John Edgar Hoover was born January 1, 1895 in Washington, D.C. By the time he reached 30-years-old, he was the Director of the Bureau of Investigation. When it comes to careers and longevity, especially in law enforcement and politics, there might not be anyone who has had a career like J. Edgar Hoover.
He was hired by the Department of Justice in 1917 and stayed there until he died on May, 1972 at the age of 77. He quickly rose up the ranks and became the head of the DoJ’s Alien Enemy Division, which was tasked by President Woodrow Wilson to detain disloyal foreigners without due process. This was of course, in the midst of World War I, so a lot of scrutiny was being placed on German nationals in the United States. By 1924, Hoover had taken over as the head of the Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor to the FBI.
It is hard to determine what makes J. Edgar Hoover more famous, his ruthless stance on the gangsters during the 1930s, or his longevity in a politically appointed position. During the 1930s the U.S. was plagued with an rise in criminal activity. It was during this time that notorious gangsters roamed freely, ones we still remember today: Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Machine Gun Kelly, just to name a few.
Hoover was notorious for his strong-armed stance on removing these gangsters from the streets, even authorizing “shoot on sight” orders and appointing ruthless lawmen like Melvin Purvis, who eventually helped bring down John Dillinger.
As these events played out, he wasn’t as well liked as you might expect. During the Great Depression and the years before World War II, corporate and financial systems weren’t seen in a good light, and a lot of Americans saw these bank-robbing gangsters as crusaders for the “common folk”.
Once World War II was over, Hoover was once more entrenched in controversy as the “Red Scare” took over America. Hoover was nearly as famous for searching for communists as Joseph McCarthy. Throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, a lot of the FBI’s resources were dedicated to finding and prosecuting subversives. Hoover, at one time, suspected more than 12,000 people of being closet communists. It was and remains one of the largest witch hunts in American history.
In fact, Hoover often focused solely on anti-communism to the detriment of other areas of crime. Organized crime, for example, was something that he made his name with in the 1930s, but failed to go after in the 1950s and ’60s. He also gained much criticism for accusing members of the Civil Rights Movement of being subversives. Most notably, Martin Luther King Jr. was a focus of a major investigation at Hoover’s instigation.
Despite this, by the 1960s Hoover was a political force to be reckoned with. Both Presidents Truman and Kennedy considered firing Hoover at different times, but discovered that it would cause undue political upheaval to do so.
He therefore remained in office until he died of a heart attack at age 77. He remains, and is likely to remain, the longest-serving director of the FBI.