J. Edgar Hoover was named acting director of the FBI on this date in 1924, beginning a term that would span nearly 50 years, and establish the United States Department of Justice as we know it today.
Hoover was born to two government civil servants in Washington, D.C., in 1895. He took a job with the Library of Congress right out of high school and took night classes to earn his law degree. He graduated in 1917 and joined the Justice Department. He rose through the ranks quickly and was soon appointed leader of the General Intelligence Division. He was the driving force behind the “Palmer Raids” of 1919 — a series of raids conducted without search warrants that led to the arrest of hundreds of suspected radicals.
He made no secret of his ambition to run the Bureau of Investigation, as it was known then. President Calvin Coolidge named him acting director in May 1924, and he was formally named director by the end of the year. He made it his mission to separate the bureau from politics, and fired anyone who was, in his view, a political appointee. He made it more difficult to become an agent — candidates must pass rigorous interviews, background checks, and physical tests, and at one point it was said to be harder to get into the Bureau of Investigation than it was to get into an Ivy League college. Hoover also established forensic evidence labs. He took on gangsters and organized crime in the 1930s, arguing that because gangsters crossed state lines, they could and should be apprehended by federal agents, rather than state and local law enforcement, whose resources were often inadequate to the task.
Hoover also made it the mission of the bureau to root out suspected subversives and communists during the Cold War. To get around the restrictions placed by the Supreme Court on the agency’s investigations, he formed the Counter Intelligence Program. COINTELPRO went after any groups that Hoover considered subversive, including the KKK, the Black Panthers, and the Civil Rights Movement. He criticized a free breakfast program for urban poor children that was run by the Black Panthers, saying it was a recruitment tool for the organization and called the program “potentially the greatest threat to efforts … to neutralize the BPP and what it stands for.” He ordered illegal wiretaps, searches, and even burglaries to compile files on many parties, including Martin Luther King Jr., whom Hoover “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation.” He also kept immense files on Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley. When Charlie Chaplin — whose FBI file was almost 2,000 pages long — left the United States for a promotional tour in Europe in 1952, Hoover revoked his re-entry permit. Hoover also pushed to have John Lennon’s immigrant visa revoked; he had a huge file on Lennon that was kept under wraps until just a few years ago, and when it was released, it turned out that most of the information it contained was already common knowledge. A memo in the file reads: “Lennon has encouraged the belief that he holds revolutionary views, not only by means of his formal interviews with Marxists, but by the content of some of his songs and other publications.”
No president was willing to fire Hoover, or even ask him to retire, even when he passed the government’s mandatory retirement age of 70. Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” Hoover died in office in 1972, at the age of 77.