J. Edgar Hoover died on this day in 1972, eight days away from his forty-eighth anniversary as director of the FBI. At Hoover’s funeral, President Nixon praised the half century in which his “powerful leadership by example helped to keep steel in America’s backbone, and the flame of freedom in America’s soul.” Noting Hoover’s unwavering integrity and principles, Nixon pledged “to love the law as he loved it, and to give fullest respect, support, and cooperation to the law enforcement profession which he did so much to advance.”
The Watergate break-in took place six weeks later. More than forty years on, Hoover’s uncertain legacy continues to resonater. Among the books exploring the topic is Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Tim Weiner:
Hoover stands at the center of the American century like a statue encrusted in grime. His opponents saw him as “a goddamned sewer,” in the words of President Kennedy’s national security adviser. Today, millions of Americans know him only as a caricature: a tyrant in a tutu, a cross-dressing crank. But Hoover’s secret intelligence files, newly opened, show him in a new light. He carried out secret missions that were almost inconceivable in their time, spying directly on the leaders of the Soviet Union and China in the darkest days of the Cold War, sending detailed intelligence warnings of suicidal airborne attacks against New York and Washington, controlling a coup against a democratically elected foreign leader. He was not a monster. He was an American Machiavelli.
Other recent books include Claire A. Culleton’s Joyce and the G-Men (2004), which analyzes how Hoover’s pursuit of left-leaning writers and publishers “allowed him to manipulate modern literature at its roots.” Mary Elizabeth Strunk’s Wanted Women (2007), subtitled “An American Obsession in the Reign of J. Edgar Hoover,” explores how the director’s “lifelong obsession with women deviants” led him to fuel and exploit the myth of the gun-toting female gangster. Kenneth D. Ackerman’s Young J. Edgar (2007) focuses on Hoover’s enthusiastic (and largely denied) participation in the Palmer Raids and the first Red Scare wave following WWI. In Richard Hack’s Puppetmaster (2004) we read how, during the FBI’s second-wave, Cold War battle against the Reds, Hoover pulled Senator Joe McCarthy’s strings whenever it was convenient. McCarthy died on the same day as Hoover, fifteen years earlier.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.