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Thursday, January 4, 2024

January 4, 2024: 2024 Anniversaries: J. Edgar Hoover in 1924

[As I’ve done for each of the last few years, this week I’ll start 2024 by AmericanStudying a few anniversaries for the new year. Leading up to a special post on the 200th anniversary of a frustratingly familiar election.]

On what J. Edgar Hoover brought to his new role as Director of the Bureau of Investigation, and two early examples of his leadership style.

John Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) became a clerk with the Justice Department’s new War Emergency Division in 1917, when he was just 22 years old, and within a few months had taken on a leadership role with another new organization, the Alien Enemy Bureau. In that role, authorized by President Woodrow Wilson and the 1917 Espionage Act, Hoover had the power to arrest and jail foreign nationals without trial. When the war ended those extreme powers most definitely did not, and two years later Hoover was able to expand them as head of the Bureau of Investigation’s new General Intelligence Division, known as the Radical Division as it focused on rooting out supposed domestic radicals through actions like the Palmer Raids. All of that constituted Hoover’s resume was he was appointed the Bureau of Investigation’s fifth Director in May 1924.

As he quickly demonstrated in that new role, Hoover’s extreme attitudes weren’t limited to those he perceived to be direct threats (whether foreign or domestic) to the United States. In 1924 the Bureau of Investigation had three female special agents; upon taking over the Director’s role Hoover fired two of them and transferred the third against her wishes from the Washington field office to Philadelphia, after which she resigned. Hoover argued that women’s “unpredictable nature” made them unfit for the role, even though he acknowledged that they “probably could learn to fire a gun.” He also believed that they were far more suited for the role of secretary, since “a man’s secretary makes or breaks him”—and his own executive secretary, Helen Gandy, was indeed with him for his whole 50-year run as director. Hoover’s personal issues with sex and gender have been well documented, but he was pretty awful with them on a professional level as well.

Much of Hoover’s leadership of the FBI (as it came to be known) throughout his tenure as Director was very much in that discriminatory and exclusionary vein. But obviously he did other things too across those five decades, and one of his more positive influences was in connecting the agency to other layers of the federal government, especially more symbolic ones. Hoover had an opportunity to showcase that side of the Bureau in 1929, when members of the Japanese Naval Delegation visited Washington on their way to take part in the 1930 London Naval Treaty. Hoover volunteered the Bureau to serve as the delegates’ protection detail, and the international recognition was an important step in the FBI’s development from a facet of the Justice Department to its own, significant part of the U.S. federal government. The reality that that part has been pretty consistently awful is vital to acknowledge, but not the only part of the Bureau’s story, nor of Hoover’s.

Last anniversary tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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