding J. Edgar Hoover’s America.


Beverly Gage, professor of 20th-century U.S. history at Yale University. Author of G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. (@beverlygage)

Interview Highlights

On Hoover’s childhood in D.C. and its influences on his life

Beverly Gage: “He is an almost pure creature of Washington. He’s born there. He dies there. He never lives anywhere else. And he’s, I think, a creature of the city in lots of other ways, as well. First of all, even in the late 19th century, he’s born into a family with a tradition of federal government service, which was pretty unusual at the time, because the federal government wasn’t very big. It didn’t do very many things.

“For instance, there was no Bureau of Investigation at that point. But he comes of age in this tradition of government, professional career service that’s just kind of taking off as he’s growing up. And then the other thing that I think is really important about Washington is that in that moment, it is truly a southern city. And during the years that Hoover was growing up there, it’s a city that was actively segregating and coming up with new laws, enforcing racial segregation in new ways. So he went to segregated schools. His employment was always segregated, and I think that had a really dramatic effect on his own racial outlook.”

On racism and Hoover’s time at George Washington University 

Beverly Gage: “I think it’s pretty widely known that Hoover had racist views, that he was racist. But one of the things that I wanted to try to figure out in this biography was where did those ideas come from? Washington is one part of the story. But then I began to look into his college fraternity, which was this organization called Kappa Alpha. He was very devoted to Kappa Alpha, became its chapter president, was active as an alum for many, many years, drew many of the first generation of FBI officials out of Kappa Alpha.

“And it turns out that Kappa Alpha was an explicitly Southern segregationist fraternity that had been created in 1865 to kind of carry on the lost cause of the white South in the aftermath of the Civil War. And by the time Hoover joined it, its kind of national standard bearers, its most famous alums were people like Thomas Dixon, who was a famous novelist in that moment, who wrote the books upon which Birth of the Nation, the sort of famously racist film of 1915, celebrating the Ku Klux Klan, was based. And so, you can just see Hoover’s mind being shaped by this broader environment, but by this very specific institution, which he was very devoted to and really loved his whole life.”

On the genesis of this book

Beverly Gage: “I’m very self-punishing. So that was really the idea. No. So I didn’t think it would take quite as long as it did, but I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a really big project and that was part of the appeal. Some of it was that Hoover was this amazing vehicle to tell a big story about the 20th century and about parts of our history that we maybe don’t think about as much.

“Whether that is some of what we were just talking about or simply the growth of the federal government itself, the national security state. And Hoover really embodies all of that. And then the second piece was that there were lots and lots of new records that had come out since the last generation of biography. And so I am a history nerd, and I wanted to get my hands on those records. But as it turns out, there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of pages of such records. And so yeah, so it took a while to do.”

On religion in Hoover’s life

Beverly Gage: “It was a really core element, not only of his childhood and his personal makeup, but of the way that he presented himself to the country. And politically, the sort of puzzle that I’m trying to work out in the book is that on the one hand, Hoover is a standard bearer for a kind of professional expert. Investigative, just the facts, nonpartisan government service that we would tend to think about as maybe a progressive or a liberal tradition.

“And then on the other hand, he’s a really powerful and very outspoken social conservative on lots of issues, race and communism, but on religion as well. And it’s kind of strange to think about the FBI director giving these kinds of stern moral lectures, which he loved to give … to the nation at large, kind of admonishing people to go to Sunday school to return to their moral core. And some of that had to do with the struggle against atheistic communism. Others was his kind of individualistic moral approach to crime and law and order. But I think it’s really core to understanding him as a cultural figure and for understanding how he built the FBI.”

Book Excerpt

G-man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, by Beverly Gage. Excerpt used with permission of the publisher, Viking. Not to be reprinted without permission. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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