July 19, 2005
J. Edgar Hoover in 1961
The Truth about J. Edgar Hoover
Since the death of J. Edgar Hoover in May
1972 stories about him have continued to fascinate the American public.
Initially characterized as a true American hero who spent a lifetime battling
crime, his legacy during the past decade has undergone a startling
transformation. Recent books, television documentaries, and television movies
have promoted the idea that America's leading crime fighter was steeped in
corruption, trampled over the constitutional rights of American citizens,
blackmailed members of Congress, engaged in illegal electronic surveillance
activities, was himself blackmailed by the Mafia, and engaged in perverted
But what is the truth about America's
greatest crime-fighter? Did Hoover associate with Mafia bosses and perhaps
assist them in avoiding prosecution? Did mobsters blackmail him? Did he, in
turn, blackmail U.S. politicians? Did he, in particular, blackmail JFK? And was
Hoover a closet homosexual and cross-dresser?
The FBI's origins lie in the crime-ridden
Roaring Twenties when the United States was rife with lawbreakers. It was
against the law to make or consume alcohol and yet millions of Americans refused
to recognize this fact. The distillation and distribution of alcohol became big
business involving millions of dollars and corruption of public officials on a
scale unheard of either before or since.
Criminal gangs competed for the business
of supplying the public what it wanted. Violence was inevitable as gangsters
moved into territories owned by competing gangs. The violence and corruption was
significant in the growth of the American Mafia.
The United States had no national police
force at this time, but Congress decided that a federal force was necessary to
deal with a law-breaking situation that was becoming too big for state and city
police forces. Congress chose a small department within the Justice Department
headed by an unknown professional bureaucrat by the name of J. Edgar Hoover.
When Hoover took over the newly formed
Federal Bureau of Investigation its resources were limited and Congress had not
yet passed laws to strengthen the authority of its agents. Under the leadership
and persuasive skills of Hoover, the department expanded to become a
world-famous and internationally acclaimed institution. Hoover's "G-men" became
national heroes as they captured notorious criminals such as John Dillinger, Ma
Barker, Machine-Gun Kelly and leading members of criminal gangs. The titles
"Public Enemy No. 1" and "The Ten Most-Wanted" list originated with the bureau.
Hoover became a national hero, in part because of his publicity skills and his
ability to persuade politicians and presidents to expand the authority of the
FBI. Hoover did everything in his lobbying and blackmailing powers to see that
Congress was generous with the bureau's budget. Hoover also strictly monitored
anything that extolled the virtues of the FBI, from books, television and radio
serials, to Hollywood movies.
Hoover was partly successful because he
changed crime fighting into a science. He instituted fingerprint files and
laboratories to analyze forensic evidence, stipulated that FBI applicants had to
have a college degree and insisted his agents had to practice a high personal
moral code. During the Second World War, the bureau successfully fought efforts
at sabotage and subversion by the Germans and they could proudly point to the
fact that not one instance of sabotage on the U.S. mainland was successful.
After the war the FBI was also successful in detecting and arresting many Soviet
spies. Hoover was convinced there was an international left-wing conspiracy to
take over the world and, during the late 1940s and 1950s, most of his energies
were devoted to rooting out anything that smacked of communism or socialism.
Recent research has suggested that the
idea of subversion by the Soviets was not all in the imagination of right-wing
politicians or the conservative FBI director. There is a wealth of evidence to
confirm that the Soviets were actually using every means available to infiltrate
the U.S. government and any other institution in the United States that had
political and cultural influence. Hollywood was a particular target for
communist cells. However, many lives were destroyed because of the paranoiac
hysteria that often accompanied right-wing Congressional efforts to "clean up"
the movie industry.
Hoover and the Mafia
It has been alleged that, during this
period of anti-Communist fervor, Hoover had been blind to the existence of a
national crime syndicate even though a 1950s Congressional investigating body
led by Sen. Estes Kefauver had produced a mountain of evidence proving this
After the nationally televised Kefauver hearings, Hoover
still insisted that there was no such thing as the Mafia and as a consequence
there was a period of consolidation of the criminal organisation and a period of
growth for Mafia "families" in every major city across the United States.
Some critics argue this was entirely in keeping with
Hoover's basic conservative philosophy that respected the importance of states'
Similarly, when there was a move in Congress to make him
the head of a nationalized police force, he rejected the idea and testified
against it. In an interview with U.S. News & World Report (December 21,
1964), he argued, "I recently made the statement that I am inclined toward being
a states' righter in matters involving law enforcement. That is, I fully respect
the sovereignty of state and local authorities. I consider the local police
officer to be our first line of defense against crime, and I am opposed to a
national police force...The need is for effective local action, and this should
begin with whole-hearted support of honest, efficient, local law enforcement."
Anthony Summers, in his book
and Confidential, claimed Hoover deliberately refused to crack down on
organized crime because he was being blackmailed by the Mafia for living a
secret life as a homosexual. Summers believes that Hoover was blackmailed after
powerful Mafia boss Meyer Lansky, an associate of Frank Costello, obtained
photographs of the FBI boss in a compromising position with his friend and top
aide, Clyde Tolson. Summers's "proof" about Hoover's homosexuality comes from a
number of witnesses who told him that they had seen such photographs. Former
members of the Mafia or Mafia associates told of how Lansky pressured the FBI
director into leaving the criminal organization alone.
That Hoover was a homosexual did not
originate with Anthony Summers, however. Beginning in the 1920s, a number of
Hoover's agents speculated about their boss's sexual preferences. They noted
how, from the 1920s up to the time of their deaths in the 1970s, Hoover and his
friend, Clyde Tolson, went everywhere together.
Throughout his period in office Hoover
used the FBI to squelch rumors that he was homosexual. He was vigorous in his
approach because he believed the allegations impugned his good name and
integrity. FBI agents often intimidated his detractors. Hoover ordered them to
demand that the rumor mongers "put up or shut up." It is clear that Hoover was
confident no evidence existed of any indiscretions.
Summers's strongest source for Hoover's
alleged homosexuality is Susan Rosenstiel, the fourth wife of Lewis Solon
Rosenstiel, a mobster and distilling mogul. She claims to have witnessed Hoover
in drag at two orgies at New York's Plaza Hotel in 1958 and 1959. Sen. Joseph
McCarthy's former aide, Roy Cohn, a known homosexual, was (allegedly) also
present. Rosenstiel's story could not be corroborated as all the participants
present at the parties are now deceased.
Hoover biographer Richard Hack has quoted
an interview given by Roy Cohn shortly before his death from AIDS. Cohn said,
"(Hoover) wouldn't do anything, certainly not in public, not in private either.
Hoover was always afraid that someone who he saw, where he went, what he said,
it would impact that all-important image of his. He would never do anything that
would compromise his position as head of the FBI – ever. There was supposed to
be some scandalous pictures of Hoover and Tolson – there were no pictures.
Believe me, I looked. There were no pictures because there was no sexual
relationship. Whatever they did, they did separately, in different rooms, and
even then, I'm sure Hoover was fully dressed."
Anthony Summers's "evidence" of Hoover's
homosexuality lacks veracity according to two of Hoover's most acclaimed and
authoritative biographers. Richard Gid Powers and Athan Theoharis both believe
Summers's sources are not credible. Athan Theoharis said that the popularization
of Hoover's homosexuality was the result of "shoddy journalism."
Powers also questioned the reliability of
many of Summers's witnesses quoted in the book. Powers said that Hoover was such
a hated figure that many people were prepared to believe the worst about him and
to "badmouth" him. Powers cites John Weitz, a former wartime secret service
officer, who, according to Summers, was at a dinner party in the 1950s when the
host showed him a picture and identified Hoover having sex with another man.
Weitz did not himself recognize Hoover and he refused to identify the party
host. Nor did Summers ever see the photograph. Another "witness" to the
existence of the photograph was JFK conspiracy fantasist, Gordon Novel, who
Summers admitted was a "controversial" figure.
Athan Theoharis successfully demonstrated, in his book
J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime, that Summers's claims were not credible.
Theoharis stated that no evidence exists that would prove Hoover and Tolson were
sexually involved. Theoharis also believes Tolson was heterosexual, citing
reports by a number of Tolson's associates. Theoharis believes that the
likelihood is that Hoover never knew sexual desire at all. Richard Hack, on the
other hand, presented evidence in his 2004 book
Puppetmaster – The Secret
Life Of J. Edgar Hoover to prove Hoover had a sexual relationship
with Hollywood actress Dorothy Lamour and a possible intimate relationship with
Lela Rogers, mother of actress Ginger Rogers. When asked about rumors of
a Hoover/Tolson homosexual relationship Hack answered, "Oh, I know it
wasn't. I know he wasn't." Hack's view is that the mere fact that Tolson and
Hoover allowed themselves to constantly be seen in public, meant they could not
have been more than close colleagues. Hack said, "It became
clear to me as I went deeper into the man's psyche that if they were indeed
lovers, they never would have been seen together."
Of Rosenstiel's claim that Hoover was
homosexual, Theoharis wrote, "Susan Rosenstiel…was not a disinterested party.
Although the target of her allegations was J. Edgar Hoover, she managed as well
to defame her second husband with whom she had been involved in a bitterly
contested divorce that lasted 10 years in the courts. Her hatred of Lewis
Rosenstiel had led her in 1970 to offer damaging testimony about his alleged
connections with organized crime leaders before a New York State legislative
committee on crime." Furthermore, she was a convicted perjurer and received a
Theoharis's research is supported by FBI
Assistant Director Cartha DeLoach who said Rosenstiel blamed Hoover for
supplying her husband with damaging information used in her divorce trial.
Furthermore, according to Deloach, she had been peddling the Hoover "drag" story
to Hoover's critics for years without success -- until Anthony Summers came
DeLoach and Theoharis are also
supported by writer Peter Maas who discovered a fatal flaw in Summers's
rendition of events with regard to the cross-dressing story at the Plaza Hotel.
Maas said that in the period following the alleged incident at the Plaza Hotel
Hoover assigned FBI agents to investigate Lansky who supposedly had the photos
of Hoover in a compromising position. When the FBI office in Miami complained
that an investigation would be hampered by lack of manpower Hoover wrote back,
"Lansky has been designated for 'crash' investigation. The importance of this
case cannot be overemphasized. The Bureau expects this investigation to be
vigorous and detailed." Maas also wrote that when he asked Lansky's closest
associate about the photo, the old man replied, "Are you nuts?"
Therefore, according to Maas, this memo
severely undermines Summers's thesis that Hoover could not act against mobsters
because they "had the goods" on him.
And Susan Rosenstiel's credibility is also
undermined by her interview to a BBC documentary team. When questioned by
Anthony Summers about her observations at the Plaza Hotel she said the person in
drag "LOOKED LIKE J. EDGAR HOOVER." (Emphasis added) After a prompt by Summers
she agreed that it was definitely Hoover. It is clear that Rosenstiel's story is
less than convincing especially when her claims are considered; Hoover was
allowing himself to be observed by someone who could have destroyed his career
and compromised him for the rest of his life.
Hoover was adept at blackmail. He used incriminating
information his agency collected about prominent people to maintain his hold on
office. The question must be asked: Would a man with so many enemies put himself
in a position to be blackmailed by parading himself around a hotel dressed as a
woman? Furthermore, Hoover's life revolved around the bureau – would he put his
career at risk by such actions?
Despite the clear implication in the book that
Rosenstiel's story was true, Summers eventually stated that he merely reported
what Rosenstiel said, along with what others claimed. He said he held, "no firm
view one way or the other" as to whether she told the truth.
Oliver "Buck" Revell, a former associate director of the
FBI, has observed that if the Mafia had had anything on Hoover, it would have
been picked up in wiretaps mounted against organized crime after Appalachin.
There was never a hint of such a claim, Revell said.
Furthermore, Hoover was himself under secret surveillance for his own protection
and such behavior would have been reported.
The flimsy "evidence" against Hoover's sexuality was
described by former FBI Intelligence Division Assistant Director W. Raymond
Wannall, as, "(emanating from) dead witnesses, a perjurer, a Watergate burglar,
and principally a British author, Anthony Summers, whose allegations against a
previous American public servant, repeated in a London newspaper, resulted in an
open-court retraction, apology and payment of a substantial sum in damages."
(Author's note: Summers alleged CIA official David
Atlee Phillips had been involved in the assassination of President John F.
Kennedy. The British newspaper The Observer published excerpts from the
book, Phillips sued, and The Observer admitted in open court that "there
was never any evidence" to support Summers's allegations. The paper apologized
to Phillips and paid £22,500 in damages.)
Wannall questioned why, if "there were such a photograph
with which to blackmail Hoover," was it not used "from 1961 to 1972 when 10 Cosa
Nostra "family bosses" were arrested and convicted, when organized crime
convictions based on his investigations totalled 131 in 1965, 281 in 1968, and
escalated to 813 the last year of his life?"
There are more compelling reasons to explain Hoover's
pre-1961 poor record on dealing with organized crime. Until 1961, there was no
federal law authorizing or enabling the FBI to investigate organized criminal
activities or groups such as the Mafia. It was not until 1961 that Congress
passed a law granting such authority. It is also true that, after local
authorities raided the 1957 meeting of Mafia chieftains from across the U.S. in
Appalachia, N.Y., Hoover instituted a "Top Hoodlum" program. Several organized
crime figures were arrested long before Congress passed the 1961 law, under
individual laws already in effect. Notwithstanding these facts, it is true
Hoover's war on organized crime did not really take off until the ascendancy of
Robert Kennedy as head of the Justice Department.
To those who knew both men, including
Cartha "Deke" Deloach, George Allen, and Charles Spencer, Hoover's relationship
with his friend was chaste. Allen said, "Tolson was sort of Hoover's alter ego.
He almost ran the FBI. He's not only a brain, but the most unselfish man that
ever lived. He let Hoover take all the bows all the credits...They were very,
very close because he needed Clyde so much. He couldn't have done the things he
did without Clyde." Spencer said, "Oh, Christ I heard rumors about them a
thousand times. All around, every place, and I think it's just the result of
people unable to believe that two men could be as dedicated to their country as
those two were. It wasn't just speculation and it was worse than rumors. It had
to be developed by jealous and enviable people that were out to do somebody in.
Their demeanor was always flawless. Very businesslike. The best way I can put it
is that Clyde Tolson was the associate director of the FBI. He lived 24 hours of
every day, seven days a week for the full year as associate director of the FBI.
It was a director and associate director relationship."
Cartha Deloach worked closely with Hoover
for over 20 years and became the third ranking FBI agent. Deloach dismissed
stories about Hoover's alleged homosexuality stating, "I think it's significant
to note that no one who knew Hoover and Tolson well in the FBI has ever even
hinted at such a charge. You can't work side by side with two men for the better
part of 20 years and fail to recognize signs of such affections."
The real reason why Hoover did not
investigate the Mafia throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s is that he had a
genuine fear that his agents would be corrupted by the criminal organization.
The FBI was the only love of Hoover's life and he protected and defended it as a
father does with a son. On more than one occasion he made reference to the fact
that state and local law officers had been corrupted by the mob.
There was also a self-serving reason.
Throughout his leadership of the FBI, Hoover had been unwilling to tackle any
major initiative unless he had been assured of success. Fighting organized
crime, to Hoover, did not provide that guaranteed success. As Arthur M.
Schlesinger Jr. wrote, "Former FBI agents laid great stress on Hoover's
infatuation with statistics. He liked to regale Congress with box scores of
crimes committed, subjects apprehended, and crimes solved. Organized crime did
not lend itself to statistical display. It required a heavy investment of agents
in long tedious investigations that might or might not produce convictions at
the end. The statistical preoccupation steered Hoover toward the easy cases:
bank robbers, car thieves, kidnappers and other one-shot offenses."
Most importantly, it was Hoover's obsession with
"Communist subversion" that drew his complete attention and he was aided and
abetted in this by successive post-war administrations and Congresses. He
believed communism to be the main threat to the "American way of life."
According to Richard Hack, "It didn't matter if there were Mafia out there. They
weren't going to bring the government down, they were just making money
illegally and there were lots of cops to deal with that."
It was this desire to keep the fight against communism at
the top of the political agenda that led to his clash with the first attorney
general who saw the Mafia as public enemy No. 1.
Hoover and the Kennedys
The Kennedys were the most compelling of
J. Edgar Hoover's targets. For over 30 years he dug into the lives of the
Kennedys for political leverage. Beginning with Joseph Kennedy Sr., Hoover knew
that information about the family would eventually come in useful. As ambassador
to Great Britain during the Second World War, Kennedy had an important position
in President Roosevelt's Administration and when the ambassador fell out with
Roosevelt, the President turned to Hoover to provide him with details of
Kennedy's promiscuous private life.
However, Kennedy maintained his friendship
with the FBI director and jumped at any opportunity to praise Hoover publicly.
FBI files also record that Joe Kennedy acted as an FBI informant providing the
FBI with names to investigate.
Hoover compiled a file on Joseph Kennedy's
second son, the future president, from the moment the young naval intelligence
officer engaged in a relationship with a married woman, Inga Arvad, whom the
bureau suspected of being a Nazi spy (a number of FBI memos confirm that there
was no truth to the allegations). The FBI bugged one of the hotel rooms where
JFK and Arvad met, but no proof was found that either he or Arvad had been
engaged in spying activities. However, the fact that Ambassador Kennedy's son
had been conducting a scandalous relationship with a married woman was more than
enough information for Hoover to savor.
Over the years JFK's career moved from the
House of Representatives to the Senate then the presidency in 1960. By that year
Hoover had become the symbol of law and order in the United States. Hoover's
file on the young president grew, delineating numerous liaisons with women. The
file also recorded campaign contributions from Mafia bosses.
Hoover ordered the accounting of files in
the spring and summer of 1960 when it seemed likely Kennedy would be the
Democratic nominee for president. On July 13, 1960, FBI official Milton Jones
prepared a nine-page memo for Assistant Director Cartha DeLoach, "...The Bureau
and the Director have enjoyed friendly relations with Sen. Kennedy and his
family for a number of years...Allegations of immoral activities on Sen.
Kennedy's part have been reported to the FBI over the years…they include…data
reflecting that Kennedy carried on an illicit relationship with another man's
wife (Inga Arvad) during World War Two; that (probably January 1960) Kennedy was
‘compromised' with a woman in Las Vegas; and that Kennedy and Frank Sinatra have
in the recent past been involved in parties in Palm Springs, Las Vegas and New
After Kennedy was elected president,
Hoover realized that a good way of keeping check on his amorous activities was
to cover Peter Lawford's activities. Throughout the period of Kennedy's
presidency, FBI agents had been ordered to keep surveillance on Lawford's
comings and goings and to make a written record of any affairs the President
On taking office, President Kennedy knew
that the FBI Director had become a national institution, a man who held a great
deal of information about millions of citizens, including himself. It would take
a brave president to get rid of him. On more than one occasion Kennedy responded
to queries about why he did not get rid of the aging bureaucrat by answering,
"You don't fire God." One of the first acts of his new administration was to
Throughout the Kennedy presidency Robert
Kennedy, the new attorney general, was constantly reminded of Hoover's secret
files. Hoover made a point of sending RFK memos containing scurrilous
information about family members or colleagues as a way of telling the Kennedy
brothers that the director should be treated with respect.
Hoover hated the Kennedys, believing them
to be moral degenerates. The situation did not improve when RFK became Hoover's
new boss. However, there was never any direct confrontation between the new
attorney general and the crusty FBI director. And as Hoover was protective and
respectful of the Office of the Presidency he was at all times civil and
obedient to President Kennedy. Although he was irked at orders from RFK, he
never challenged the attorney general. Hoover's bureaucratic instincts told him
that it would be futile to challenge the President's brother and closest
In the past Hoover's relationships with
attorneys general had been founded upon their unwillingness to challenge the FBI
Director's semi-autonomous position within the Justice Department. Attorneys
general had allowed Hoover to govern the FBI without interference and to report
directly to the president. The situation changed after the appointment of Robert
Kennedy; Hoover was forced to deal directly with the President only through the
office of the attorney general. RFK placed a direct telephone link on Hoover's
desk and made it plain that the director was his subordinate. When Robert
Kennedy took office at the age of 35, Hoover was 65 years old and knew he did
not have to retire until Jan. 1, 1965 when he would have reached the age of 70.
Hoover therefore did not want to directly challenge RFK and risk a premature end
to his career.
Nevertheless, the relationship was
adversarial. On one occasion Hoover said to an aide, "They call him ‘Bobby'!" It
was evident to those close to the FBI Director that Hoover would not enjoy
working with a young activist like Kennedy. Hoover was the quintessential
bureaucrat who lived by rules. The young attorney general frequently broke the
rules by appearing at meetings in shirtsleeves. He generally encouraged a
relaxed and informal atmosphere within the Justice Department. Hoover, on the
other hand, frequently remonstrated with subordinates who did not adhere to the
appropriate dress code. And, if an agent was found to have had extra-marital
relations, he was immediately transferred to a less prestigious posting.
FBI Agent Courtney Evans, who was
appointed by the Kennedys to be the FBI liaison with the White House, felt that
Hoover and RFK were too much alike to be effective colleagues. "When I looked at
Bob operating in 1961," Evans said, "I figured that's the way Hoover had
operated in 1924...the same kind of temperament, impatient with inefficiency,
demanding as to detail, a system of logical reasoning for a position, and pretty
much of a hard taskmaster."
There was probably an element of jealousy
in Hoover's relationship with RFK. Hoover believed that nationally organized
crime did not exist and felt there was no evidence that it did. When Robert
Kennedy became attorney general, those agents who had been assigned to
investigate organized crime were immensely overjoyed. They knew Robert Kennedy
was a committed crime fighter who would throw all the resources of the Justice
Department behind fighting the Mafia. Because of his previous work as a counsel
to Senate investigating committees, Kennedy understood, as few officials did in
the 1950s, the true nature of the mob. It was not a loosely knit band of
non-violent criminals who served the public's harmless appetite for gambling but
instead a powerful and insidious organization in U.S. society. In fact Kennedy
knew that the Mafia, through its control of many labor unions, greatly affected
the welfare of every man woman and child in America.
The scope and success of RFK's campaign
against organized crime was unprecedented. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Robert
Kennedy And His Times, 1978) wrote, "Subversion was out. Organized
crime was in. Hoover grudgingly went along."
There were a number of other reasons why
the relationship with the Kennedys got off to a bad start. Although Hoover had
been friendly with Joseph Kennedy he had little respect for his sons whom he
considered to be upstarts. Hoover knew about John Kennedy's womanizing and took
the view that he was unfit for public office and that his character was weak.
Hoover had been a lifelong bachelor, mother-dominated, and raised with strict
puritanical and Calvinist strictures. JFK's liaisons, faithfully reported on by
Hoover's agents, obviously upset the FBI director's moral equilibrium.
Hoover's knowledge of John Kennedy's
affair with the Danish beauty, Inga Arvad, had been useful in his relationship
with Joseph Kennedy. However, it was not until the presidential election of 1960
that Hoover began to take a deep personal interest in the Senator's private
life. He became disgusted with reports emanating from Las Vegas, a favorite
Kennedy stopover in the presidential campaign. A report in 1960 to Hoover
described orgiastic goings-on during the filming of the Sinatra Rat Pack's movie
Ocean's 11. The report stated, in part, "Show girls from all over town
were running in and out of the senator's suite."
Hoover also had a photo of Sen. John
Kennedy leaving the home of his wife's secretary, Pamela Turnure, in the early
hours of the morning. It was the secretary's landlords, the Katers, who informed
the director and the couple began a vigorous campaign to reveal Sen. Kennedy's
adulterous acts. However, the media largely ignored their campaign. An extreme
right-wing magazine called the Thunderbolt published their story and this
gave Hoover the excuse to bring it to the attention of the Kennedys.
This is an excellent example of how Hoover
operated. Hoover could not use his subtle blackmailing techniques by referring
to his agents' reports. The Kennedys would have been outraged that the FBI
director had been snooping on them. However, if scandalous material had been
disseminated through other organs, Hoover could righteously say that he was
bringing the offending material to their attention and "protecting" them.
Hoover knew he could act contemptuously at
times. He well understood the respect and admiration that leading groups in the
United States held for him. In fact his popularity remained at an all-time high.
Kennedy's close victory also meant the new president could not act boldly in
changing the status quo. As Robert Kennedy said, "It was important as far as we
were concerned that (Hoover) remained happy and that he remain in his position
because he was a symbol and the President had won by such a narrow margin and it
was a hell of an investigative body and he got a lot of things done and it was
much better for what we wanted to do in the South, what we wanted to do in
organized crime, if we had him on our side."
Even though Hoover maintained a civil
attitude to the Kennedys during John Kennedy's presidency, he and the Kennedys
worked together in an atmosphere of hatred and mistrust.
It was the knowledge of one of President
Kennedy's girlfriends that led Hoover to believe he could intimidate and
embarrass the President. FBI reports indicated that Judith Campbell Exner had
frequent contacts with President Kennedy from the end of 1960 to mid-1962. (They
actually met earlier when Kennedy was running for president and were introduced
by Frank Sinatra.) The reports said that Campbell was a close friend of
gangster, Johnny Rosselli, and Chicago mob boss, Sam Giancana, and she saw them
often during this period. Hoover became concerned that the Mafia would use this
connection to gain influence with the President. He also no doubt felt that this
was a golden opportunity to make Kennedy aware that he knew about the affairs
under the guise of keeping track of criminal figures. Hoover sent identical
copies of a memorandum, dated Feb. 27, 1962, to Robert Kennedy and Kenneth
O'Donnell, assistant to President Kennedy. The memo stated that information
developed in connection with an FBI investigation of Johnny Rosselli revealed
that Rosselli had been in contact with Campbell. Hoover's memo also stated that
a review of the telephone calls from Campbell's residence revealed calls to the
On March 22, 1962, Hoover had a private
luncheon with President Kennedy. There is no record of what transpired but,
according to White House logs, telephone contact between Campbell and Kennedy
occurred a few hours after the luncheon. Historians are in agreement that it is
likely Hoover used this meeting to apprise the President of how reckless and
dangerous it was to be connected to a woman who was also friendly with members
of the Mafia. Hoover was using subtle blackmail.
In the two years and 10 months of
Kennedy's presidency, Hoover had only been invited to White House functions a
dozen times. Hoover was also unhappy that he could no longer contact the
President directly as he had done under previous presidents. His relationship
with both RFK and JFK was dangerously cunning to say the least. Yet there
is nothing in the record that Hoover tried to harm President Kennedy by leaking
information even though the FBI director relished the opportunity to show
Kennedy that he knew a lot of secrets.
Athan Theoharis has described Hoover as an
"astute bureaucrat" who, "recognized that a direct attempt at blackmail could
compromise his tenure as director. So he volunteered information only after it
was already public...or had been obtained incidentally to a wiretap installed
during an authorized criminal investigation (such as the information involving
Kennedy's contacts with Judith Campbell, obtained through a wiretap on organized
crime leader Johnny Rosselli). A sophisticated blackmailer, Hoover only hinted
at the FBI's ability to monitor personal misconduct."
In effect, there was a stand-off between
the President and the FBI director. Hoover's secret files contained information
that could have done irreparable damage to the Kennedy administration: JFK's
womanising, CIA/Mafia attempts to kill Castro, JFK friend Frank Sinatra's links
to mob bosses, and Sinatra's efforts to enlist the Mafia to help in the 1960
presidential campaign. Kennedy on the other hand could have fired Hoover at any
time during his 1,000-day presidency. Kennedy could also have embarrassed the
director for not recognizing the importance of organized crime and not
responding, initially, to equal-rights directives within the FBI. Effectively,
it was a "Mexican stand-off."
It would be Robert Kennedy's efforts to
protect his brother from a scandal that solidified Hoover's hold on his job.
During the summer of 1963 RFK asked Hoover to help in persuading Congressional
leaders to desist in linking their investigation of corrupt practices by Senate
Secretary Bobby Baker to members of the JFK Administration. Baker was accused of
influence peddling and during the investigation of his affairs it was revealed
he had been supplying leading Congressmen with "party girls." One particular
woman, West German Ellen Rometsch, who was taken to the White House by Kennedy
friend Bill Thompson for an intimate meeting with JFK, was in a position to
bring down the Kennedy presidency. Robert Kennedy enlisted the assistance of
Hoover who spoke to Congressional leaders about the damage the Baker revelations
would do to both Democrats and Republicans. The investigation continued but
without reference to the Quorum Club which was the center of Baker's enterprise.
Hoover was now assured he had enough information to hold
the upper hand in his dealings with the Kennedys and this may account for RFK's
acquiescence in Hoover's request to tap the telephones of Martin Luther King Jr.
It now became impossible for JFK to get rid of Hoover. He would have to wait
until his re-election in 1964 and Hoover's statutory retirement in January 1965
before he could rid himself of a dangerous subordinate. However, JFK's
assassination and the elevation of Hoover's friend Lyndon Johnson to the
presidency, put an end to the threat hanging over Hoover's head.
Hoover ran the Bureau for nearly 48 years prior to his
death on May 2, 1972. When he became director in 1924, it was called the Bureau
of Investigation and was inefficient and scandal-ridden. But, according to most
Hoover biographers, the new director quickly turned it into an efficient and
uncorrupt policing agency. Hoover abolished political appointments, recruited
highly educated agents, instituted centralized fingerprint and statistical
files, developed a crime laboratory and founded a highly acclaimed training
academy. As investigative reporter and Hoover nemesis Jack Anderson wrote,
"J. Edgar Hoover transformed the FBI from a collection of hacks, misfits and
courthouse hangers-on into one of the world's most effective and formidable law
enforcement organizations. Under his reign, not a single FBI man ever
tried to fix a case, defraud the taxpayers or sell out his country."
Those who knew Hoover throughout his life
are divided in their judgments of the man. To some, Hoover was a patriotic and
dedicated public servant who believed in American democracy and built the finest
crime-fighting agency in the world. He was neither arrogant nor a megalomaniac.
Former agents of the bureau speak of Hoover as a man who instilled in them the
highest qualities of service and pride in the agency's work.
Hoover defenders also explain why he
remained a bachelor. According to Richard Hack, "For J. Edgar
Hoover to be as powerful as he was, to maintain that image, he gave up his
personal life. It became his personal life. There was no other life."
Hoover's admirers characterize him as a
friendly man of great humor who enjoyed being with people. Actor James Stewart
is typical of a group of acquaintances who described Hoover in this way. Stewart
characterized Hoover as a man who, "...liked to be with people, and I thought
always that he was very easy to be with and it always surprised me...he was so
easy to be with and so easy to talk to…I had the feeling that I was with a very
strong, determined man, always."
Hoover's detractors, on the other hand,
have described the director as a man trapped in his past – a past that glorified
in a WASP America. Hoover's American ideal was not in keeping with any
progressive cause or a toleration of foreigners, radicalism, and left-wing
Detractors characterize Hoover as a man
who had a lot of prejudices, disliking Jews, African-Americans and
"pseudo-liberals"; as a man who saw enemies of the state everywhere and it was
his God-given right to protect the nation. To these critics Hoover was,
essentially, the major threat to American liberties. They describe him as a man
who spent too long in the job, becoming increasingly senile, angry and
personally corrupt, misappropriating government time, money, services and
equipment for his own ends and for having accepted gratuities from Dallas
millionaires Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson.
Critics of Hoover point to the extensive
use of illegal investigative techniques including "black bag jobs," illegal
break-ins) wiretaps, bugs and illegal mail-openings. Although Hoover often
ordered his agents to commit aggressive and sometimes illegal acts against
individuals and organizations engaged in legitimate political activities, it was
clear to many that some of Hoover's practices must have been, if not condoned,
at least allowed by every president he served under. The presidents Hoover
served under cannot escape blame.
As a law enforcement agency, the bureau
had all the resources needed to eavesdrop and wire tap citizens suspected of
breaking federal laws. But those same resources were also used to uncover
evidence of immoral behavior by senators and congressmen and were savored by the
presidents he served. Although Eisenhower disdained Hoover's methods he made no
attempt to curb the awesome power the bureaucrat had accumulated. Nor did Nixon.
Roosevelt and Johnson especially appreciated the information Hoover channeled
their way, gleefully reading scandal–filled reports of their political enemies'
private lives. During his years in the White House President Johnson included in
his private conversations references to the private lives of congressmen that
could only have come from surveillance.
Hoover did not see himself as personally
corrupt, even though he had passed on many of his personal expenses to the
bureau. When Hoover's expenses could not be stretched he accepted "hospitality"
from businessmen. However, if one of his agents abused his expense accounts he
would be severely disciplined. Hoover would also vacation with Clyde Tolson at
the expense of the bureau and then arrange to have a brothel or illegal saloon
raided so he could claim he was "working." There is also evidence that Hoover
was guilty of tax evasion.
Hoover had been head of the FBI for
decades and considered himself above reproach in giving himself some leeway in
accepting relatively small gratuities. There is no evidence, however, that he
enriched himself to the tune of millions of dollars through his position as head
of the FBI. The fact that he and Tolson took annual "inspection" trips to the
Miami area and Southern California and had his agents do work on his home and
car were the most serious of his ethical lapses. The fact his estate was fairly
modest was testimony to the fact that he had not been bought off in any
significant way. And, in later years, he worried that he would not be
financially secure in his old age and accepted what was common and legal up to
the 1970s --honorariums accompanied by large checks.
Allegations of Hoover's greed can also be
tempered by his refusal to accept higher paying jobs that were always on offer
from large corporations. At one point in his career Hoover had been offered a
lifetime job by billionaire Howard Hughes but turned it down. Hughes told Hoover
that he could set his own salary. Instead, Hoover wished to remain with his true
love: the directorship of an institution that he had personally built.
Hoover was not a Soviet-style secret policeman. Nor was
the FBI a kind of Gestapo. But Hoover and the bureau did evade public scrutiny,
invade the private lives of Americans, and resisted democratic control. Under
Hoover's COINTELPRO program the FBI "neutralized" the American Communist Party
by infiltrating agents and destroying the reputations of many of its leaders. It
infiltrated New Left student groups and made every effort to disrupt the
activities of its members. As the civil-rights movement grew, the FBI pinpointed
every group and potential leader for intensive investigation. The FBI wrongly
accused the NAACP of harboring Communist-controlled agents within its
leadership. The Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating
Committee, and the Black Panther Party were listed by the FBI as "Black-Hate"
type organizations and selected for covert disruption of their political
activities. One of the most vicious FBI attacks was made against Martin
Luther King Jr. with Hoover personally conducting the efforts to destroy the
civil rights leader's reputation.
Hoover's defenders, however, claim that this period in
American history, when riots and dissent appeared to usher in anarchy and
revolution, called for extra-legal measures to deal with the problem. While not
excusing Hoover's lack of proportion in dealing with the problems, they remind
critics that a great fear existed in the country that society had been
threatened with a breakdown in law and order. They also remind critics that
Hoover came under considerable pressure in the 1960s by U.S. presidents who were
anxious to deal with anti-war riots and civil-rights disturbances, believing
that every time a riot or disturbance occurred it lost them votes. Hoover
believed his vendetta against political dissent, his reaching beyond the law to
prevent lawlessness and anarchy was within the mandate set down by higher
J. Edgar Hoover was a complex and contradictory
individual. He set high standards for his agents yet was himself less than
circumspect when it came to using taxpayers' money for his own ends and he was
capricious in his dealings with agents.
Hoover was a decisive man, strict and authoritarian –
precisely what the bureau needed in the 20s and 30s. But as he grew older, he
did not adapt to changing times. His autocratic style became increasingly
challenged by the new demands of a 1960s liberal America. As historian Michael
O'Brien opined, "(Hoover was) …an aloof, smug, narrow-minded, martinet with an
When his body lay in the Capitol, politicians came forward
to extol Hoover's patriotism, his defense of the "American Way" and his
single-minded obsession in making the FBI the No. 1 crime-fighting agency in the
world. But they were also secretly relieved to see his passing. And, three years
after his death, the U.S. public was so outraged that such vast reservoirs of
power could be wielded by an unelected "civil servant" that Congress became
determined never to allow it to happen again, passing a statute that restricts
the FBI director's tenure to 10 years. Hero or villain, America will never see
another J. Edgar Hoover.
Mel Ayton is the author of
The JFK Assassination:
Dispelling The Myths (Woodfield Publishing 2002) and
Controversy: The Kennedy Brothers (University of Sunderland Press 2001).
A Racial Crime – James Earl Ray And The Murder Of Dr Martin
Luther King Jr., was published in the United States by ArcheBooks in
In 2003 he acted as the historical adviser for the BBC's
television documentary "The Kennedy Dynasty" broadcast in November of that year. He
has written articles for Ireland's leading history magazine History Ireland,
David Horowitz's Frontpage magazine and History News Network.