In the days after the close of the First World War, there was a room in Washington D.C. where communists and anarchists dwelled with Harvard professors, union organizers, lawyers, politicians, and government bureaucrats. It wasn’t a seedy, back-alley speakeasy or elite underworld salon where these presumed leftist agitators plotted bloody rebellion against the United States government. No, all these personalities were brought together in an archive at the Department of Justice, neatly filed into a card catalog system of substantial depth, complexity, and organization, by a 24-year-old assistant to the attorney general named John Edgar Hoover. It was the genesis of a system of surveillance and observation, of information mining, that would hang like Damocles’ sword over the city for nearly half a century.
In Young J. Edgar, author and lawyer Kenneth J. Ackerman explores the beginnings of Hoover’s public career and how the attitudes and beliefs which have made him an infamous figure in American history were forged in the red communist hysteria of 1919. It’s a time that will not feel unfamiliar to contemporary readers; Ackerman hardly needs to draw the parallels between the present climate of the United States and the circumstances surrounding the fear filled madness that gripped the country in ‘19. The connections are self-evident. Following an audacious and violent terrorist attack on government officials, perpetrated by foreign anarchists, the Department of Justice embarked on a crusade to eliminate all those who would challenge the authority of the U.S. government. Very quickly, those in charge of the investigations would lose sight of those they were supposed to be pursuing, the terrorist bombers, and expand their dragnet ever wider, ensnaring thousands of innocent immigrants and native-born citizens who merely exercised their rights to freedom of speech and free assembly.
What seems clear from Ackerman’s retelling of this tragic and terrible story is that as much as we may wish to brand men like Hoover and his boss, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer as evil men who sought to undermine liberty, their crimes aren’t rooted in a nefarious desire to do wrong. These men are guilty of hubris, of arrogance, of believing that their own judgments superseded the laws and rights that have been put in place to protect us from such personal flaws and failings. Justice is meant to be blind, but Hoover and Palmer saw red everywhere they looked. They saw the need to prove their assertions and allegations as an obstacle, and did what they could to deny their victims due process. They did this because they felt they knew best, that they knew the truth about these people, and that they were right. Such unflagging certainty and unremitting fervor is dangerous, and Hoover and Palmer wreaked havoc until the dirty details of their program came to light and the pendulum of public opinion swung out of their favor.
Ackerman leads readers through some of the boldface names that occupied so much space in Hoover’s immense card catalog of undesirables, introducing us to figures whose place in history is largely overshadowed by their adversary’s controversial legacy but deserve to be remembered for their roles in this sordid mess. There are the high-profile activists like Emma Goldman who was deported for her strident rhetoric and William Bross Lloyd, the millionaire socialist from Winnetka, and the everyday workers like Thomas Truss who was arrested on trumped up charges simply because he was an immigrant union member. The fighters, like lawyers (and later Supreme Court Justice) Felix Frankfurter and Clarence Darrow, who defended the wrongly accused and sought to uphold the rights of men in a justice system that had broken down. These were the people who had to live in the world that Hoover and Palmer created, a world where fear ruled and spurious aspersions were taken as gospel truth. Their stories are riveting and, at times, triumphant, particularly the narrative on Louis Post, the conflicted bureaucrat who ultimately stood up to the scaremongering.
Although the story is ostensibly about Hoover’s early days, he is mostly approached indirectly. We see the effects of his actions, the results of his behind-the-scenes string pulling, but on a personal level, Hoover is remote and distant. That’s not a deficiency in Young J. Edgar, but rather a fairly accurate portrayal of Hoover’s place in the world. Ackerman does not entertain many of the tabloid rumors that circulate about J. Edgar—their veracity is impossible to establish—but does his best to show what we do know about the man. He lived only for his work, had few human connections apart from his Mother and the names printed on index cards which he poured over in his catalog.
Though Young J. Edgar ends with a resolution that gives hope to those who believe in the sanctity of civil liberties and American freedom, any satisfaction is immediately quashed by the realization that nearly 80 years later, the United States has repeated the mistakes of the past. Not only is what’s happening horrific, it’s not even original. The moral swamp in which the nation finds itself is an unfortunate reemergence of the same flaws that existed back then. It is books like Young J. Edgar, and the examples of those who stood up to fight such injustice, that may provide instruction on how the country may finally extricate itself, once and for all.