During the 1930s, Hoover worked diligently to professionalize FBI agents, many of whom were trained as attorneys and accountants rather than detectives or policemen. Hoover's enforcement of Prohibition (until it was nullified in 1933) and the FBI's apprehension of several high-profile criminals in the 1930s lent him and the agency an air of invincibility and respect. They also allowed Hoover entrée to the highest levels of power in the American government. It was not at all unusual, in fact, for Hoover to meet with the president on a regular basis.
World War II and the early Cold War brought dramatic expansions in the FBI's personnel and operating costs. During 1936–1945, the number of FBI agents grew from approximately 600 to nearly 4,900. To maintain a sizable postwar force and budget for the FBI, Hoover contended that the Cold War confronted the United States not only with the external threat of a Soviet attack but also with an internal threat of communist subversion. He asserted that there were operatives within the United States who were conducting espionage for the Soviets and scheming to overthrow the U.S. government and that communists and communist sympathizers held jobs in the federal government. The advent of McCarthyism, a four-year-long anticommunist witch-hunt (1950–1954), only added to the urgency of Hoover's exaggerated warnings. By 1952, the FBI had more than 7,000 agents.
The FBI investigated federal employees suspected of belonging to or supporting the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in addition to many other citizens who were neither members of the Communist Party nor connected to it in any way. Frequent targets of investigation also included labor unions and civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The FBI helped investigate and take into custody Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who in 1951 were convicted and sentenced to death for conspiracy to commit espionage by allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenberg case fueled Americans' fears that domestic subversives were indeed plotting against the nation and bolstered public support for the FBI.
To counter the alleged domestic Red menace, FBI agents sometimes engaged in illegal activities, many of them conceived and authorized by Hoover, including break-ins, use of secret listening devices, mail searches, and the leaking of confidential information about subjects under surveillance to the press and congressional representatives, such as members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). HUAC interrogated Americans who were currently or formerly associated with the Communist Party or who had supported liberal causes or criticized the U.S. government.
In 1956, the FBI launched a counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO, to infiltrate and sabotage organizations that Hoover regarded as national security threats. Although in the 1960s the FBI did investigate certain right-wing associations such as the Ku Klux Klan, it chiefly targeted a wide array of liberal and left-wing groups and individuals, including civil rights organizations, free speech advocates, Vietnam War protesters, black nationalists, women's rights activists, and student radicals. Hoover believed that such individuals and groups aided communist subversion by destabilizing and attempting to destroy American society. One of COINTELPRO's most notorious cases was the clandestine surveillance and harassment of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover discontinued COINTELPRO in 1971.
Over the years, Hoover helped cultivate popular support for the FBI by encouraging favorable portrayals of agents in the press and in literature, film, and television. But in the Watergate era of the mid-1970s, many of the FBI's abuses of power came to light through citizens' activism, the news media, and the 1975 U.S. Senate investigations of the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Americans were shocked to learn of decades of surveillance of millions of U.S. citizens deemed subversive, thereby denying them their constitutional rights. They also discovered that both Democratic and Republican presidents, beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt, had used the FBI to investigate critics of their administrations. Detractors of the FBI charged that Hoover's obsession with communists and alleged communist sympathizers had resulted in the FBI violating the rights of the citizenry it was supposed to protect. Hoover died in 1972 and was succeeded by a host of directors, none of whom proved to be as tenacious or controversial as he. After Hoover's death, subsequent directors worked to purge the FBI of the excesses of the Hoover era. Hoover's successor, L. Patrick Gray, ordered the FBI to hire its first female agents, a notion that would have been anathema to the old-school Hoover.
Increases in federal oversight of FBI activities in the late 1970s were partially lifted during Ronald Reagan's administration (1981–1989). Cold War concerns about leftist insurgencies in Central America in the early 1980s led the FBI to investigate the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, a social justice organization, and to assert its involvement in terrorism, which later proved to be unfounded. The capture of several FBI agents who had spied for Moscow during the 1980s and 1990s further marred the FBI's image.
Donna Alvah and John H. Barnhill
Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: Norton, 2001.; Olmsted, Kathryn S. Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.; Theoharis, Athan G., and John Stuart Cox. The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.