In ‘G-Man,’ Yale historian takes a nuanced look at caricatured FBI director

In her new biography of J. Edgar Hoover, Yale historian Beverly Gage offers a complicated portrait of the legendary FBI director.
Beverly Gage and her book ‘G-Man’

For nearly a half-century, J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI or its precursor. A rabid anti-Communist now known for his own law-breaking — specifically, for his secret surveillance of American citizens — he is often caricatured as a bulldog.

But in her new biography “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century” (Viking), Yale historian Beverly Gage reveals new information about the legendary government man (“G-man’) and portrays him as a complicated person, one full of contradictions. The book was listed among the top 10 books of 2022 by the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and Publishers Weekly, and was on The New York Times’ list of the 100 best books of 2022.  The New Yorker chose it as one of its 24 “Essential Reads” of 2022.

Gage, a professor of history and American studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke with Yale News about what she learned about Hoover, a man who built the FBI but whose own legal transgressions, she contends, led to a public skepticism of government that lasts to this day. An edited and condensed version of that conversation follows.

It’s been about three decades since the last biography of J. Edgar Hoover was published. Why the need for a new one?

Beverly Gage: There are a couple of things that drew me to writing about Hoover.

The last big biographies of Hoover were published in the 1990s, just at the end of the Cold War. In the years since then, there’s just a wealth of new material, some brought out by other scholars and some as a result of my own Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

It seemed there was an opportunity to rethink Hoover and his influence over the course of the 20th century. Now we have 30 years more critical distance, so I thought it was a great opportunity to take him a little more seriously — to think of him not as this one-dimensional villain but consider his impact and influence on American government and politics.

Your book tells of some difficult, even traumatic, experiences Hoover had growing up in Washington, D.C. Did you have access to new facts about his childhood?

Gage: I was able to uncover some really difficult family moments that we hadn’t known about at the time other biographies were written because we had no digital newspaper databases. Information about his grandfather’s suicide and his aunt’s murder when he was about 10 years old is new to us. These experiences help to suggest that Hoover’s own idyllic narrative of his childhood was rather a more complicated story. One of the most important aspects of his family life was his father’s depression, which clearly cast a big shadow over his childhood.

Hoover was at one time one of the most respected men in America, but became one of the most reviled. What led to his fall from grace?

Gage: One of the things that really fascinated me was to discover just how popular Hoover was during most of his lifetime. We have an image of him as a man who nobody really likes, a rogue actor sitting alone in his room intimidating and strong-arming other people into doing what he wanted.

So it was a big surprise to see that he had this very powerful popular constituency for most of his life. He had really widespread support in the White House and in Congress, and it was bipartisan. I think there are a few ways of understanding that. One is that he was very good at public relations and dedicated a lot of time and energy to it. Another is that he represented a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Liberals tended to like him for the ways that he stood for a tradition of government expertise and professionalism. Conservatives liked a lot of his views on race and communism and religion.

I think it’s still true today — and I see this in how people have responded to my book —that people can look at Hoover and come into his story from a variety of different angles.

What, in your view, are some of his biggest transgressions as FBI director?

Gage: Hoover was a mess of contradictions in many ways. He positioned himself as being an enforcer of the law, a respecter of constitutional limits, but within the FBI he often violated those limits. He set up secret programs to police and surveil and sometimes harass and disrupt perfectly legal social movements and forms of political activity — such as the civil rights and anti-war movements, student activism, and more.

What do you see as his most valuable contributions to American society?

Gage: Hoover really set the template for the FBI that we have today. There are two areas that he engaged the FBI in: federal law enforcement and domestic intelligence.  And those are basically still the two activities that the FBI is responsible for. He also set the template for the FBI’s culture, which on the one hand is a culture of professionalism, expertise, and nonpartisan government service, and on the other is a pretty conservative internal culture in a lot of ways.

The moments that surprised me the most, aside from his popularity, were when he took a stand that I think we can really admire with some distance of time. He opposed Japanese internment during the Second World War, which is something that not a lot of federal officials did. He stood up to [former Republican U.S. Senator] Joe McCarthy [who falsely alleged that Communist spies and sympathizers had infiltrated the U.S. government and film industry] and actually worked with the Eisenhower administration to contain McCarthy and help bring him down. He conducted pretty widespread campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s, at a moment when he’s much more famous for going after figures like Martin Luther King Jr. So, there are times when Hoover took stands that were sometimes difficult in the moment, but that that we might really admire today.

One of the FBI program’s he is most known for is COINTELPRO. What was its purpose?

Gage: COINTELPRO is the most notorious program of Hoover’s tenure as FBI director, although it was not publicly known during his lifetime. COINTELPRO stands for Counterintelligence Program. And what the FBI meant by counterintelligence was not just surveillance of activist groups, but active disruption and harassment measures. The FBI would use things like threatening anonymous letters or fake press articles making fun of the Black Panthers or other groups they viewed as threats. They even had cartoonists at the FBI who would draw fake cartoons. They would get those published because they thought it would really upset people in the organizations that they didn't like.

This part of “counterintelligence” involved disruption tactics not aimed at ever bringing anyone to court or even getting information for the files, but getting movements and organizations and leaders to fight with each other, to factionalize, to kind of collapse from within. We have famous examples of what the FBI did to Martin Luther King Jr. or to the Black Panthers. The FBI was very involved in watching and trying to create disruption in the Panthers around the time of the May Day protests in New Haven in 1970 [during the murder trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale].  They were using these tactics on student activist organizations, the New Left, and others.

But one thing I don’t think people know is that the FBI was also doing that sort of thing to far-right organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi organizations. Not with the same energy and enthusiasm as they were always applying to the left, but they were doing it.

His wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the activities for which he is most known. Was Hoover a racist?

Gage: Hoover had a set of racist ideas that he encountered and developed as a young man and that he held onto for a lot of his life. One of my big questions was: What were the formative influences in shaping that worldview? I think the fact that he grew up in Washington, which was such an actively segregationist city during those years, was important. In college he was a member of Kappa Alpha, a reactionary fraternity that was devoted to carrying on a sort of lost-cause ideology for the White South.

If you were both a political radical and a Black man or woman — that was the intersection of two things that Hoover really found dangerous and that he policed very heavily. Within the FBI, Hoover never really let Black men be agents except in the most token ways.

Did you come away with a more sympathetic view of Hoover?

Gage:  I didn’t want to write a biography of a caricature. I didn’t want to write a biography in which I started out knowing everything and just kind of cherry-picked the history to enforce what I already thought or what I already wanted to say. I wanted to be able to approach a story with genuine openness and curiosity. What is exciting to me as a historian is in part the ability to change my mind, and to sometimes let both the history itself and the people who made it be genuinely complicated and contradictory and messy.

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