It would certainly be exciting to discover – as the authors of some of the deleted comments on this thread propose – that the young J. Edgar Hoover got his start in Washington by blackmailing his superiors and establishing himself as a fixture on the DC cross-dressing scene. The truth, sadly, is more prosaic. Hoover was a Jedi-level master of the bureaucratic filing system.
To expand, and understand how he was able to rise so quickly within the Department of Justice, and eventually to be appointed to head the Bureau of Investigation (the organization now known as the FBI), we need to consider three key points.
First, the organization that Hoover joined was not a vast modern bureaucracy after the model of the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was a far more modest organization, and one in which the investigative apparatus – the part of the Department that would eventually become the FBI – was notably small, understaffed, and (thanks in part to the efforts required to expand its staffing and remit rather rapidly during the First World War) amateurish relative to what it would become.
Moreover, simply because it grew so rapidly during the war, those who joined the DoJ in this period tended to grow with it. There were plenty of opportunities to gain promotion.
So it was, quite simply, easier than we might imagine for Hoover to stand out, and while he was – at least after his tenure – often attacked for his politics, his ruthless attempts to secure his own position, his partiality when it came to favoring certain investigations over others, and his willingness to ignore important aspects of his job, not least combatting Mafia-type organized crime, even his worst enemies concede that he was an outstandingly effective bureaucrat.
As Charles McCormick puts it, “his mantra was centralized efficiency and thoroughness and his belief was that one could never have too much information.” Hoover’s strong work ethic, his ability as an organizer, and, especially, his determination to professionalize the organization he joined were the most important reasons behind his rapid rise.
Hoover’s efficiency, secondly, contrasted sharply with that of his immediate predecessors, especially when it came to his tenure with the Bureau of Investigation.
William Flynn, who had been in post during the immediate post-war “red scare” period that resulted in the notorious “Palmer Raids” on suspected radicals, lost his job (twice, with reappointment in between) when it was shown he had illegally ordered surveillance of an influential German-American newspaperman, and when he failed to keep public promises to track down those responsible for the very high profile Wall Street bombing of September 1920.
His successors, William Moran and William Burns, were both exposed during their tenures as actively corrupt, and Hoover inherited his position as head of the BI largely because he had kept his hands clean during the Teapot Dome scandal, which did for Burns.
Again, whatever criticisms can be, and have been, made of Hoover’s tenure at the FBI, permitting the flourishing of a culture of corruption was certainly not one of them. With his reputation as an efficient “straight arrow” and prominent opponent of communism, he shone in comparison to his predecessors and was far enough down the chain of command to escape censure for the excesses that undoubtedly took place in this period.
It definitely helped – in the fearful and fervently anti-communist atmosphere of the time – that he had used his outstanding administrative skills (developed during a period spent working as a cataloguer for the Library of Congress) during the war to build up the Enemy Aliens Registration Section, and after it to direct the creation of a highly useful filing system that kept track of 10,000 suspected radicals.
His system, in the eyes of some influential contemporaries, was the main reason that the US was able to deal with the radical threat at a time when the spread of international Bolshevism was probably the number one fear within the federal government.
Finally, Hoover had the ability to attract patrons. He owed his rapid initial progression within the Department of Justice in part to the patronage of John Lord O’Brien, the assistant Attorney-General, who admired his work in the Alien Enemy Bureau. Similarly, his rapid progress within the Bureau of Investigation was a product of his positive relationship with his boss, William J. Burns.
In both cases, Hoover’s willingness to work hard, over long hours, and his ability to organize efficiently, made his bosses look good and made their lives far easier.
We can summarise by saying that Hoover had abilities and virtues that set him clearly apart from his predecessors in the posts he held; that his faults – most notably his willingness to ignore civil liberties in pursuit of what he conceived of as national security – were not viewed as such by most of his peers at the time; and that his weaknesses as a head of a crime-fighting operation did not become apparent until well into his eventual 50-year tenure as head of the FBI.
2. Kenneth D. Ackermann, Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare and the Assault on Civil Liberties (2007)
3. Jeffrey B. Bumgarner, Federal Agents: The Growth of Federal Law Enforcement in America (2006)
4. Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI (2004)
5. Charles H. McCormick, Hopeless Cases: The Hunt for the Red Scare Terrorist Bombers (2005)