How Hoover's G-men lost their way

Review History

October 07, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[Special to The Sun]

The FBI: A History

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones

Yale University Press / 317pages/ $27.50

Detectives from the Division of Investigation of the United States Department of Justice cornered George "Machine Gun" Kelly in Memphis, Tennessee in July, 1933. "Don't shoot, G-men!," the gangster whimpered, as he threw down his gun and threw up his hands. A year later, brandishing this new nickname - and the latest Thompson machine guns - the government agents tracked down John Dillinger, whom they dubbed "Public Enemy Number One." They shot him dead outside a theater in East Chicago. On July 1, 1935 the Division became The FBI, celebrated in the movies and the media for its squeaky clean crime-busters - and its mastermind, Director J. Edgar Hoover.

More recently, of course, the Bureau has been castigated as a rogue elephant, trampling on civil liberties in the name of anti-communism, law and order, and a war on terror. And Mr. Hoover has been knocked off his pedestal. Anticipating the one hundredth anniversary of its formation, through an executive order issued by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, The FBI, by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a professor of American history at Edinburgh University, supplies a succinct and judicious account of the agency responsible for law enforcement and counter-intelligence in the United States.

Without denying that Hoover stamped his signature on the Bureau, in everything from the conservative dress of agents to state-of-the art crime labs specializing in fiber analysis, fingerprinting, ballistics, and moulage (reproducing body parts for use in court), Jeffreys-Jones gives much of the credit for the expansion and professionalization of the FBI to New Dealers in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Jeffreys-Jones ably sets the political context for the rise and fall of the FBI. Between 1946 and 1952, during the height of the Cold War, the number of agents increased from 3,754 to 6,451. By the `60s and `70s, amidst revelations about disinformation, harassment, bugging, burglaries, and the notorious COINTELPRO program, the FBI was scorched as a rigid, reactionary, and incompetent organization, with a propensity to abuse its power. The Government Accounting Office revealed that 797 domestic intelligence investigations had yielded only eight convictions. And in 1977, the Bureau was forced to destroy its 300,000 page "sex-deviants" file.

Jeffreys-Jones is especially incensed by the racial biases of the FBI. He dates the origins of the Bureau to 1871, when the Justice Department borrowed Secret Service agents from Treasury to smash the Ku Klux Klan. "A child of Reconstruction," the Bureau, he insists, is "heir to the battle for justice for African-Americans." But after "an inspiring decade of federal policing," the Bureau slipped "out of character."

Prosecution of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 1912 for violating the Mann Act epitomizes "the volte-face." Although a civil rights unit was formed in the FBI in 1939, Hoover did little to investigate violence against blacks, choosing instead to compile dossiers on the "subversive activities" of Paul Robeson, Billie Holiday, and A. Philip Randolph. By the 1940s, the director had amassed a 385 volume file on "Foreign-Inspired Agitation Among the American Negroes." In the `60s, with the consent of Hoover, who called Martin Luther King Jr. "a tom-cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges," agents forged tape recordings of sex orgies and sent them to the civil rights leader, along with notes threatening public exposure. Hoping to drive King out of politics, they would not have been unhappy if he had committed suicide.

The racial record of the FBI has, indeed, been shabby. When Hoover died in 1972, only 61 African-American agents were employed at the Bureau. (Most of the 59 Hispanics were assigned to the "Taco Circuit" in the American southwest). Although by the 1980s the FBI had "come a long way from the days when the only black Special Agents were the Director's personal servants," individual and class action suits by agents charging discrimination in hiring and promotion persisted. And the Bureau remained far less diverse than municipal police forces and many other federal agencies.

Nonetheless, Jeffrey-Jones' premise that race "is the dominant theme in the FBI's history" is procrustean. Insisting that "every generation has the power to choose its memories," Jeffreys-Jones wants the FBI's "prehistory" to be golden. It's a noble thought. But it ain't necessarily so.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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