The Manufacture of Consent: J. Edgar Hoover and the Rhetorical Rise of the FBI

The Manufacture of Consent: J. Edgar Hoover and the Rhetorical Rise of the FBI

by Stephen M. Underhill


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The second Red Scare was a charade orchestrated by a tyrant with the express goal of undermining the New Deal—so argues Stephen M. Underhill in this hard-hitting analysis of J. Edgar Hoover’s rhetorical agency. Drawing on Classification 94, a vast trove of recently declassified records that documents the longtime FBI director’s domestic propaganda campaigns in the mid-twentieth century, Underhill shows that Hoover used the growing power of his office to subvert the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman and redirect the trajectory of U.S. culture away from social democracy toward a toxic brand of neoliberalism. He did so with help from Republicans who opposed organized labor and Southern Democrats who supported Jim Crow in what is arguably the most culturally significant documented political conspiracy in U.S. history, a wholesale domestic propaganda program that brainwashed Americans and remade their politics. Hoover also forged ties with the powerful fascist leaders of the period to promote his own political ambitions. All the while, as a love letter to Clyde Tolson still preserved in Hoover’s papers attests, he strove to pass for straight while promoting a culture that demonized same-sex love. The erosion of democratic traditions Hoover fostered continues to haunt Americans today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611863468
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2020
Series: Rhetoric & Public Affairs Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 354
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

STEPHEN M. UNDERHILL is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Marshall University. He served as the lead reference person for declassified FBI and Department of Justice textual records at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, Maryland, from 2007 to 2012.

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The Life and Times of J. Edgar Hoover, 1895-1932

The Woodrow Wilson administration took a hard line against radicalism during J. Edgar Hoover's formative years in government. In December 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer declared "unflinching, persistent, aggressive warfare against" Bolshevik sympathizers in America, whom he characterized as "criminals, mistaken idealists, social bigots" and stricken with "hyperesthesia," a syndrome that made people overly sensitive. Palmer recounted that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" in Russia had "degenerated into a military dictatorship," and that the same problem almost spread to America with its own "Red movement." He elaborated in a 1920 issue of Forum magazine that, like "a prairie-fire, the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order a year ago," marriage, home, church, and school, "burning up the foundations of society." In January, the New York Times reported that "Hoover, special assistant to Attorney general Palmer, in charge of prosecutions" announced that "3,000 of the 3,600 aliens taken into custody during the recent nationwide round-ups of radicals are 'perfect' cases for deportation." Hoover and Palmer had the broader support of the cabinet. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall declared in March, for example, that "Americanism" meant that "America belonged" to only those citizens who comported themselves in "orderly and constitutional ways" and that all others "should be taught, peacefully" if possible, and forcibly if necessary, that America was "not an international boarding house nor an anarchist cafe." The association of disease with idealism, Marxist ideology, and sensitivity, which should be counteracted with violence in the name of Americanism, was invented in the Progressive Era, would become a mainstay of Hoover's lexicon, and would be foundational to the domestic front of the Cold War.

Palmer, Hoover, and Marshall deployed the xenophobic language and logic that typified their political moment. Palmer imagined public life in terms of a culture war wherein criminals were morally subversive people, whom he described with the scientific rhetoric of disease and degeneration. Hoover sought to deport immigrants to contain the threat of radicalism. And, Marshall suggested that force was a legitimate resource for the federal government to use against marginal groups with unpopular opinions. The administrators used rhetorical patterns invented or popularized by novelists in the late nineteenth century to culturally contain the influences of racial and ethnic minorities and thereby preserve dominant Anglo-Saxon norms.

Hoover was socialized into a political world that he later referenced in his official capacities as FBI director in the New Deal era and beyond. His later discourses on crime and Communism continually deployed language that was distinct to the time around the Progressive Era. Hoover imagined masculinity, patriotism, citizenship, science, professionalism, heroes, and villains, as well as problems and solutions in public life in ways that stemmed from the early years of his career and mimicked the progressives who taught him how to be a reformer. Whereas scientific reformers modeled disinterested bureaucratic professionalism in the federal government, Christian reformers modeled a nationalist zest that referenced and revered the nation's white Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultural history. Hoover's public persona emerged from the way he blended these alternative frames of progressivism in ways in which the former concealed and justified the latter.

A Cold War Origin Story

J. Edgar Hoover was born on January 1, 1895, in Washington, DC, where he was raised in a quiet Southern town at the turn of the century. It was a setting before modernity, a time when popular writers and political reformers referred to black people, immigrants, and laborers as disease. Throughout his long career, Hoover perpetually referenced such imagery when he called out for "Americanism."

Hoover joined the Department of Justice (DOJ) during World War I and was quickly promoted into its administrative level. The DOJ's Appointment Letter Books indicate that he abbreviated his name and was appointed to the dual titles of "special employee" and "clerk" of the DOJ in July 1917. Both of these positions were "payable from the appropriation for 'National Security & Defense.'" In his early career, he reported to the department's War Emergency Division and was assigned to work with the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Immigration. He helped administer the Espionage (1917), Sedition (1918), and Immigration (1918) Acts during and after the war, which charged him with the duty to help coordinate how the federal government combated American radicalism. His work soon included the move to silence dissent and champion coercive methods of law enforcement.

Together, these acts militarized the DOJ and coordinated it with the Office of Military Intelligence (OMI) to protect industry from labor. Palmer then added the General Intelligence Division (GID) to the DOJ in 1919, which Hoover was selected to direct as the attorney general's "special assistant" in July, at the age of twenty-four. Hoover reported to Congress that the work of the GID was "at first confined solely to the investigations of the ultraradical movement," but he expanded it to include "the study of matters of an international nature, as well as economic and industrial disturbances incident thereto." Hoover's GID was thus an early precursor to the FBI, which conceived of organized labor as a subversive form of international threat. He coordinated the government's move against the 3,600 strikes that occurred between 1919 and 1920 that interfered with defense plans and challenged the principle of private property. He and Palmer helped create an atmosphere that was toxic to reformers. Industry colluded with the DOJ to break strikes and discredit proponents of organized labor and business regulation. The Bureau of Investigation was indistinct as a military or civilian department, or as a public or private security apparatus.

Moreover, the attorney general warned of an imminent revolutionary uprising when he declared war on radicalism after his house was bombed. More than thirty bombs were mailed by anarchists to the homes and offices of business and government leaders in the spring of 1919, which sparked the First Red Scare. The DOJ then cast a nation-wide dragnet to round up immigrant laborers, beat them, arrested them, deported them, and also established local, state, and federal police apparatuses that investigated, identified, and punished radicals of all stripes. Unsure of where the anarchists' bombs came from, the Justice Department blamed the newly formed Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA).

The Palmer Raids targeted immigrant and labor organizations in November 1919 and January 1920. The first raids rounded up at least 465 alleged radicals. The attorney general directed Hoover to prepare these cases for trial. Three hundred of these detainees were deported to Russia in December, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. The speed of the government in deciding these cases was a testament to the momentum against immigrants and Communists in America after the war.

Hoover could join the DOJ at twenty-two as a clerk and rise in just two years to direct its counterespionage unit, in part, because he was already fluent in the department's voice and vision. He graduated from George Washington University in 1917 with a master of laws degree, where he took courses from influential legal minds who took hostile stances against immigrants in the wartime era. Andrew Simpson argues that Professors Charles Noble Gregory and William Cabell Van Vleck imparted to Hoover a "legal principle that immigrant aliens relinquished their rights to be within the United States once they advocated violent revolution." Before law school, he attended a prestigious Washington, DC, high school where he was a decorated debater, captain of the cadet corps, and graduated valedictorian in 1913, while he taught Sunday school. Debate helped foster combativeness and shrewdness in progressive politics, and taught him how to use language to persuade audiences with appeals to the Anglo-American Protestant tradition. Moreover, Steve Rosswurm observes that it is "virtually impossible, especially in light of Hoover's latter years, to overestimate the importance of his cadet experience." The corps taught him leadership, regimentation, self-control, group identity, and cohesion, which were important ingredients in "his social bonding with men at the very time when many of his peers were becoming heterosexually oriented." Even more, his Sunday school mentor was an influential progressive organizer who was well spoken in the language of reform politics. Hoover recorded in a 1910 diary entry that he joined the First Presbyterian Church and took his first communion from Dr. D. C. MacLeod. Hoover taught Sunday school under MacLeod's supervision and then served him as an assistant superintendent. The pastor was a president and chairman of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) of the District of Columbia. As such, he worked with President Wilson to organize the lobby's successful campaign against liquor licenses in Washington, DC.

The ASL, in part, treated prohibition as a response to immigrants. It printed in a 1916 American Issue article, for example, that the "future of America" depended on the "Americanization movement." Either the republic would "perish as a conglomeration of racial colonies," or America would become "one nation united by common ideals against enemies without and within." The Eighteenth Amendment was passed three years later, which marked the zenith of the temperance movement's success. The Constitution then prohibited the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" and enforced these rules with the Volstead Act. Also passed in 1919, this law was drafted by the ASL and empowered federal agents to investigate liquor violations in the states under the supervision of the attorney general. Like Hoover, MacLeod helped create a centralized policing apparatus that placed federal agents across the country to police Protestant norms. The Bureau of Prohibition would become steeped in scandal before it finally collapsed in 1933 at the dawn of the New Deal.

Hoover's first attempt to coordinate a national police force failed almost immediately. His early career as a Communist hunter ended abruptly when the cases that he prosecuted were reversed on appeal and the DOJ's methods were ruled unconstitutional. Stories quickly circulated about how the GID routinely violated civil liberties, which implicated the department and Hoover's unit in illegal activities. Hoover and Palmer argued that the Immigration Act made Communist Party membership a deportable offense. Consequently, they rounded up suspected Communists wherever and however they could find them. The law enforcers were directly challenged by the assistant secretary of labor and powerbrokers within the legal community. For example, future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, among others, reported in 1920 that federal agents worked with magazines and editors to create propaganda that resembled an "advertising campaign in favor of repression." This machinery was indicative of Hoover's early interest in public relations and propaganda. William J. Maxwell observes that it was under Palmer and against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance that Hoover transformed the bureau into the "head office of lit.-cop federalism, part library, part editorial board, part authors guild, part literary-critical tendency, all parts committed to sowing state authority in the print public sphere." Maxwell identifies the GID's Radicalism and Sedition among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications (1919) as the "American states' earliest acknowledgement of the Harlem Renaissance and as a seminal document of African Americanist criticism produced from any quarter." All of it was ruled unconstitutional. Hoover's propaganda work with the GID foreshadowed what would come with the Cold War.

Palmer and anticommunist collaborators discovered that such intelligence work and roundups were politically safer during times of war and hysteria. Labor Department officials and federal judges reversed thousands of Justice Department deportation rulings. Additionally, Congress acted against the executive branch when the House and Senate investigated the Justice Department for misconduct. The legislature ruled that the bureau did not have the authority to engage in intelligence work without congressional approval. This backlash revealed the power of civil liberties claims to challenge unmonitored domestic counterintelligence programs. Palmer charged that his opponents were Communist sympathizers and liars who wanted to help the alleged Communist revolution in America. His redbaiting tactics failed when a federal judge ruled in June 1920 that the attorney general's procedures violated civil liberties statutes and that Communist Party membership did not qualify aliens to be deported. The revolution never materialized, and Palmer spent the rest of his term under congressional investigation.

Hoover kept control of the GID after Palmer left the DOJ. His unit networked with the newly formed American Legion to promote what Richard Gid Powers calls countersubversive anticommunism. This perspective was prone to conspiracy theories and conflated attempts made by Moscow to co-opt American reform movements through the CPUSA as evidence of actual Soviet control. Accordingly, Hoover and his colleagues sought to prove that the Soviet Union held influence over labor organizations, pacifist groups, universities, women's clubs, churches, and schools. Hoover and the Legion chased make-believe conspiracies and construed political activities outside of Anglo-American culture as foreign and menacing. Hoover also helped produce literature that supported his worldview. For example, reactionaries published books like Blair Coan's The Red Web (1925), which warned of Soviet intrigue in public life. R. M. Whitney even thanked "Mr. John Edgar Hoover" of the "Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice" for his "advice and friendly criticism" of Reds in America (1924), a book that Whitney dedicated to abiding "loyalty to American institutions" amidst the "trackless sea of 'liberalism' as now defined." Even before the New Deal and the neoliberal response to it, therefore, anticommunists like Hoover and Whitney griped that multiculturalism made liberalism unworkable.

Hoover promoted conspiracy theories at a time when the DOJ was entangled in some of its most notorious political conflicts. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty (1921–1924) attempted to use his power to protect the Republican interior secretary from an investigation of Teapot Dome by Democratic senators Burton K. Wheeler and Thomas J. Walsh. The bureau tapped the senators' phones, read their mail, and burglarized their homes and offices. Agents even attempted to lure Wheeler into a sexual liaison and manufactured evidence to discredit him. He was indicted by a grand jury but won acquittal when witnesses admitted that they had perjured their testimony. The Teapot Dome scandal was possibly more offensive than others because it occurred at a time of government reform, and the attorney general was counted as a reformer. According to the Administrative Orders, Circulars, and Memorandums of the DOJ, for example, he ordered executive officers to refrain from displaying "such obtrusive partisanship as to cause public scandal" in 1922.

Daugherty's hypocrisy helped usher in an era of organizational reform. Attorney General Harlan F. Stone (1924–1925) limited bureau investigations "exclusively to violations of the Federal Laws" and ordered the discontinuance of "unnecessary investigations." And, Attorney General John G. Sargent (1925–1929) stipulated that "all publicity" about "cases pending in this Department or ... the ordinary administrative business of the Department" must be "authorized and given to the press through the Office of the Attorney General only, and not otherwise." He prohibited the "imparting of confidential information to newspaper representatives and others outside the Department" by penalty of "disciplinary action." He further forbade executive officers from using their "official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with an election or affecting the result thereof." In December 1924, Stone appointed Hoover as director of the Bureau of Investigation in this context of reform and restraint. The attorney general ordered him to dismantle the GID and reduce the size of the bureau. On the surface, Hoover carried out his orders. In practice, however, the bureau quietly continued to monitor American socialists and Communists, organized laborers, and reformers who challenged the racial boundaries established by Jim Crow. Stone also gave Hoover complete authority over bureau personnel, and the ability to hire and fire agents without the oversight of the Civil Service Commission. Hoover would use this authority over the span of decades to staff the FBI with agents who shared his proclivities for Anglo-American nationalism. The middle and late 1920s were relatively quiet years for the bureau, yet foundational for the rise of Hoover's public and narrative personae.


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Copyright © 2020 Stephen M. Underhill.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction xxi

Chapter 1 The Life and Times of J. Edgar Hoover, 1895-1932 1

Chapter 2 The War on Crime, 1933-1938 31

Chapter 3 Fighting the Fifth Column, 1939-1945 75

Chapter 4 The Masquerade and the Menace, 1946-1953 127

Conclusion 177

Notes 195

Bibliography 261

Index 297

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