Friday, December 30, 2022

Hoover, McCarthyism, and the FBI

When we understand that J. Edgar Hoover was an OG of the Administrative State, it opens up new avenues of interest into the history of McCarthyism and the red-hunting senator from Wisconsin.

Hoover and his FBI are usually anathema to the Left. The three exceptions are telling. Hoover is praised for stiff-arming the Nixon White House which wanted aggressive investigations into leaks like the Pentagon Papers. ((This is the genesis of Watergate). His deputy Mark Felt is lionized for leaking (and lying) about the Watergate investigation. Finally, Hoover is cited as the good type of red-hunter in order to portray McCarthy as reckless, unscrupulous, and demagogic.

Hoover dismayed by McCarthy's methods
As serious an anti-communist as FBI director was, he felt name-calling senator damaged the cause

Surprisingly, someone who came to grips with McCarthy's detrimental effect early on was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, then perhaps the most prominent anti-communist in the country. Hoover's own personal experience with McCarthy led him to doubt the senator's claims and eventually realize that McCarthy's approach had the potential to do incalculable damage to principled anti-communism.

What if I told you that Hoover's opposition to McCarthy was not simply a matter of protecting progressives from wild charges of subversion?

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has observed in his book Secrecy, the FBI has consistently maintained a cult of secrecy, obstructing concerned citizens, scholars and even government policymakers with a tight-fisted retention of all levels of information, from the trivial to the vital, under imperiously interpreted rubrics of national security and protection of personal privacy.
Gary Kern, A Death in Washington
McCarthy biographer Arthur Herman makes the key point that the senator was not primarily concerned with finding spies and subversives. His main focus was exposing the lax way the bureaucrats tasked with security carried out their duties.

The 200 or so Soviet espionage agents working in the government had been captured, expelled, or neutralized. That included the most dangerous of them all, the State Department’s Alger Hiss. But McCarthy understood that those who had allowed this disgraceful and dangerous situation to develop had to be held accountable. That meant, above all, the political party that had been in power during the years leading up to and during World War II: the New Deal Democrats.
McCarthy, then, presented a clear and present danger to Hoover, his bureau, and the progressive ideal of bureaucratic supremacy. Moreover, Hoover had a great deal to lose: the spycatcher had failed repeatedly catch Stalin's agents. The Rosenberg ring, the spies at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, the agents of influence throughout government – all of these carried out their plots under the nose of the original G-Man. (And then there is the little matter of Pearl Harbor.)

For years Hoover had boasted that foreign spies posed no threat to America, because none could possibly penetrate the Bureau's steel nets. But Krivitsky described Soviet agents effortlessly entering the United States on forged passports, spending large rolls of counterfeit money, and using assassinations to keep American communists in line. The idea that Moscow-dispatched assassins could gun down Americans in their homes -- even if they were communists -- was a public relations debacle for the FBI.
Verne Newton, The Cambridge Spies

Journalist Edward Jay Epstein had a chance to discuss the Hiss case with Richard Nixon long after his resignation. He asked the former president why Hoover and the FBI were so lax about Soviet subversion in the 1930s and 1940s. Nixon's explanation was succinct and on-point:

"Hoover had a pretty good nose for which way the wind was blowing,” Nixon replied. “He was more interested in preserving his power than catching spies."

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