Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties
By Kenneth D. Ackerman
Historians seek to pinpoint when a political figure made that irreversible turn into corruption and darkness. Some chart Lyndon Johnson's descent with the "registering of the dead" election in 1948. Or Bill Clinton's first evidence of his lust for power with his Vietnam-era letter to a draft board officer indicating his dislike of the war but his willingness to fight if it will make him a future viable candidate. One of the uncanny attributes of the above figures is their ability to continue their rise, while others, moving along the same path, fall.
J. Edgar Hoover has to be one of the prime examples of what Ross MacDonald meant when he stated that “cream and bastards rise to the top.” For those arguing for imperial presidencies, whether beginning with FDR or Nixon, the argument is negated when one views Hoover surviving president after president. For decades, all of Washington was cowed because of his feverish data-collecting on the corrupt practices of politicians.
Apart from the obligatory comparison of national hysterical moments with 9/11, Kenneth D. Ackerman offers the moment when Hoover began his unstoppable assent: the Palmer Raids of 1919. In this period, the U.S. was at its most vulnerable and self-conscious: vets were returning bitter and angry; liquor was being banned, and Russia, a former ally in World War I, was outlawing religion and individual liberties.
“The establishment can only take so many shocks to the system, then it has to strike back,” Hoover says in Oliver Stone's Nixon. Whether he said this or not (and one must always fact-check with Stone), it nicely sums up young Hoover's attitude during the Palmer Raids. Long forgotten in all the retrospectives about poor Emma Goldman deported or cloth-capped immigrants watching their doors being kicked in is that there was a very real threat in the form of sixteen bombs wrapped in packages discovered by a postal clerk.
One gets a ringside view of how Hoover, who organized the Palmer Raids on suspected anarchists and Communists, would have reacted in the post-WWII era to the “second Red Scare” had he not the obstacles by then of liberal Supreme Court justices. Hoover emerges as one of those anal-retentive types whom the boss cannot stand to eat dinner with, but who he nevertheless delegates authority to because of the underling's monomania.
But in dwelling on civil liberties abuses and secret police types, Ackerman forgets that by 1919, Moscow gold was filtering in the coffers of the newly-formed American Communist Party. The Party itself was calling for violent overthrows and busily purging any slackers on this line out of their ranks. Overseas, Lenin was willing to provide a life-support system for the Soviet economy through the capitalistically-inclined New Economic Policy, but was feverishly executing Kronstadt sailors and intellectuals who were suddenly worried about the monster they helped create.
Nevertheless, Ackerman's book has a relevancy today and not as a handy club with which to bash the Patriot Act. Libertarians can express horror at Hoover and should always be on the lookout for monomaniacs whose lust for power cancels out all else. Whether or not Hoover wore heels is irrelevant in this case; but we should be cautious of a presidential candidate running today who certainly shares that trait of Hoover's.
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