Was there a Link Between the FBI and the HUAC?

“Hoover proclaimed his political support for the Committee on Un-American Activities and its members in the war on communism. They were no a team.”—Tim Weiner, Enemies, 149.

Here is a picture taken during an HUAC hearing in 1948.

The question of how linked the relationship was between the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) is to me one of the most interesting questions that can be asked of this period. By law they were two very different organizations falling under two very different departments. The HUAC was a congressional committee tasked with investigating and trying Americans who were allegedly guilty of subversive activities and allegiances. The organization was founded in the late 1930s and during its almost forty years of existence issued thousands of subpoenas and sentenced hundreds to jail for contempt of court (for refusing to answer the infamous question “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”) The FBI on the other hand was a crime fighting institution that fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice rather than Congress. The question remains, how closely were these two organizations linked in their shared objectives?

As mentioned in a previous post, it was not uncommon for someone seated before the HUAC to find the committee members armed with the defendant’s entire FBI file. This was the heart of the link between these organizations. The FBI could go about their covert techniques of gathering information, but could now channel it to the HUAC for use as anonymously provided evidence against the defendant. Tim Weiner writes. “The FBI would gather evidence in secret, working toward the “unrelenting prosecution” of subversives. The committee would make its greatest contribution through publicity—what Hoover called ‘the public disclosure of the forces that threaten America.’”[1] This link would remain mostly secret from the public for many years.

It was not until the early 1950s that the HUAC, under the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, hit the peak of its anti-communist rhetoric and action. William Sullivan, the high ranking FBI official who has been mentioned many times before in this blog wrote in his

Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin led the HUAC during the first few years of the 1950s.

memoir, “During the Eisenhower years the FBI kept Joe McCarthy in business. Senator McCarthy Stated publicly that there were Communists working for the State Department. We gave McCarthy all we had, but all we had were fragments, nothing could prove his accusations. For a while, though, the accusations were enough to keep McCarthy in the headlines.”[2] This quote, if Sullivan’s book is indeed accurate, changes the picture a little bit. Rather than two titan organizations teaming up in order to fight communism in America, we get the image of the commonly used analogy of FBI as the puppet master. Rather than being a productive organization on its own, Sullivan’s account makes it seem as if the HUAC was nothing more but an assassin of public opinion ready to attack and besmirch the public image of anyone the FBI had dirt on. Despite the fact that J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with the public’s opinion of the Bureau, it is clear that he preferred to leave the dirty work of public accusations to people who did not mind getting their hands dirty. Luckily, the HUAC was desperate for information and more than willing to provide that service.

[1] Tim Weiner, Enemies. New York: Random House, 2012. Pp. 149-150.

[2] William Sullivan, The Bureau. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979. Pp. 45.

Hoover and the Kennedys: Part II

“The war between J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was a scorched-earth campaign that burned throughout the 1960s.”– Tim Weiner, Enemies, 223. 

Just as J. Edgar Hoover had not liked or trusted John F. Kennedy, so too did he dislike Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They fought on a number issues ranging from JFK’s romantic indiscretions to the Civil Rights movement. Robert was an outspoken advocate of the civil rights movement and yet, there were two issues that time and time again dominated the attention of the young attorney general as evident by his orders to the FBI. The first issue was organized crime and the second was communism in the United States. J. Edgar Hoover, like he had with so many other titans of American politics, was whispering threats of communism in the ear of Robert Kennedy. This allowed Hoover and the FBI use their own social biases to survey and harass whoever they wanted under the guise of suspected communism.

I have already written about the relationship between the FBI and race and you can read that here. For years Hoover was a silent antagonist to the civil rights movement and now he used his suspicions of a link between civil rights and communism to get permission to survey black activists in the US. David Garrow writes in his book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. that despite his dislike of Hoover, often times Robert Kennedy unconditionally accepted FBI allegations of links between communism and specific civil rights leaders.[1]

Although an outspoken advocate for Civil Rights, Robert Kennedy was worried how an alleged connection between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Communism would effect the movement.

As mentioned before RFK was an outspoken advocate of civil rights and as such was worried how communism and communist affiliations would effect the movement. Both he and the President personally warned King against associating with communists and yet, memoranda from the FBI kept rolling in about his leftist affiliations. Begrudgingly, on October 10, 1963, RFK consented to give unlimited power of wiretapping to the FBI in order to bug King’s headquarters in Atlanta.[2] Hoover’s relationship with Robert Kennedy represents the mastery of his craft as a manipulator. Despite the Kennedy’s distrust and even at points, open hatred of Hoover, he was still able to get what he wanted.

Here is a video of J. Edgar Hoover presenting the FBI to the Kennedy brothers in October of 1961.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFDTBhwCiTM


[1] David Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Penguin Books, 1981. Pp. 95.

[2] Time Weiner, Enemies, New York: Random House, 2012. Pp. 235.

What Happened Between John F. Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover?

“Hoover’s knowledge of JFK’s private conduct and RFK’s political conspiracies were potentially lethal political weapons. He brandished them now. He let the president and the attorney general know that he know they had committed moral sins.”—Tim Weiner, Enemies, 232-233.


If you think about their backgrounds and what they stood for, it’s no surprise that J. Edgar Hoover and the Kennedy family did not get along. There is one exception to that however, Hoover and Joe Kennedy had a lot of mutual respect for one another. Joe Kennedy, the father of JFK, was a successful businessman, an ideal capitalist, and a self-proclaimed enemy of communism. This hatred of socialism was only compounded when in 1959 Joe Kennedy lost a very large investment in a Coca-Cola franchise in Havana, Cuba to Castro’s revolution.[1]In the eyes of Hoover however, the sons of his old friend were entirely different.

Joe Kennedy, Businessman and Friend of J. Edgar Hoover

JFK first came to the attention of Hoover in 1942 while he was having a well-publicized illicit affair with a married woman. Her name was Inga Arvad, she was a columnist for the The Washington Post. The reason the juicy gossip caught Hoover’s eye was because Arvad was a former Nazi sympathizer and a suspected spy. The FBI had had her house bugged for months. It would not be the last time Hoover would be privy to the dirty details of JFK’s private life.

As political enemies, their battle began during the election when, according to William Sullivan, “Hoover did his best to keep the press supplied with anti-Kennedy stories… While Hoover was trying to sabotage Jack Kennedy’s campaign, he was quietly helping Richard Nixon.”[2] Once JFK was elected however, the games did not end. The relationship between Hoover and the Kennedys became increasingly childish and passive aggressive as the years wore on. John would often wait until he knew Hoover might be napping in the afternoon and burst into Hoover’s office unannounced and without consulting with his secretary. John would sometimes discuss things with Hoover over lunch and would purposely upset Hoover’s highbrow gentile sensibilities by taking him to lunch at drug stores. In response to these slights, Hoover was clandestinely amassing files on JFK’s sexual indiscretions and his supposed links to organized crime across the country.

Even as the FBI handled the investigation of JFK’s assassination, Hoover’s attitude toward the Kennedys was still cold at best. Sullivan writes “I shouldn’t have been surprised by Hoover’s lack of personal remorse when jack Kennedy was killed. ‘Goddamn the Kennedys,’ I heard Clyde Tolson say to Hoover. ‘First there was Jack, now there’s Bobby, and then Teddy. We’ll have them on our necks until the year 2000.”[3]

While the relationship between Hoover and JFK was mostly one of gossip and childish pranks, Hoover and Bobby Kennedy were involved in much more political skirmishes.

[1] Burton Hersh, Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover that Transformed Modern America. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2007. Pp.8.

[2] William C. Sullivan, The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979. Pp. 49.

[3] Ibid.

How did Red Scare Surveillance End?

“After Half a Century as America’s counterrevolutionary in chief, Hoover no longer commanded unquestioned authority…. The control of secret information had always been the primary source of Hoover’s power. He had lost it.” -Tim Weiner, Enemies, 288.

It was dark and late on the night of March 8, 1971 when for the first time in fifteen years eyes other than those of an FBI employee read the word “COINTELPRO.” The COINTELPRO, which stood for Counter Intelligence Program, was created in 1956 during the height of the second red scare as an aggressive campaign to redouble efforts to survey the American left. It was one of the darkest secrets the FBI had.  Through the program, the FBI had clandestinely amassed thousands of files through illegal and

Here William C. Sullivan, the founder of the COINTELPRO, and J. Edgar Hoover shake hands.

unconstitutional methods. Unless the FBI wanted to purposely leak information, the world would never know about the intelligence that had been gathered in the name of COINTELPRO. Even the Attorney Generals that Hoover was supposed to have been reporting to had no idea of the program’s existence. In the 1976 Church Committee hearing investigating the civil rights abuses of intelligence organizations, the committee found that, “To the extent that Attorneys General were ignorant of the Bureau’s activities, it was the consequence not only of the FBI Director’s independent political position, but also of the failure of the Attorneys General to establish procedures for finding out what the Bureau was doing and for permitting an atmosphere to evolve in which Bureau officials believed that they had no duty to report their activities to the justice department, and that they could conceal those activities with little risk of exposure.”[1] That is of course, until March of 1971.

A few miles outside of Philadelphia, in a small town called Media, burglars working for the organization known as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a small satellite FBI office and raided it, taking every classified document they could find.[2]It was the first time anyone had seen documents illustrating the depth of FBI surveillance. For the

Here the Chicago Tribune reports on the FBI break-in in Media, PA.

next few months the organization continued to leak the information to certain members of the government, as well as members of the press who in turn, relayed the information to a stunned population. Tim Weiner writes, “It took weeks, in some cases months, before the reporters began to understand the documents. They were fragmentary records of undercover FBI operations to infiltrate twenty-two college campuses with informers, and the described the wiretapping of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panthers. It took a year before one reporter made a concerted effort to decode a word that appeared on the files: COINTELPRO. The word was unknown outside the FBI.”[3] The country was shocked. A few weeks later J. Edgar Hoover canceled the fifteen-year operation in hopes that no more secrets would leak, but it was too late. The days of an unquestioned FBI had come to an end. Hoover would stay on as director until his death, a year and two months after the break in. The second red scare had been over for nearly ten years but the systems put in place by that fear had stayed operational. Only after the revelations of 1971 could the public truly learn to what extent they had been watched for the past four decades.

Here is a photograph of J. Edgar Hoover's grave in Washington D.C. He died in 1972, a little over a year after the Media break-in.


[1] US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities Within the United States. 1976 US Senate Report on Illegal Wiretaps and Domestic Spying by the FBI, CIA and NSA. St. Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2007. Pp. 185.

[2] James Kirkpatrick Davis, Spying on Americans: The FBI’s Domestic Counterintelligence Program. Westport: Praeger, 1992. Pp. 1.

[3] Tim Weiner, Enemies: A History of the FBI. New York: Random House, 2012. Pp. 293.

What was the FBI’s relationship to race during this era?

Hoover had been born in nineteenth-century Washington, D.C., a southern city that stayed segregated throughout most of the twentieth century…He presided over an Anglo-Saxon American, and he aimed to preserve and defend it.”- Tim Weiner, Enemies, 199

When most people think about the FBI and its relationship to race in America, most think of their detailed surveillance and blackmail attempts on Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1950s and 60s.[1] In fact, Weiner writes in his book Enemies, “The FBI had spied on every prominent black political figure in America since World War I. The scope of its surveillance of black leaders was impressive, considering the Bureau’s finite manpower, the burden of its responsibilities, and the limited number of hours in a day.”[2]

The extensive and complete FBI files on Martin Luther King Jr. can be seen in the FBI online archives here:  http://vault.fbi.gov/Martin%20Luther%20King%2C%20Jr.

Here is a scan of the letter, manufactured by the FBI, urging Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide in light of the discoveries of FBI investigations

However, for reasons other than politics, Hoover had very pointed views on race that became apparent to anyone who knew him. FBI agent William Sullivan wrote in his memoir about his class of recruits who all joined the Bureau in 1941. He says, “As I took a look at my classmates, I started to notice a certain sameness about the fifty of us. Although we came from ever part of the country and from every type of background, there were no Jews, blacks, or Hispanics in the class. I was later to learn that this was Hoover’s policy.”[3] African-Americans would not be formally admitted under the payroll of the FBI until the late 1940s when the Bureau was desperate to get moles and informants inside various organizations like the NAACP.

Besides Hoover’s own personal prejudices, the FBI did have other reasons to look into the political affiliations of African-Americans. Since before World War II, some African-Americans in the American South had fallen under the charms of communism because of its promotion of racial equality. This concerned the FBI and because of it, they turned their great propaganda machine toward the south. Despite Hoover’s personal racism, a chapter of his book Masters of Deceit is dedicated toward convincing black communities that the communist cause abandoned them years earlier. He writes, “The World War II period found the party cynically abandoning any alleged struggle for Negro rights. The aim was to help not Negroes but Moscow.”[4]

Anyone who is familiar with the history of the FBI might rebut by saying that the FBI had also surveyed and harassed white supremacist groups like the Klu Klux Klan and were therefore devoid of an official racial bias. Weiner again provides interesting information. He writes, “Despite the violence, Hoover took a hands-off stance toward the KKK. He would not direct the FBI to investigate or penetrate the Klan unless the president so ordered.”[5]

Whether motivation came from the perceived vulnerability of the Civil Rights movement to communism, or from Hoover’s own prejudices, it seems apparent that the FBI had a very tense relationship toward race in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

[1] David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr., New York: Penguin Books, 1981. Pp. 152.

[2] Tim Weiner, Enemies: A History of the FBI. New York: Random House, 2012. Pp. 197.

[3] William Sullivan, The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979. Pp. 16.

[4] J. Edgar Hoover. Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight it. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1958. Pp. 245.

[5] Weiner, 199.

Tim Weiner’s NPR Interview

One of the most important secondary sources for this project has recently become Enemies: A History of the FBI by Pulitzer Prize winner Time Weiner. Earlier this year NPR conducted a great interview with the author about his new book.

You can find the interview here: http://www.npr.org/2012/02/14/146862081/the-history-of-the-fbis-secret-enemies-list

Were there any “Side Effects” of Being Watched?

“This sense that the FBI was omnipresent was its own kind of power.”-Tim Weiner. Enemies, 77

There are obvious benefits and outcomes that emerged from FBI surveillance. One was information. The first and foremost reason for surveillance was intelligence gathering. However, there is something else that interested me about the omnipresence of these FBI listening devices and informants. Were there any “Side Effects”? Were there any unforeseen benefits or detriments for the FBI? One of the most intriguing ones to me is the idea that knowing you are being watched alters behavior. How can we better understand this effect? What writings can we turn to?

David J. Garrow is one of the more prolific writers on the topic of FBI investigations and techniques during the 1950s and 60s. In a 1988 article, Garrow touches on the subject. He writes:

“With regard to informant’s presence, much more tough-minded consideration must be given to whether passive presence has had tangible effects, to how significant a number of instances of informant activism or agent provocateur behavior actually occurred, and to whether activists’ expectations of informers’ presence may really have been the most significant internal effect of all. Widespread suspicion of informant penetration provided fertile ground for accusations of betrayal whenever movement tensions led to angry, personal recriminations.”[1]

The Panopticon as imagined by Jeremy Benthem can serve as an analogy to the Surveillance system.

The figure that I find it most beneficial to turn to for these answers  is French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. Based on the ideas of British philosopher and social thinker Jeremy Benthem, Foucault dedicated an entire chapter of his book Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, to the idea of the Panopticon, the round prison. The prison is a giant circle in which all of the cells face inward toward a giant tower. The tower’s windows are slated so even though the prisoners know they are being watched, they cannot see their surveyors. Foucault writes, “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” [2]

We see this principle unintentionally used by the FBI time and time again. The entire culture of the era was steeped in the understanding that FBI agents, informants, or wiretaps were out there and therefore, one must alter one’s behavior. Movies or popular stories such as 1951’s film I Was A Communist for the FBI, also helped to propagate this fear of FBI infiltration.

The paranoia was effective. One particularly interesting incident involved the American Communist newspaper The Daily Worker. On January 12, 1953, The Daily Worker accused the FBI of harassing its journalists and beseeched the attorney general to take action. The interesting fact however is that the FBI had not harassed any Worker writers. In fact, besides monitoring the publication with daily clippings, little surveillance had been conducted on the daily publication. In a memorandum from the Washington office to the New York office the author writes, “The (Communist) Part has evidently become so jittery that they decided to try to apply pressure on the Attorney General by accusing the Bureau of intimidation and the use of threats both of which are false. It is believed that we should ignore this attempt…in fact this should give impetus to the program as the Party is undoubtedly very much concerned over our successful penetration.” [3] Here we see the Panopticon in action, the fear of being watched overtaking the reality of the situation.

In fact, the prison as Foucault envisioned it, has one more comparison to Hoover’s objectives in the Second Red Scare. Foucault writes that within the construct of the surveillance tower, even the surveyors may be watched and monitored by their superiors. He writes, “In this central tower, the director may spy on all the employees that he has under his orders…he will be able to judge them continuously, alter their behavior, impose upon them the methods he thinks best.”[4]Again, the theory has analogous roots in the FBI structure. FBI special

FBI recruits, like those in this picture taken in 1947, were under almost constant surveillance by moles within their training groups.

agent William Sullivan joined the bureau in 1941 and eventually rose in the ranks to third in command of the entire organization. In his memoir The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI, Sullivan remarks that from the first day of training on, the threat of internal spies turning agents in for being overly critical of policy or for indecent behavior is perpetual.[5]

The knowledge of FBI presence for both citizens and lesser agents may have contributed to a considerable behavioral change, although substantiating that may be a very difficult task for historians. Either way, the idea of the Panopitcon should remain a very real and effective comparison to make when analyzing surveillance theory and the FBI during this era.

[1] David J. Garrow. “FBI Political Harassment and FBI Historiography: Analyzing Informants and Measuring Effects.” The Public Historian, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Autumn, 1988. Pp. 17.

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Pp. 201.

[3] Federal Bureau of Investigation. “The Daily Worker Internal Security” Mr. A.H. Belmont to Mr. J.E Dunn. (January 11, 1953). http://vault.fbi.gov/Daily%20Worker/Daily%20Worker%20Part%204%20of%205/view (accessed April 9, 2012)

[4] Foucault, 204.

[5] William C. Sullivan. The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI. New York: Norton, 1979. Pp. 19.