J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover; drawing by David Levine

The replacement of Allan Pinkerton, dealer in detectives for Wealth during the late nineteenth century, by J. Edgar Hoover, supervisor of detectives for Commonwealth, must be the only episode in our social history to realize Marx’s prescription for the transformation of capitalistic private property into socialized property. For, as Pinkerton was the only great acquisitor of the nineteenth century whose legacy has since been nationalized, Mr. Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation is unique among our public institutions as an example of the triumph of the socialist idea.

Its critics have often argued that socialism, once it takes power, lacks the creative impulse essential to technical development, and that, once the expropriation of private property is accomplished, the bureaucrat can conceive no device for managing it for the public good beyond those the displaced enterpriser had already invented for his personal profit. Such arguments gain unexpected force from the coincidental republication of most of Mr. Hoover’s thoughts and some of Allan Pinkerton’s.

Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives was Pinkerton’s account of the great strikes of 1877, whose course he resisted as a spymaster for the railroad managers and whose punishment he subsequently accomplished as a criminal investigator. We had already known that most of Mr. Hoover’s devices for protecting the public order had originally been discovered by Pinkerton, who created the Rogues Gallery—that progenitor of the FBI’s Public Enemy list—who first protected the confidential informant by assigning him a code name in his files, and who refined the undercover agent from a rudimentary workman into the skilled professional he is today.

Pinkerton would certainly have been first to use all the mechanical means at Mr. Hoover’s disposal if the engineers of his time had progressed far enough to provide him with a recognizable opportunity; as it was, the employment of wiretapping would wait until thirty years after his death. In The Masked War, William J. Burns, almost as legendary an operative as Pinkerton and Hoover, but otherwise a much more stolid fellow, tells us that in 1912 he used a dictograph to record the conversations of visitors to the cell of a kept, but shaky, witness. In his matter-of-fact account, persons afflicted with historical imagination can thrill at the debut of the “bug.”

But Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives suggests for the first time that Mr. Hoover’s debt to Pinkerton is not just for the techniques of production but for the more important ones of marketing. For, without the shadow of the Peril, who will appreciate the Protector? That remains a problem for the socialized detective almost as much as it used to be for the private one. Marketing is the mass distribution of fantasies, and it is crucial for the distributor to be caught by the fantasy he sells. To be sure of being contagious, it is safest to be infected.

Henry Ford, Lydia Pinkham, Allan Pinkerton—and who knows how many other forces for change in the buying habits of Americans?—were all half-mad. To read their lives is to stand in awe of the light which broke upon D. H. Lawrence when he read Moby Dick and recognized how many American endeavors are described by that image of the voyage with a maniac captain of the soul and three eminently practical mates. 1 What seems senility to the congressmen who have only now begun their gingerly dance in defiance of Mr. Hoover is really fantasy preserved intact:

Never before in the history of our country had there come such a swift and far-reaching peril; nor had we record of any government being thus obliged to thus suddenly confront so overwhelming a danger.

—Allan Pinkerton, 1878

Today our country faces the most severe test ever to confront a free people.

—J. Edgar Hoover, 1964

So Mr. Hoover found the tablets already engraved; no further exercise was demanded of him except some tracery at the edges. The Founder, a keen self-advertiser, published eighteen volumes running over three million words; James Horan, in his book on the Pinkertons, tells us that Pinkerton once disclosed to his son (detectives disclose while the rest of us only tell) that he had “seven writers working on my stories.” Mr. Hoover must be well along to catching up with him. Who does not believe that by now there must exist at least two million words under his signature and very probably from his own pen, the manner being so hard to imitate?

The method of exposition is common to both, being marked by reticence about one’s own methods and unbounded hyperbole about the perfidy of the enemy’s. Mr. Hoover’s prose is informed by an animus both broader and more deeply felt. His writing is social in purpose where Pinkerton’s ran more to the commercial. Still Mr. Hoover’s style exhibits a noticeable falling-off in vigor and elegance; the hacks of the nineteenth century were livelier than the hacks of the twentieth.


Mr. Hoover tirelessly labors, but he cannot bear the comparison:

Just 100 years ago, communism was a mere scratch on the face of international affairs. In a dingy London apartment, a garrulous, haughty and intolerant atheist, Karl Marx, callous to the physical sufferings of his family, was busy mixing the ideological acids of this evil philosophy. Originally of interest only to skid row debaters and wandering minstrels of revolution, Marx’s pernicious doctrines were given organizational power by a beady-eyed Russian, V. I. Lenin. 2

—J. Edgar Hoover in Christianity Today, 1960

After such language, with no vigor left in it except that of the distemper of its adjectives, the blood quickens when we turn to Pinkerton on the Paris Commune:

The long restraint caused by a protracted state of siege was broken over and a period of drunkenness and debauch followed. In this condition of things the city fell an easy prey to a horde of bad men, the worst of its vile elements, and human beings so devoid of all conscience, pity or consideration, that it is hard to look upon them as possessing the least of human attributes. But this is the class, the world over, who are at the bottom of all troubles of a communistic nature. They were the real cause of the great strikes of ’77, and their prompt and utter extermination, in this and all other countries, is the only method of removing a constant menace and peril to government and society.

This ability to evoke the horror, without the use of any epithet that does not move the narrative along, must explain why Pinkerton’s customers were moved to hire him while Mr. Hoover’s can at best rouse themselves to applaud.

These two Protectors have a shared need to exaggerate the ubiquity of the Peril:

They have infiltrated every conceivable sphere of activity: youth groups; radio, television, and motion picture industries; church, school, educational and cultural groups; nationality minority groups and civil and political units.

—Mr. Hoover, to the House of Representatives Appropriations
Subcommittee, 1962

But then observe the higher imagination that Pinkerton brings to conjuring up the image of conspiracy so pervasive as virtually to overwhelm a vigilance even as pervasive as his own.

It was everywhere; it was nowhere. A condition of sedition which can be located, fixed, or given boundaries, may, by any ordinary community or government, be subdued. This uprising, in its far-reaching extent…seemed like the hideous growth of a night…. No general action for safety could be taken. Look where we might, some fresh danger was presented.

Both Mr. Hoover and Pinkerton, of course, studied the human embodiment of the Peril in the form of its leaders; for both, of course, these figures were as contemptible as their portents were terrible. Mr. Hoover’s portrait of Gus Hall, general secretary of the Communist Party, aims at the appointed lineaments of disdain—“scheming, opportunistic”—but he is too clumsy to give us much detail beyond the recital of Hall’s criminal record, which seems less blamable on Hall’s account than on the persistence of law enforcement officers in imputing criminality to opinion. He closes with this summary:

This then is the man—ex convict, propagandist, unabashed emissary of evil, and rabid advocate of a Soviet United States.

Mr. Hoover’s enmity toward the Communists is hardly more vivid than was Pinkerton’s toward the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers: “a huge political devilfish that feeds upon anything and everything necessary to satiate its appetite and give it power…animated by the vicious dictation of the Internationale…possessed with a greed for personal aggrandizement….” But when Pinkerton describes P. M. Arthur, grand chief engineer of the Brotherhood, there is unexpected charm in his sketch:

I can best describe him by comparing him in personal appearance with the great evangelist, Mr. Moody, and with no disrespect to that eccentric individual. Take out of Moody’s face, then, the low-browed, sullen-eyed, bull-dog look…give him instead of a fish-like expressionless dark eye, a bluish-gray eye full of light and animation, and, at times, of jollity and merriment…and then give to every motion of his form and features determined, decisive action that reminds you of superb and finely-governed machinery, and you have the man before you.”

This visage, otherwise so fair, of course conceals the conspirator who can tell the railroads that his engineers will help them run their trains, despite the strike, and “then secretly send [his] agents among the brakemen and firemen with orders to make such dastardly public threats against any engineer who should volunteer to take out an engine that the officers of the road became aghast at the prospect of violence.”


Pinkerton’s unfavorable comparison of the appearance of Dwight Moody, his century’s most conspicuous messenger of Christian acceptance, with that of Arthur, one of its Masks of Anarchy, reminds us of one difference between Pinkerton and Mr. Hoover. Pinkerton warns us that “the objects of the French commune include…atheism, materialism, the negation of all religion.” But he does not otherwise advert to such threats to God’s rule on earth. Yet what is only a trickle in him has become a torrent in Mr. Hoover. (“Atheism—militant on the part of the Communists—is the common denominator of all materialists…. Scores of individuals who have never been members of the Communist organization contribute to the spread of the philosophy of materialism. In so doing they are adding generously to the strength of the Communist movement.”)

Pinkerton, however, does not appear to have gone beyond simply posting the notice to his customers that the Peril included atheism; and even that breach of conscience for the sake of commerce must have troubled him terribly. He had been a Chartist and an atheist as a youth in Scotland. Indeed, the police were searching for him when he escaped to America. Here he shed the Chartism, but he remained a bigoted atheist until he died. He was as much an office tyrant as Mr. Hoover seems to be; but the subordinate affronts that aroused them were diametrically opposite.

Once, Horan says, Pinkerton got the news that one of Moody’s revivals had captured his Philadelphia employees. Mr. Hoover could hardly have been more enraged to learn that one of his operatives was living in sin with a young woman he was not assigned to investigate. “I would not have dreamed,” Pinkerton wrote, “that the evil preachings spread through the US by Moody and Sankey and others would have at length come into my Agency.” For the duration of the emergency, he ordered all his Philadelphia agents to work on Sundays so that there should be no danger that one of them might “in any way undertake to attend church.”

When Pinkerton turns to the portrait of Robert Ammon, leader of the Trainmen’s Union, his method is more contemptuous, but then he had early conceived a contempt for the Trainmen’s Union, perhaps because he found it a body to which admission was so easy for any person, “no matter how low and vile,” that “at the third meeting my operatives were able to become members with no trouble at all.” Still, even in disposing of Ammon, Pinkerton leaves us with the sense that he has looked at his subject, something Hoover can in no way convey when he describes Gus Hall. Ammon, Pinkerton writes:

…was of a most estimable Pittsburgh family [the echo is of Clarendon on his great enemy, John Hampden, for Pinkerton is just that stately]…. The son, Robert, has long been regarded by the family as an irreclaimable youth…. His reckless, aimless career became more marked [until] he was eventually forced into a labor which he utterly despised and became a freight brakeman…because the wages paid did not enable him to satisfy his elegant tastes and vile habits, he harangued the men about their being robbed;…he was a ranting, turbulent, trouble-provoking vagabond, with just enough assumptions to give him a certain influence and just enough brains to make him dangerous.3

There are considerably worse things about Mr. Hoover than the absence of even the smallest trace of the novelist in him. But when one reads Pinkerton and Burns, a certain pang about this deficiency is unavoidable. The old detectives had the gift of intimacy with the enemy. Petty gossip seemed to them at least as useful to understanding his nature as their general assessments of its dedicated malignity. Petty gossip seems useless to Mr. Hoover’s method. Perhaps, for him, such trivia affront the dignity of the enemy, who must be seen as subject to no vices except the high satanic ones. Otherwise Mr. Hoover’s own dignity will be affronted: armor without a chink must confront armor without a chink. Yet Burns, lumbering though he otherwise was, rather enjoyed letting the customer know what a scoundrel he could be when the fit of the hunt was upon him.

The Masked War describes Burns’s running-to-earth of the McNamara brothers in 1912, whose methods of organizing for the International Union of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers consisted of dynamiting non-union contracting sites with such success that J.J. McNamara would probably have ended up emitting patriotic sentiments on the AFL-CIO executive council if he had not made the mistake of ordering the bombing of the Los Angeles Times.

Burns opens with a few snippets of the nineteenth-century piety, “The war with dynamite was a war of Anarchy against the established form of government of this country,” but is thereafter off after the fox with not much more scruple than the fox himself. Burns failed in his efforts to catch the Anarchists he was sure had been the accomplices of the McNamaras. But the McNamaras themselves were much less well guarded by principle. They were simple labor racketeers, and their associates, when they were women, had been wronged by them, when hired thugs, had been underpaid by them, and when ordinary union officials, were anxious to get J.J. McNamara out of the way so that one of them might get promoted to his job as secretary-treasurer of the union.

Burns played upon all these motives in the most masterful fashion—because uninhibited by compunction. He brought the McNamaras down after a series of events culminating in a struggle with defense counsel Clarence Darrow for the allegiance of a key witness whom Burns had won for the prosecution with promises and whom he feared Darrow would win back with cash.

The whole story refreshingly brings back that time when the detective was not the Great Protector Pinkerton once was and Mr. Hoover is now, but just a shady fellow who set Thesis to combat Antithesis and then collected his fee by producing Synthesis from the wreckage. It was this image of the detective that was constructed with such high art in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, the only manual of Leninist tactics ever composed by an American, one by the way who was not a Leninist but a former private detective.

Such a limited view of the self as a passionless instrument was not Pinkerton’s nor is it Mr. Hoover’s, both being men incapable of imagining life without order and higher purpose.

Burns saw disorder as an opportunity. So, of course, did Pinkerton and Mr. Hoover, but they also saw it as an offense against nature. Public discontent can have no source but the Hidden Hand:

If [the Internationale’s] members did not actually inaugurate the strikes, the strikes were the direct result of the communistic spirit spread through the ranks of railroad employees by the communistic leaders and their teachings…. At the back of the actors in the scenes I have to describe…will be found the inspiration…if nothing more tangible, of the Internationale—perhaps the identical blood-red figure who “cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war” in Paris.

—Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives

Some of this [Vietnam] protest comes from legitimate peace groups and others…. However much of the agitation is part of a diabolical scheme contrived by the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA), an integral arm of the International Communist conspiracy, the materialistic, godless ideology dedicated to ruling the world.

—Mr. Hoover, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June, 1965

To function would be impossible without guile, and one has one’s methods. But since life would be empty without moral purpose, one needs to proclaim one’s principles.

Pinkerton, Horan tells us, opened for business with the announcement of his General Principles, which still exists, Horan says, “not only as an historical document but also as the guide rules for the modern agency.” “The agency will not report union meetings unless the meetings are open to the public,” and “they will not shadow or investigate…trade union officers or members in their lawful union activities.”

But Pinkerton practiced both devices and even bragged about them. The main purpose of his guidelines was, then, by their mere exhibition to rebut all assertions of sneaky conduct. Mr. Hoover has his laws too and their letter is regularly cited by him as final proof that none of his agents could possibly have done something imputed by his agency’s enemies. The only reference to wiretapping in Mr. Hoover’s newest chrestomathy is his affirmation of how seldom he does it.

Last of all, the need for moral purpose in life required that neither Pinkerton nor Mr. Hoover could ever refer to one of his own victims without portraying him as the victim of The Enemy.

When the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers threatened to strike the Reading Railroad, one of his clients, Pinkerton selected those of its members to be fired, found replacements for them, and saw to their being generally blacklisted. Afterward, “these misled men had reached a condition of abject want and suffering.” And what was to blame that so many of them “had lost their homes, had had their families broken up…were forced into becoming tramps and vagrants”? Only the “recklessness” of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

Mr. Hoover can come close to the note thus pitched for him by Pinkerton.

The great majority of American youths are genuinely convinced that they would not fall for the Communist bait. Many never would. But there are others who might never know they were “hooked” until the enormous tragedy of their loss of faith dawned after bitter years of fighting the American way of life, almost unwittingly, as dupes of the Communists.

These objects of his pity are, of course, the same young upon whom Mr. Hoover sets spies, whose dossiers he shares with the local policeman, whose conversations he sets the college telephone operator to monitor. But the Great Protector never forgets that he is the guardian of even those who suffer from him. Even as he afflicts them, they remain for him victims only of The Enemy.

This Issue

May 20, 1971