Beginning in 1919, Hoover spent two years as a special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Hoover's anticommunist crusade began under Palmer when he assisted in the arrests of more than 4,000 suspected radicals and resident aliens, a number of whom were deported. Following this First Red Scare, the Palmer Raids, and the financial scandals of President Warren Harding's administration, on 10 May 1924 Hoover was appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation (soon to become known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation). He turned his attention to reforming the agency, increasing its professionalism, and, above all, crafting an image of himself as a tough, progressive, and scientific crime fighter.
By the late 1930s Hoover was convinced that communism threatened social values and posed a significant threat to the United States. This attitude hardened in the postwar period when the FBI liaison to the highly secret Venona project, an army intelligence effort to decode thousands of Soviet diplomatic cables, reported the discovery of a Soviet spy ring within the U.S. government.
Hoover's fear that the hidden apparatus of the Communist Party had permeated American liberal organizations set much of the domestic tone of the early Cold War in the United States. His belief that President Harry S. Truman's loyalty program had not gone far enough to stanch the communist threat prompted his testimony in 1947 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Hoover also elaborated on the dangers posed by communism in such books as Masters of Deceit (1958) and A Study of Communism (1962). Under his direction, the FBI arrested the leaders of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) utilizing provisions of the anticommunist Smith Act; tracked down secret communists in government, such as Alger Hiss, a former State Department official accused of espionage; and arrested and interrogated Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were accused of betraying the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union.
The 1950s perhaps marked the height of Hoover's influence, as he enjoyed the trust of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and lived a privileged life that included the company of millionaires and Hollywood celebrities. By the end of the decade the FBI had broken the back of the CPUSA, which forced the Soviet Union to replace its network of ideologically motivated spies with professionals and paid informants. Hoover nonetheless refused to acknowledge his anticommunist successes and continued to devote FBI resources to fight the CPUSA and other radical groups, often at the expense of emerging hot-button issues such as growing violence against civil rights workers in the South and the continued rise of organized crime.
Hoover had a strained relationship with President John F. Kennedy, but President Lyndon B. Johnson understood Hoover's clout and used the FBI much as President Franklin Roosevelt had, as a tool to advance his political agenda. Johnson pushed Hoover to destroy the network of violent Ku Klux Klan organizations in the South through use of the FBI's counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). It combined wiretapping with the use of informants and disinformation campaigns designed to disrupt target groups. However, the presence of former and current Communist Party members in civil rights and antiwar groups inspired Hoover to direct COINTELPRO operations against civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers, the tiny Socialist Workers' Party, and many others groups and individuals who attracted the FBI's attention.
Hoover, the longest-serving FBI director in history, died of a heart attack on 2 May 1972 in Washington, D.C. Although still respected at the time of his death, revelations about the extent of his domestic spying and the FBI's illegal activities as well as about the details of his personal life greatly tarnished his reputation.
Vernon L. Pedersen
Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. New York: Norton, 2001.; Powers, Richard Gid. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press, 1988.; Theoharis, Athan G., and John Stuart Cox. The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.