“The Most Dangerous Institution”

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Born in Washington, D.C., in 1895, Hoover had grown up in a world of civil servants. He had begun his adult life as a junior messenger at the Library of Congress, eventually working with its card catalogue, all while attending law school. Some biographers suggest that this led to his lifelong obsession with accumulating information and keeping lists: the Gustodial Detention Index, the Rabble-Rouser Index, the Key Activist Index.

Although he came to be a master manipulator of the political system, Hoover scorned politics; he belonged to no party and never voted. He consistently described his enemies in moral terms—outlaws were “rats crawling from their hide-outs to gnaw at the vitals of our civilization” —and came to believe that perversity, not social conditions, explained wrongdoing. Communism was not a flawed economic and political system but “the latest form of the eternal rebellion against authority.”

 

Hoover’s youth and energy helped him make the agency a model of efficiency, and his genuine skills as a leader kept him in the job for 48 years—too long, as it turned out.

Harlan Stone had tried to draw a clear line between the two purposes of policing, law enforcement and intelligence gathering, but the blurring of that distinction would trouble the Bureau for years to come. Law enforcement brings to justice those who break statutes, from Mafia chieftains to venal politicians. In our society the process is open to public view, governed by rules of evidence, overseen by courts, and designed to affect only those reasonably suspected of having committed offenses. By contrast, intelligence gathering, aimed at preventing future threats, is not necessarily tied to specific crimes; its targets can be general: all anarchists, aliens, Communists, Middle Eastern men. The rules of evidence don’t apply, and the methods are necessarily secret, sometimes sinister.

Hoover was 29 when he took over as director. His youth and energy would help him make the agency a model of efficiency.

During its first 10 years under Hoover’s direction, the Bureau remained a minor player on the national stage. Then two events in the mid-thirties transformed its mission in both law enforcement and intelligence.

On the night of July 21, 1934, a group of FBI agents stood sweating on a street on Chicago’s North Side as a man, accompanied by two women, emerged from the Biograph movie theater. At a signal, the agents closed in. When the man began to run, a fusillade dropped him dead on the hot pavement. The agents rushed to phone word of the ambush to their director, who was waiting anxiously in Washington. In minutes the news spread throughout the country. FBI agents had killed John Dillinger, the man newspapers had called the archcriminal of the age. Decades later Hoover described the moment as his greatest thrill.

There was a reason the incident shone so brightly in his memory. The “crime wave” of the mid-thirties, really a handful of cases involving hit-and-run kidnappers and bank robbers, shaped the modern FBI. Before 1934 the Bureau was one of a number of federal investigative units. The nation had comparably few federal criminal laws; agents spent much of their time looking into antitrust violations and police-corruption cases. They had no power to make arrests, nor were they authorized to carry guns.

As far as the sketchy statistics of the period indicate, the nation’s crime rate did not accelerate after World War I. The problem was manufactured by a sensationalizing press, fueled by the dislocation of the Depression, and exploited by New Dealers looking to demonstrate the potency of the federal government. The drumbeat for action began in 1932 with the abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. It picked up a year later when four Bureau men transporting a prisoner ran into an ambush in Kansas City. One agent, the prisoner, and three others died in the “massacre,” and the public started to sense that the government was losing its grip on order in the country. Always quick with hyperbole, Hoover spoke of “a challenge to law and order and civilization itself.”

Until Dillinger’s demise, Homer Cummings, Roosevelt’s energetic Attorney General, had led the anti-crime effort. He had pushed a package of legislation through Congress making bank robbery, flight to avoid prosecution, interstate racketeering, and other misdeeds federal crimes. The anti-crime bills were “one of the most important, if least recognized, New Deal reforms,” notes the historian Sanford Ungar. The legislation gave the FBI real police powers, setting it up as the most visible law-enforcement arm of the Executive Branch.

When kidnappers grabbed Charles Urschel, an Oklahoma oil magnate, in 1933, the Bureau’s meticulous methods had paid off in the arrest of George ("Machine Gun") Kelly, one of the kidnappers. Surrendering, Kelly was reported, probably spuriously, to have pleaded, “Don’t shoot, G-men.” This shorthand for “government men” became the headline-friendly moniker for the members of a federal agency that was about to gain national prominence.

With fewer than 400 agents in 1934, the FBI could hardly police the whole country. That wasn’t the point. What FDR wanted was theater, and Hoover obliged. He selected cases that guaranteed publicity. The slaying of Dillinger and the hunt for various “public enemies”—Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, the Barker gang—made the Bureau famous (after several name changes, it finally became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935). As movies and magazines trumpeted the G-man myth, newspapers proclaimed Hoover “Public Hero Number One.”