J. Edgar Hoover
|Died||2 May 1972|
Contributor: Alan Chanter
ww2dbaseThe controversial American lawyer and criminologist John Edgar Hoover was born in Washington DC, United States in 1895. He obtained a Bachelor of Laws Degree from the prestigious George Washington University Law School in 1916 and, after graduating, was recruited by the US Department of Justice in 1917. In 1921 he was appointed as the deputy head of the Bureau of Investigation and, in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge appointed him as its permanent director following a scandal involving his predecessor. The Bureau of Investigation was re-organised in 1935 as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, more commonly known as the FBI, and under his leadership it would rapidly become one of the most successful departments for criminological research in the world.
ww2dbaseBy the time the USA entered World War Two, Hoover had been associated with the American justice system for 25 years and had been the Director of the FBI since its creation in 1935. Despite the Bureau's successes in combating gangsters and effecting an intensive surveillance campaign against Communist Party and Trade Union leaders, it was not, at that time, directly involved in any counter-espionage investigation; the US Government having not thought to establish a foreign intelligence gathering arm like the British MI6 or the German Abwehr. In fact, the German military attaché to the USA, General Friedrich von Bötticher, found it so easy to gather military intelligence, (even going so far as to forward to Berlin detailed reports on US rocket experiments and, obtaining from one traitor, the blueprints of America's top-secret Norden bombsight) that he urged the Abwehr not to bother deploying secret agents to the USA in order to preserve his host's mistaken believe in Nazi goodwill.
ww2dbaseFrom the day that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister until the Pearl Harbor raid nineteen months later, the British sought to obtain the closest co-operation with the Americans. In the spring of 1940, Stewart Menzies, Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), approached the Canadian businessman Sir William Stephenson to try and open a link to J. Edgar Hoover with the intention of allowing MI6 to acquire a US office where they could liaise with the American government in joint operations to sabotage Axis propaganda operations and disrupt enemy espionage activities throughout the Americas. After consulting with the White House, Hoover reluctantly agreed to allow British intelligence officers, in co-operative exercises with his own men, to track down German agents operating within the United States. On 21 June, an office, officially known as the British Passport Control Office (but discretely titled The British Security Coordination) headed by Stephenson, was established on the 35th and 36th floors of the Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue, New York City, from where agents would set forth to penetrate Axis-run companies and foreign embassies, tipping off the FBI about potential Axis threats.
ww2dbaseIn the months leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the BSC could claim a number of successful coups such a tipping off the FBI, in November 1940, when a Mexican informant revealed that four German ships intended to run the British blockade across the Gulf of Mexico. The US Navy stopped the ships and impounded their cargoes. Likewise J. Edgar Hoover warned BSC that the Italians intended to smuggle to South America almost $4 million in cash to bankroll acts of sabotage. The Mexican police were alerted which resulted in some $1.4 million being confiscated. Not every BSC operation was quite so successful – a great deal of time was wasted planning a response to a possible Japanese invasion of South America - but what mattered most was that Stephenson's liaison role in BSC would allow him to forge personal relations with a number of prominent figures in the USA, not least with Colonel William Donovan (qv).
ww2dbase"Wild Bill" Donovan was a personal friend of President Franklin Roosevelt. A natural showman from a poor Irish background, Donovan, who had been a classmate with Roosevelt at Columbia Law School, had fought with Pershing against Pancho Villa and then commanded New York's Irish 69th Regiment on the Western Front in 1917-18, returning home as a national hero with the Medal of Honor. Roosevelt now showed preference for the fat and prosperous lawyer and since Hoover was not even on speaking terms with Donovan and the President knew of this, the ramifications were all too clear. Hoover, despite his Agency retaining responsibility for counter-espionage, was largely by-passed when it came to the increasing need for unison between the Allies. In September 1940 Colonel Donovan persuaded Roosevelt to commit to a policy of intelligence collaboration with the British. Once the joint Allied structure became established, the two nation's Intelligence Agencies became more and more inclined to deal directly with each other leaving Hoover's FBI out in the cold.
ww2dbaseWhile the FBI could claim some success in protecting the United States from Axis espionage - a relatively easy task given the clumsiness of Abwehr and Japanese attempts at penetration - Hoover, who chose to view the war as a means to extend his own power and prestige, rather than as a mission to defeat the Axis powers, quarrelled with every other branch of the Armed Forces; refusing to collaborate, or share information or informers which fell into his clutches. The Office of Naval Intelligence, in particular, was especially exasperated by Hoover's intransigence accusing the FBI of being unfit to coordinate with the military and bitterly suggesting that every FBI agent owed his allegiance more to Hoover than to the United States. Nevertheless, the FBI would expand dramatically during the war, increasing from 2,280 personnel in 1941 to 15,000 by 1945, including 5,000 special agents (dubbed "G–men" by the press). When a White House directive of 23 December 1941 empowered the FBI to conduct counter-espionage operations throughout the Americas, Hoover hurried to deploy his own men into central and South America much to the annoyance of Donovan, whose own oversized Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had responsibility for intelligence activities conducted outside the continental United States.
ww2dbaseHoover's relationship with the British would become equally strained too. When the British disclosed the identity of their double agent Dusko Popov "Tricycle" to the FBI in August 1941, Hoover found himself unable to believe that the Abwehr had been outwitted by British Intelligence and, mismanaged Popov so grossly that his cover was almost blown. The British were equally exasperated that Hoover preferred to snatch headline credit for high-profile captures, rather than to track or turn enemy spies. As a result MI6 soon abandoned their early and unsuccessful efforts to work with uncooperative FBI's men in South America and chose to collaborate with the US Army's G-2 department instead. Matters came to a head in early 1944 when the FBI Espionage Section circulated a message boasting of its personal responsibility for managing the Double-Cross scheme and suggested that it alone was deceiving the enemy about the date of the forthcoming European invasion. The other intelligence communities were utterly appalled by such blatant disrespect.
ww2dbaseIndeed, for all its blustering, the FBI had little success in identifying American traitors. Despite sheaves of reports from the Agency's surveillance on fellow Americans, suspected of being Communists sympathisers, subversives or spies, the FBI was able to gain actual knowledge about only five American citizens actively engaged in working for the Soviet Union. Their subsequent confessions, under interrogation, would implicate just eighty more. A small reward for all the expensive and time consuming effort expended on such investigations.
ww2dbaseAt the end of the war Hoover still found himself with limited influence at the White House. Harry Truman took little notice of his anti-Donovan stance and liaison between the FBI and the military intelligence agencies in America would remain lukewarm while Hoover remained as FBI Director. Hoover's voice, however, would be instrumental in seeing the demise of his OSS rival, for there were many among the US Chiefs of Staff who had never liked Donovan, thought little of his costly organisation, and were more than happy to applaud President Truman's decision to wind up the OSS.
ww2dbaseThe unmarried J. Edgar Hoover would remain Director of the FBI, until his death, on 2 May 1972, from a heart attack at his Washington home, His body would lay in state in the Rotunda of the US Capitol building and was then buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC. His published works included Persons in Hiding (1938), Masters of Deceit (1958) and A Study of Communism (1962).
Everyman's Encyclopedia (Fabbri & Partners Ltd., 1973)
Edward Davidson and Dale Manning: World War Two - The Personalities (Arms and Armour, 1997)
Max Hastings: The Secret War - Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-45 (William Collins, 2015)
Last Major Revision: Sep 2018
J. Edgar Hoover Timeline
|1 Jan 1895||J. Edgar Hoover was born in Washington DC, United States.|
|27 Jul 1917||J. Edgar Hoover began working at the US Justice Department as a law clerk.|
|10 May 1924||J. Edgar Hoover was made the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.|
|4 Sep 1944||In the United States, a Federal Bureau of Investigation internal memorandum to J. Edgar Hoover noted that Argentina, with its sizable and influential German community, could provide refuge for Adolf Hitler and other top Nazi German leaders.|
|2 May 1972||J. Edgar Hoover passed away at his home in Washington DC, United States from a heart attack.|
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Winston Churchill, 1935