The Master of Hate

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J. Edgar Hoover with President Nixon at an FBI Academy graduation ceremony held at the White House, May 1969. Hoover named Nixon an honorary member of the FBI.

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 Wilson.

It was this culture, too, that formed his determination to make the FBI an intelligence service protecting the government from alien threats rather than a crime-fighting police force shooting it out with domestic gangsters, as depicted on movie screens and breakfast cereal boxes. As a result, for most of its existence the FBI has been basically a secret intelligence service keeping vast numbers of people under surveillance and compiling a long record of illegal arrests, detentions, break-ins, burglaries, wiretapping, and bugging.

Such is the conclusion of Tim Weiner’s intensely researched history of the bureau. Lawbreaking by lawmen, as every police reporter knows, can easily become a casual habit in certain kinds of police work, but it seems to be universally accepted as essential among agents on the intelligence beat. As a journalist with a long successful career covering the world of secret intelligence, Weiner seems uneasy about this, but aware that illegal deeds are sometimes necessary to protect a free society.

The question, of course, is always: How much illegal activity is too much, especially when it is a president who is issuing the work order? During the Iran-contra affair in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan presided over such blatant contempt for law that he seems to have been flirting with impeachment. Congress let it pass, however, perhaps because he was Reagan. It was not so indulgent with Richard Nixon. Nixon held that it was simply impossible for a president to do anything illegal because presidents enjoyed a unique immunity from law. “If the president does it, it is not illegal,” he and his defenders insisted. And so, in his White House tapes we find Nixon ordering up a burglary in a style reminiscent of Edward G. Robinson: “Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”

Enemies is a companion volume to Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, a history of the CIA, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2007. With this new history of the FBI, he appears to be the reference source to go to when the subject is America’s troubled career in secret intelligence. Though both books contain huge quantities of information, both are always readable, often entertaining, and sometimes hair-raising. In Enemies the accounts of the incompetence that afflicted the bureau after Hoover’s death and its impotence when confronted by the rising fury of religious fanaticism in al-Qaeda are not just hair-raising, they are tragic comedy.

Weiner works in the journalistic tradition of I.F. Stone, whose best work usually resulted from his exhaustive reading of documents available to the public in such quantity that few reporters had time or patience to read them. For Enemies Weiner drew on some 70,000 pages of declassified documents, among them some of Hoover’s intelligence files, and over two hundred oral histories recorded by former agents. These documents, dealing with hundreds of events scattered over the past century, provide him with a fascinating mixture of subject matter—criminal, political, comical, scandalous—some of it familiar, much of it not so widely known.

Is everyone aware, for example, that Mark Felt—Hoover’s chief lieutenant and the mysterious “Deep Throat” whose leaks to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the Watergate burglary helped bring down President Nixon—was working systematically with a group of top FBI agents to engineer Nixon’s fall? And that, though the public did not learn “Deep Throat’s” identity for thirty-three years, it was known to Nixon within ten days after Felt’s first leak appeared in The Washington Post?

While Felt was leaking to the press about the president’s Watergate involvement, someone else, perhaps another FBI agent, was leaking to the White House about Felt’s leaking to the press. Such was life in the world of top secrecy. According to their oral histories, a group of senior FBI agents decided to get involved partly because, when Hoover died, Nixon chose L. Patrick Gray instead of Mark Felt to succeed him. They saw Gray as a clueless political stooge whose appointment demeaned the bureau.

“It hurt all of us deeply,” one of the mutinous agents recalled in an oral history.

Felt was the one that would have been the Director’s first pick. But the Director died. And Mark Felt should have moved up right there and then. And that’s what got him into the act. He was going to find out what was going on in there. And, boy, he really did.

Why didn’t Nixon immediately fire Felt? The answer is preserved in the Nixon White House tapes, with Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, saying: “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything. He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI…. He has access to absolutely everything…. Gray’s scared to death. We’ve got to give him a warning….”

Then Nixon: “What would you do with Felt?… Christ! You know what I’d do with him? Bastard!”

As Weiner explores the old documents we revisit two of Washington’s more highly favored Latin American dictators—Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic—running ham-handed murder plots in the United States to eliminate irritating dissidents. We see young Hoover himself showing up one icy night in 1919 at Ellis Island to savor a moment of triumph: he has come in person to see the celebrated anarchist-lecturer Emma Goldman put on a ship for deportation to the Soviet Union.

We are given the roll call of intelligence agents—FBI, CIA, and military—who sold secrets to Soviet spymasters, not out of devotion to Marxism, but usually to supplement their government salaries. Moscow seems to have had millions to spend on American entrepreneurial risk-takers looking for profit. We also meet Katrina Leung, identified by Weiner as the FBI’s most valued source on Chinese espionage in the United States, who was spying for China as well during the 1980s and 1990s. People in the bureau had long suspected she was a double agent, but since she was “having sex” with an FBI special agent and occasionally, too, with a leading FBI counterintelligence expert on China, nobody wanted to embarrass the bureau by asking awkward questions. For her work as an intelligence asset, the FBI paid her more than $1.7 million.

The heart of Weiner’s book, however, is the story of J. Edgar Hoover, who ruled supreme for forty-eight years. Until his death in 1972, Hoover was not simply the director of the FBI—Hoover was the FBI. Hoover decided who would become an FBI agent, and who would not. Under Hoover, no woman ever would; blacks were unwelcome. Hoover favored Catholics and Marine Corps veterans. Hoover established the square suit-and-necktie dress code that made FBI men so easy to recognize (“Snap-brim hats and affidavit faces” was the phrase coined by Edward Bennett Williams, Washington’s celebrated attorney for the defense). All publicity about the bureau flowed from Hoover through authorized spokesmen; self-promoters might find themselves transferred to distant rustic byways.

Hoover also decided how much money to request annually from Congress, knowing that members would vote him even more as a gesture of their respect. All Washington knew that Hoover could secretly spy on all politicians, including presidents and their wives, and could also keep their embarrassing secrets out of the press if so disposed. He was not so disposed toward Eleanor Roosevelt after she became angry upon learning that the FBI was spying on her. News leaks began appearing about the First Lady’s friendship with a newspaperwoman known for lesbian inclinations.

Hoover provides Weiner’s book with an overpowering character of dark, operatic grandeur: the patriotic policeman who embodies the state’s terrible power to create a culture of fear. He seems close kin to Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert, whose single-minded devotion to a grotesque concept of justice makes him a self-righteous lunatic. Late in his career, sending his shocking hate notes that urge Martin Luther King to kill himself, Hoover finally seems to slip into a madness artistically suitable for the opera house, but alarmingly beyond bizarre when played out in the bureaucratic barrens of the Justice Department.

His lifelong ambition to establish an autocratic security state seems to have made him despise whatever he thought was a threat to state security. “He was very consistent throughout the years. The things he hated, he hated all his life,” according to William Sullivan, who had served high in the FBI intelligence division. “He hated liberalism, he hated blacks, he hated Jews—he had this great long list of hates.”

Weiner thinks he “hated ideologies more than individuals, pressure groups more than people; above all, Hoover hated threats to the stability of the American political system.” The black civil rights movement represented such a threat, and he became one of its fiercest enemies. Backed by Moscow, infiltrated by Communists—that was his judgment. He hated it, and he hated Martin Luther King.

He was also Washington’s consummate master of bureaucracy politics: ruthless in the uses of power, passionate in his loyalty to the state, and merciless in hostility to all he perceived to be its enemies. He could impress presidents, amuse them with salacious gossip, defy them, scare them, or sometimes simply ignore them. Although he got along well with Joseph P. Kennedy, who founded the short-lived political dynasty that came to power in the 1960s, he seems to have detested Robert Kennedy, who became his boss after President Kennedy made him attorney general in 1961. He could not have approved of President Kennedy’s private character and surely must have been pleased when duty required him to notify the president that the FBI had been monitoring his sex life and regarded some of his adulterous partners as potentially too dangerous to be suitable company for a president to keep.

J. Edgar Hoover with Clyde Tolson, his deputy and frequent companion, 1936

Hoover the bureaucrat played rough when an intruder tried to move in on his turf. In the Truman years when the new CIA was licensed to assume responsibilities for protecting the American way of life, Hoover became outraged and immediately started spying on the spy agency’s spies, Weiner writes, with wiretaps on CIA officers suspected of Communist sympathies or homosexual tendencies.

Weiner credits Hoover’s “political cunning,…stoic patience, [and] iron will” with ensuring the FBI’s endurance as a secret intelligence service: “He never lost his faith that the fate of the nation lay with him and his work. And he never took his eyes off his enemies.”

Hoover dominates Weiner’s book, but unfortunately, he dies in the middle of it, leaving half a book to go, with only a handful of comparatively unexciting characters to replace the star performer. Suddenly the opera is over. So is the cold war, and so, too, is the long reign of the most widely feared evil foreigner ever to haunt American politics and government—the Communist who took orders from Moscow. When the cold war’s decline finally made him obsolete he had done his terrifying work for nearly half a century.

Fear and hatred of communism had been a thriving political passion since 1918. When the Kaiser was beaten, the evil German spy-saboteur almost instantly lost his power to terrify. He was useless for the long run anyhow, since a large percentage of the American population was of German ancestry and proud of it. Never mind—the evil Communist under orders from Moscow was available for immediate service. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had already scared the conservative American governing class with blood-soaked rhetoric about the coming triumph of the proletariat. At the war’s end Wilson had some 18,000 American soldiers in revolutionary Russia looking for combat with the Bolsheviks. The anticommunism that was to shape American politics through much of the next seventy years burst out as if by spontaneous combustion. Weiner attributes it partly to economic failures following World War I:

Nine Million American workers in war industries were being demobilized. They found new jobs scarce. The cost of living had nearly doubled since the start of the war. As four million American solders started coming home, four million American workers went out on strike. The United States never had seen such confrontations between workers and bosses. The forces of law and order felt the Reds were behind it all.

Hoover became a blooded warrior in the anti-Communist wars at the age of twenty-five, having made his bones, as it were, in the Palmer raids of 1920. A. Mitchell Palmer, Wilson’s attorney general, was a former congressman with presidential ambitions, and he thought a mighty whack at the Communists might propel him toward glory. He called on Hoover to produce the whacking. What Hoover produced was the biggest mass arrest in American history. Operations began on the first Friday in January 1920. Weiner describes them:

The Bureau broke into political meetings, private homes, social clubs, dance halls, restaurants, and saloons across America. Agents hauled people out of bookstores and bedrooms…. The Bureau took 2,585 prisoners on Friday night and Saturday morning, but their job was only half done. The raids went on into the next week. Agents sought at least 2,705 new warrants. In addition, hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, were arrested without warrants. All told, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people were swept up in the raids….
By Wednesday, January 7, roughly five thousand captives crowded county jails and federal detention centers across the country. Ellis Island was overflowing. Chicago’s prisons were jammed. In Detroit, eight hundred suspects filled a corridor on the top floor of the post office; the mayor protested the lockup, and a prominent citizen compared it to the Black Hole of Calcutta. In Boston Harbor, more than six hundred huddled in the unheated prison on Deer Island.

Civil liberties were obviously not highly esteemed in 1920. Though there was no law making it a crime or even a misdemeanor to belong to Communist organizations or to associate with people who did, Hoover exploited the fashion for autocratic police behavior by treating communism as a major felony. Now and then, however, he ran into serious opposition, as when President Coolidge, cleaning up after the mess left by President Harding’s Ohio gang, installed Harlan Fiske Stone as attorney general. Though scarcely a liberal, Stone believed in the value of civil liberties. He had criticized the Palmer raids and urged the Senate to look into their legality. When Stone took office, the Bureau of Investigation (“Federal” had not yet been added to the name) “was turning into an illegal weapon of political warfare,” Weiner writes.

Agents were conducting espionage—eavesdropping, mail interceptions, burglaries, office break-ins—against some well-known senators politically opposed to Harry Daugherty, Harding’s corrupt attorney general. Hoover was still only second in command of the bureau, but Stone, after firing his superior, put him in temporary command with a warning:

The Bureau would only investigate violations of federal law…. No more midnight break-ins at the Capitol. No more cloak-and-dagger work. No more mass arrests. The Bureau would no longer be an instrument of political warfare. It was out of the spy business.

“Hoover said yes, sir” and hunkered down, and after nine months as attorney general Stone left to take a seat on the Supreme Court. Hoover stayed, doing things his way, for the next forty-eight years. Soon he was steering the bureau back to the work he thought it ought to be doing; to wit, fighting communism, the enemy supreme. When Franklin Roosevelt told him to give close attention to fascist and Communist activities he kept a dutiful eye on the domestic Nazis, but he seemed far more interested in communism’s attempts at union takeovers and hunted vigorously for leftists in the heavy industries, government, universities, and the military.

Under President Eisenhower and his compliant secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, the bureau bullied the State Department and foreign service with special ferocity and drove out most of its veteran Asian specialists with experience in dealing with China. Under pressure from a Republican Congress, Dulles installed R.W. “Scott” McLeod, a former FBI agent, to cleanse the diplomatic corps of people unsympathetic to the new anti-Communist orthodoxy.

It was in President Truman’s administration, however, that Hoover emerged as a significant political force. In effect, Hoover pushed the White House to accept a harsh new national security policy of his own devising, a plan that charted a future rich in prisons and deportations. Truman wanted none of it. He probably saw Hoover’s zealous anticommunism as an attack on the patriotism of the Democratic Party. Hoover declined to yield to White House opposition, but started looking to other Washington power centers to create support for his policy. As Weiner notes, “It was a dangerous moment in American democracy.”

Hoover’s startling assertion of independence coincided with the rising political strength of the Republican Party, which, in turn, coincided with rising public passion about communism, both foreign and domestic. There were sensible reasons for rising public passion. There was ample evidence of Soviet Communist hostility to American goals in diplomatic and military affairs. There was even cause for panic, since the Soviet Union had just ended the American monopoly on nuclear weaponry by testing its own atomic bomb. Moreover, the FBI’s files, which it shared discreetly with chosen journalists and the House Un-American Activities Committee, left no doubt that Moscow’s espionage masters had been enlisting Americans for the past quarter-century.

During the early days of the Truman administration Hoover had masterfully publicized these nasty realities of international affairs and seemed to have created a national state of mind that was much like his own. His own seemed close to an obsession with communism as a deadly menace to civilization. Communism, he told Congress, was not a political doctrine, but “a malignant and evil way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic, and like an epidemic, a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation.”

The Republican Party heard his message with delight. The party had been politically overwhelmed by the Democrats since 1932. Now it found that anticommunism gave it a winning issue. As the Democrats had blamed Republicans in election after election for the Great Depression, they could now win elections by blaming Democrats for not crushing the menace of communism. Anticommunism became the glue that held the Republican Party together. Conservative, liberal, or moderate, every Republican candidate after 1946 became a fervent anti-Communist when the campaign season opened.

This resulted in a spate of poisonous Republican rhetoric alleging that Democrats of the Roosevelt and Truman years had connived in “twenty years of treason,” and this inevitably resulted in years of personal political hatreds that tainted relationships between the parties for years afterward.

By 1948 Truman seemed to be politically finished and the Republicans assured of putting Thomas E. Dewey in the White House. Weiner says that Hoover chose this time to tell Tom Clark, Truman’s attorney general, that because of the extensive spread of Soviet espionage in the United States, he should be given broad new power over intelligence and law enforcement—that he should be made “a secret police czar.”

Hoover had plans for a stunning crackdown on domestic communism. There would be “mass detention of political suspects in military stockades, a secret prison system for jailing American citizens, and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.” The plan would become operative in time of war, emergency, national crisis, “threatened invasion,” or “rebellion,” Weiner writes. Hoover said he had a list of some 12,000 persons, mostly American citizens, and would probably add 12,000 more, who would be detained, charged, and given a hearing that would “not be bound by the rules of evidence.”

Like most Americans, Hoover assumed Dewey would be elected that fall and was “working behind the scenes” to support him, Weiner writes. When Hoover learned that Truman had pulled the great upset of the century, “he left his desk at FBI headquarters and did not come back for two weeks. His public relations office told the press that Hoover had pneumonia. He simply disappeared.”

Not for long, of course. He stayed on the job for another twenty-four years. Even so, he still departed much too soon to see the American prison of his dreams finally built at Guantánamo Bay.