Fear of the evil foreigner seems to be an ever-present poison in American politics, and it was running higher than usual in 1917 when young J. Edgar Hoover took his first job at the Justice Department. It is a fear that flourishes most dangerously when whooped up by politicians too highly reputed as statesmen to be dismissed as demagogues, and the man whooping loudest in 1917 was President Woodrow Wilson, the most pious statesman of the day. Wilson’s evil foreigner was a German spy-saboteur burrowed deep in American society and spreading disloyalty and terror on behalf of Kaiser Wilhelm.
It was a natural choice for Wilson. He had just guided the United States into war against Germany, in alliance with Britain and France, and needed to assume the role of warrior president. Minor patriots were showing their mettle by striking “sauerkraut” off the menu and substituting “liberty cabbage,” but stronger stuff is required of presidents. Wilson chose brutal legal assaults that created public fear while dramatizing his readiness to protect Americans from foreign agents supposedly infesting the community. By executive order he authorized the arrest and imprisonment without trial of foreigners the government deemed dangerous to the United States. Under the Espionage Act of 1917 he authorized the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of citizens who expressed or circulated ideas at odds with his war policy.
In Enemies, Tim Weiner states that of 1,055 people convicted under the Espionage Act, not one was a spy. “Most were political dissidents who spoke against the war. Their crimes were words, not deeds,” he writes.
Wilson’s own words had prepared Americans to accept this roughhouse justice. In a message to Congress he declared the nation gravely threatened by subversive forces that had to be “crushed out,” adding, “The hand of our power should close over them at once.” Germany, he said, had “filled our unsuspecting communities and even our offices of government with spies, and set criminal intrigues everywhere afoot.” He warned of “vicious spies and conspirators” who “spread sedition among us,” and said that “many of our own people were corrupted” by them. Wilson’s rhetoric stoked such fear that one Justice Department official later said, “When we declared war, there were persons who expected to see a veritable reign of terror in America.”
Such was the political culture of Washington when J. Edgar Hoover, twenty-two years old, started work in the Justice Department’s War Emergency Division. It was a culture he accepted with enthusiasm; he was destined to spend the rest of his life promoting it with a zeal that would make him the most powerful and most feared policeman in American history. With his lifelong readiness to put his own idea of patriotic necessity ahead of constitutional nicety, Hoover was the spiritual child of Woodrow …