Please donate to help save PopMatters. We are moving to WordPress in January out of necessity and need your help.

J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War

John Sbardellati

Between 1942 and 1958, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI conducted a sweeping investigation of the motion picture industry to expose Hollywood's alleged subversion of "the American Way" through its depiction of social problems, class differences, and alternative political ideologies.

Excerpted form Chapter 1: A Movie Problem (footnotes omitted), from J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War by John Sbardellati. Reprinted by arrangement with Cornell University Press. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

A Movie Problem

As soon as the Jews gained control of the “movies,” we had a movie problem.

-- Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, 1921

The idea that Hollywood could be subversive is as old as the industry itself. The culture wars at the turn of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of mass amusements as a challenge to a Victorian America grounded in distinct class and gender divisions, especially in the realm of entertainment. This Protestant culture faced the challenge of new immigrants, many of them Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe. As the forces of urbanization and industrialization transformed the nation, a mass society emerged and, along with it, a mass culture. Starting with nickelodeons in ethnic communities and spreading to movie houses across the nation, cinema quickly became the leading form of mass culture.

As middle-class defenders of the Victorian way struggled to maintain social control, they turned their attention to the screen. To their dismay, they found that control of the film industry rested in the hands of the very groups they sought to maintain in a position of subordination. As one historian notes, the movie moguls—predominantly eastern European Jews—were seen by the public as “part splendid emperors, part barbarian invaders.” The Hollywood Jews soon became the target of vicious anti-Semitic diatribes. For instance, in 1921 Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent branded Hollywood as

Jew-controlled, not in spots only, not 50 per cent merely, but entirely; with the natural consequence that now the world is in arms against the trivializing and demoralizing influences of that form of entertainment as presently managed... As soon as the Jews gained control of the “movies,” we had a movie problem, the consequences of which are not yet visible. It is the genius of that race to create problems of a moral character in whatever business they achieve a majority.

The image of a Jewish-controlled medium, therefore, was deeply intertwined with the image of a morally subversive Hollywood.

For some, film became synonymous with licentiousness. The theaters themselves were seen as dens of iniquity, where illicit activities could take place beneath the cover of darkness. In an era marked by steep concern over urban vice and “white slavery,” moral guardians believed that the exhibition of movies threatened a sexual revolution. What appeared on the screen did little to set their minds at ease. Genteel-minded critics fretted over the vulgar antics of Charlie Chaplin, whose penchant for bawdy humor enthralled many. Film critic James Agee recalled his mother’s objections to the comedian: “That horrid little man! ...He’s so nasty!.. So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!” Others were outraged by Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female (1919), which tantalized audiences with a brief glimpse of Gloria Swanson’s bare breasts. Fearing the effect on society and especially on children, middle-class reformers, Catholic leaders, and activists in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union pushed for control of the screen. Censorship boards sprang up at local and state levels, leading finally to the industry’s adoption of a code for self-regulation in the early 1930s. The motion picture industry, as historian Francis Couvares notes, took shape not only as a result of economic imperatives, but cultural ones as well.

Hollywood, therefore, served as a leading locale for early twentieth-century culture wars, a moral and ethnic challenge to the established order. Often seen as subversive in this broader sense, the motion picture also acquired a reputation for political subversion as well. Political struggles over film content focused largely on class issues until the late 1930s, when fighting fascism consumed much of Hollywood’s political focus. During this earlier period, filmmakers on the left sought to use film to promote the betterment of the working classes, their messages ranging from calls for sympathy to demands for revolution. Their enemies on the right detected a grave danger in all of this, fearing a Communist propaganda conspiracy that could induce the masses to overturn the social order in the name of Bolshevism. In this cultural struggle lay the roots, though not yet the beginning, of Hollywood’s cold war.

This chapter traces the “movie problem” during the 1920s and 1930s, when political battles for control of the screen focused first on issues of labor and class, and then, as fascism threatened Europe beginning with the Spanish Civil War, on issues of foreign policy. In the early 1920s, government officials, led by J. Edgar Hoover and his Bureau of Investigation began monitoring filmmakers, fearing the production of films they considered Communist propaganda. In the wake of the first red scare, however, the bureau’s powers were stripped, and federal surveillance of filmmaking all but ceased. Concerns over Communist propaganda remained, however. During the 1930s, Hollywood’s internal censors in the Production Code Administration sought to prohibit the production of radical films. By many standard accounts they succeeded in this endeavor, but film can be a tricky medium. In the past decade historians have chronicled the ways in which some 1930s Hollywood films managed to convey left-of-center ideas despite this censorship. Indeed, as I argue in this chapter, even in some cases where the censors believed they had scored a victory, alternative (even radical) readings of the film in question remained possible. Despite the efforts of these officials, 1930s culture remained open to cinematic critiques from the left. America’s “movie problem” had only just begun.

The First Red Scare and the Movies

It seems fitting that the Bureau of Investigation was founded by a Bonaparte. In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt’s attorney general, Charles J. Bonaparte, grandnephew of Napoleon I, created the agency as the investigative arm of the Justice Department, which had previously relied on Pinkertons or the Secret Service Division of the Treasury Department. The act went against Congressional desires to preclude “a Federal secret police,” but it was nonetheless part of Teddy Roosevelt’s “new federalism,” which initiated one of the greatest political trends in twentieth-century America, the increasing centralization of power under the executive branch. Indeed, this trend was evident within the Bureau of Investigation itself (which would be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935), for its power and jurisdiction would eventually grow well beyond the role initially defined by Bonaparte.

However, the man who would preside over most of the bureau’s growth and wield much of its power did not descend from European rulers but from American bureaucrats. John Edgar Hoover joined the bureau as a clerk in 1917. The job paid poorly, but it did provide an indefinite deferment from military service. Having mastered the filing system at the Library of Congress before joining the bureau, Hoover used his bureaucratic skills to assist his meteoric rise in the agency. His xenophobia and antiradicalism also suited him well, for his rise within the bureau mirrored that agency’s expansion, largely a result of wartime legislation (the Immigration Act, the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act). The postwar biennio rosso, or “red years,” witnessed further repression from the newly formed Radical Division, headed by Hoover under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer and Hoover soon started a deportation drive that, according to Richard Gid Powers, had as its real aim “a permanent alteration in American political culture by the setting of strict legal limits to allowable political dissent.” Known perhaps misleadingly as the “Palmer raids,” the Justice Department’s roundup of thousands in 1919 and 1920 was secretly orchestrated by Hoover. Palmer sought political capital for his planned presidential campaign, but his predictions of radical violence on May Day came to naught, and Senate hearings soon exposed the Palmer raids for what they were. Palmer was out as soon as the Harding administration was in. Hoover managed to survive.

Warren Gamaliel Harding won election to the presidency on a “return to normalcy” campaign engineered by Will H. Hays. Harding’s attorney general, Harry Daugherty, named William J. Burns as the new director of the bureau in 1921. There was a new assistant director too—J. Edgar Hoover. Burns and Hoover continued the antiradicalism of the Palmer days, but with much less publicity. Bureau surveillance extended beyond radicals to such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Communists, leftist college students and faculty members, even members of Congress who had been critical of the Palmer raids or who advocated recognition of the Soviet Union were monitored by bureau agents. Hoover managed to strongly influence the bureau, even in this early period, and he would shape the agency’s ideological mold over the course of his half-century tenure as “the boss.

In many ways, Hoover’s fears were America’s fears. As historian Anders Stephanson argues, America’s cold war ideology evolved from a deeply rooted tradition in which the polar extremes of “freedom” and its opposite (tyranny, slavery, totalitarianism) are in constant tension. Indeed, the “first principle” of this peculiarly American mindset “is the dynamic notion that freedom is always already under threat, internally as well as externally, and that it must be defended by those so called upon.” Thus, the American worldview proclaims a messianic national mission (city on a hill, white man’s burden, containment) while revealing a fundamental insecurity.

And yet Hooverism greatly intensified this traditional American insecurity. Hoover, after all, subscribed to what some historians term a “countersubversive” tradition, an ideology marked by intense anxieties regarding the danger of foreign and radical subversion. Countersubversives were those patriotic zealots who despised the radical Left with a fury. Their anti-Communism was irresponsible, their devotion to the cause often fanatic and at times irrational. They were spurred on by nightmares of conspiracy, by their endless lists of spies and subversives (some real, some imagined), and by the intense feeling that radicalism was akin to a contagious germ that would spread unless quarantined. Over the years Hoover would often compare Communism to a disease, insisting that “the Communist hopes to implant his Red virus and to secure a deadly culture which will spread to others.” Whether this disease discourse truly represented Hoover’s fears, or whether he employed this language merely for public consumption, Hoover was quite effective in mobilizing a countersubversive network consisting of government, civic, business, labor, and religious institutions. His bureau was soon at the center of this network.

Hoover was by no means all powerful or unique, but his position of power—he was named director of the bureau in 1924, a position he held until his death nearly half a century later—meant that his ideology and his idiosyncrasies could be transmitted into policy, sometimes with disastrous effects. Hoover’s personality loomed large over his subordinates. To a great degree he was able to institutionalize his own worldview within the bureau. His biographers describe the FBI as a “tightly centralized bureaucracy” in which “a virtual cult of personality” reigned. Perhaps unable to control each of his agents as strictly as he wished, “the boss” nevertheless ran a tight ship. He formulated stringent guidelines for his men, moral as well as professional. He insisted that agents undergo extensive legal training, and also that their personal lives comport with his conservative values. Bureau agents were expected to abide by a dress code and remain faithful to their wives, and they were subject to a rigorous merit-based system for employee evaluations. Furthermore, recruits consisted mainly of young men from the South and West, whom Hoover believed were more easily molded to his conservative worldview. Hoover’s agents were a tightly disciplined bunch, monitored for their performance, professionalism, sobriety, and even marital status.

Despite his traditionalism, and even despite his quirks, Hoover was no simpleton. He quickly gained a reputation as an excellent administrator, an expert at scientific management. At the time he took the top spot in the bureau, Hoover was described as a youthful, no-nonsense leader dedicated to professionalizing the agency by discharging the “gumshoe sleuths” and putting a high premium on agents’ legal training. His administrative reforms successfully centralized the bureau’s files and operations. Under Hoover, the bureau pioneered advanced techniques in criminal identification. One arm of the FBI, the Crime Records Division, operated simultaneously as a tool for public information and bureau publicity. The director transformed the bureau into an efficient, yet authoritarian, outfit molded closely to his own ideological predispositions and personal idiosyncrasies.

Next Page

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





© 1999-2020 PopMatters Media, Inc. All rights reserved. PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.

Collapse Expand Features

Collapse Expand Reviews

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.