The sad legacy of J. Edgar Hoover

You probably had to grow up in the 1950s or earlier to know deep in your bones just how radically the reputation of J. Edgar Hoover has shifted from patriotic, upstanding, nation-protecting, model-for-one-and-all hero to liberty-denying, rights-abusing, sneaky, jealous, morally corrupt villain.

But it has happened — sunshine is midnight, mountaintop is swamp — and the latest revelation serves only to fix in place the lowest estimations. The news is that Hoover once proposed to roundup and stick in jail 12,000 Americans who did not appear to conform to his idea of being loyal to their country. Habeas corpus? Bah, humbug. These people were a threat, and later hearings would not stick to rules of evidence.

When I was a youngster, and even in my 1960s college years and beyond, you mostly heard how this noble director of the FBI had once taken on rampant, bank-robbing gangsters and restored law and order, or how he had confronted the evil intentions of internal Communist conspirators and throttled them.

Such notions were backed up by newspaper and magazine articles, and by movies and TV shows. In high school, I read a book by Hoover, “Masters of Deceit,” which was about the horror of the Communist philosophy, the wickedness of Communists themselves and the various means they were employing to undermine our democracy. It was here, of course, that you located the constant obsession of Hoover, his sense of an internal menace eating ravenously away at our precious heritage.

No doubt, his exaggerated view of this threat within America, along with a planet-sized ego and his lengthy, seemingly secure tenure in power, contributed to his various abuses of his office. One of the worst was to set in motion a war on dissent through such means as illegal search and seizure, and then there were all the documents he kept on both dissenters and others in power, potentially ruinous information that was also potentially the stuff of blackmail of one kind or another. If someone were in his way, he would seldom hesitate to shove the obstacle aside.

Was there no basis, then, for his earlier reputation?

Are there no arguments on his behalf?

There are some.

To say he exaggerated the internal Communist threat is not to say that there was no threat at all; especially during the earliest stages of the Cold War, there were Americans happily betraying their country in service of the Soviet Union’s druthers and a misplaced, idiotic ideology. There was spying. Some of it was hugely hurtful. His view of communism was more nearly on target than that of countless intellectuals.

And to make it seem Hoover made no contribution at all to his country is to overlook how he helped build a first-rate FBI that without any question toted up a number of impressive achievements during the years he guided it. He may have been possessed of a kind of bureaucratic genius.

But there is something that never seemed to penetrate his stern mentality, which was that his excesses could pose as much a threat to our special sort of civilization as the domestic Communists he so much feared. Some are saying something like that now about the Bush administration — how some of its excesses are as worrisome as terrorists — and I would agree there have been decisions that should not be excused. But they pale compared to Hoover and what he did.

This man, we now know, wanted to stick thousands of fellow Americans in prison illegally. From this swamp he will never arise.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)


  1. Sandra Price

    I walked out of here yesterday after being call selfish. Well damnit, I will stand up for J.E.Hoover who did take on organized crime and brought it to a crashing stop. Not only do I remember him but had two cousins who were his agents and they adored the man. Both were injured in line with their work and crawled back just to work for him.

    I remember the 60s when the Kennedy’s started an assault on Hoover’s name. The liberals have never given up slandering the name and reputation of Hoover and I’m not suprised that you would bring it up and CHB would use it.

    What are you trying to do, make Bush look good? It’s going to take more than slandering Hoover. I will tell you one cold hard fact. Had Hoover still held the FBI, there would have been no attack on 9/11. That was Bush’s baby and most of you cannot believe it. You will soon enough.

  2. old_curmudgeon

    You get the same response when people are told that Lincoln was not the “righteous knight in shining armor” we were led to believe in school. Or that Bush didn’t really believe that there were WMD in Iraq and that the world really doesn’t want him to spread democracy throughout the world, and that oil really was the reason for the invasion and occupation… Hoover was an ideologue, like Cheney, Bolton, Adddington, Libby, et al. He believed that what he was doing was good for America just as Joe McCarthy thought what he was doing was good for America. The problem starts when one in authority believes that he/she knows what is good for America. They usually are not interested in opposing views. There are people who visit this portal who are not interested in opposing views. They usually make themselves very obvious. Now, I’m not saying you’re one of them, usually. But there are numerous written accounts available that shine a bright light on the machinations of JEH, in all his self-patriotic glory. But it’s ok if you continue to believe that JEH was something he wasn’t in my opinion. My father worked for JEH – the stories I got were not quite as flattering. Some people continue to believe that GWB is a compassionate conservative…But that’s just this old curmudgeon’s opinion…

  3. JoyfulC

    Um… organized crime came to a crashing stop? Did I sleep through this?

    As I recall, repeal of prohibition left organized crime scrambling to find new revenue streams, but I don’t think they’ve ever really stopped. There’s probably more organized crime now than ever.

    The problem with Hoover is that he had it all wrong about Communism. The problem with Communisist regimes was the draconian measures they used to repress dissent. And as we see, these measures are a problem no matter how noble the name of the cause they’re used towards.

  4. bryan mcclellan

    As it stands today, bushco has labeled 50%(approximately 150,ooo,ooo) of us disloyal because we are not republicans and we appose his nation building globalist agenda.JR’s number pales in comparison.Perversion of natural law and government is inevitable when one individual is left in power to long.Why should any of us be surprised by these revelations?See you at the internment camp.PMFOT’s

  5. DejaVuAllOver

    “But they pale compared to Hoover and what he did.” says Ambrose.

    And how the F%$K do you know that? We can’t get the minutest evidence of ANYTHING out of Fort Knox of the Police, the Bushreich, the CIA, nothing. These guys learned a LOT from Hoover and Nixon. Say nothing, cover your tracks, shred all documents, buy the judges, keep the big stuff ultra-classified, invoke national security whenever confronted, fund the media propaganda channels, divide, distract, confuse, obfuscate and you’ll never get caught.

    This is the legacy of Hoover, but he was only just learning. These guys nowadays are PhD’s.

    I can’t believe you’re that naive, Mr. Ambrose. Or maybe you’re paid-for, too.