OFFICIAL AND CONFIDENTIAL: The Secret Life of J. Edgar HooverBy ANTHONY SUMMERS
Ebury Press, 2011, 602 pages, $19.95 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for half a century, tends to be best (almost fondly) known for his cross-dressing homosexuality but, as Anthony Summers shows in his biography of Hoover, the world’s most famous police official should be better known for his real crime – political policing.
Hoover, with his abnormally early passion for data gathering, well understood that information is power and as a right wing Republican law graduate working in the Department of Justice, he was the mastermind behind the ‘Red raids’ of 1919, his massive card index of left-wing radicals guiding the violent police arrests, imprisonment and deportations.
Promoted to FBI Director as his reward, Hoover rose to prominence in the 1930s on the back of a crime wave panic, milking the battles against the likes of Bonnie and Clyde in a display of a career-long aptitude – self-promotion through taking all the credit without any of the risk. Hoover managed to be absent when the gangsters’ bullets were flying, just as the patriotic school cadet contrived to miss World War 1.
Charged with spying on American Nazis during the war, Hoover was less than eager (this was a man who, on his holidays at Miami Beach, chose hotels which carried the sign NO JEWS, NO DOGS, and who regarded women, blacks and Mexicans as little better). His “enemies of choice” were always the Communists, those who were ‘hoodwinked and duped into joining hands with the Communists’ and anyone who might pose a threat to Hoover. Striking unionists, civil libertarians, Black activists, liberal Supreme Court judges, police officials who fell out with him - all were caught in the Hoover net.
Hoover, says Summers, bore “primary responsibility for the anti-communist hysteria from which American society has never fully recovered”. He leaked file information on actors, writers, artists, journalists, scientists and public servants to his ideological soul mate, Senator Joseph McCarthy, making the Senator’s witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee so effective in smearing and neutralising critics of the government. The FBI ‘information’ was, as official investigations revealed after his death, a “mishmash of unchecked tittle-tattle”, writes Summers, equal parts rumour, gossip, conjecture and hearsay, two or three times removed.
The FBI hunted ‘subversives’ on the flimsiest of grounds leaving real crime relatively untouched. In New York in 1959, for example, 400 FBI agents were working on Communism and just four on organised crime. Sometimes the crooks simply bribed the sheriff but it was blackmail over Hoover’s homosexuality that gave mobsters their hold on him - Mafia boss, Meyer Lansky, boasted in private that Hoover had been ‘fixed’.
Exposure of his sexuality was Hoover’s biggest fear because it could spell the end for a public official, so Hoover publicly disassociated himself from homosexuality by turning on other gays. He loudly proclaimed his hunt for ‘sex deviates’ in government service whilst the FBI infiltrated gay rights groups. This infiltration was part of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s secret, dirty-tricks operation to divide, disrupt and discredit the anti-Vietnam war, civil rights, women’s liberation and other progressive movements. Social progress was delayed, jobs were lost and lives were lost in this attack on civil liberties.
None of the eight Presidents Hoover served, Republican or Democrat, tossed the corrupt, narcissistic, authoritarian, anti-democratic, megalomaniac out on his ear. All politicians lived in fear of the files he held on them (for past misdemeanours including dodgy business deals, ballot-rigging, vote-buying and hypocritical sexual liaisons) and Hoover was never refused more funding or powers.
His nominal political bosses griped about Hoover in private (Lyndon Johnson summed up their cynical attitude by calling Hoover a ‘skunk’ but adding that ‘it’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in’) but all Presidents were also keen to use the FBI as their “private political police force” to dig up dirt on their political opponents.
Above all, the politicians protected Hoover because they were united in what the FBI called ‘The Cause’ – fighting ‘communism’, a highly elastic concept used as a cover to fight any challenge to the status quo of capitalist economic and political power. Hoover’s job was the politicians’ job – policing dissent.