Authors: Tim Weiner
Hoover decided to accept the confessions of this eccentric turncoat.
Her revelations let the FBI begin to trace the outlines of a Soviet intelligence system that had been aiming to penetrate the United States government for a dozen years. After the FBI accepted Bentley’s bona fides, Hoover assigned 227 agents to the investigation. But he had already shared the gist of the case with his British intelligence counterpart in Washington. The word had been passed to London. And it had been relayed to Moscow, courtesy of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole inside the British service.
The Soviets had swiftly heeded Philby’s alert. They ordered most of their
wartime intelligence officers out of the United States, and cut off contact with many of their networks of agents. When the FBI went looking for the Soviets, they found they were trying to lasso shadows.
President Truman read Hoover’s next report to the White House on May 29, 1946, with disbelief.
There is an enormous Soviet espionage ring in Washington,” Hoover wrote in a “personal and confidential” message to the president and the attorney general. “A number of high Government officials whose identities will be set out hereinafter are involved.” Some of the names on the list were shocking. Hoover’s suspects included the undersecretary of state, Dean Acheson, and the former assistant secretary of war, John J. McCloy, two pillars of the American establishment whose anti-Communist credentials never had been questioned.
The attorney general did not believe it either. “
a time of some hysteria,” Clark said. But he was learning to take the power of Hoover’s secret intelligence seriously. He discovered that Hoover was keeping watch on him as well. “Whenever any derogatory information about me would come into the Department, why, they would put it in that file,” Clark said. “It was outrageous.”
E OUGHT TO HAVE A SHOWDOWN
Hoover continued trying to convince the White House that Stalin’s spies were trying to steal America’s atomic secrets. He was urged on by the FBI’s intelligence chief, Mickey Ladd, the son of a United States senator from North Dakota. Ladd called for an all-out, no-holds-barred war on communism—including mass arrests and detentions of suspected subversives—in the name of counterespionage. Ladd wanted to put every one of the roughly eighty thousand members of the Communist Party of the United States on the FBI’s secret Security Index. Once indexed, they could be arrested in a national roundup under a mass warrant “
in the event of an emergency.”
Hoover agreed. Without revealing the existence of the Security Index, he told Attorney General Clark that the FBI was going to “
intensify its investigation of Communist Party activities” and “list all members of the Communist Party and others who would be dangerous in the event of a break in diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.” Hoover wrote in the plainest
possible language that a political crisis could make it necessary “to immediately detain a large number of American citizens.”
Hoover’s war with the White House intensified. He had requested the money to hire hundreds more men to investigate Soviet espionage and Communist subversion. Truman instead eliminated six hundred of Hoover’s agents, nearly one out of seven from the FBI’s front ranks, in the first budget he sent to Congress. The FBI had not faced such a drawdown since Hoover became its director. Hoover reacted to the cutbacks by ordering his overseas agents back home.
On July 8, 1946, Hoover told his agents in Latin America and the Caribbean to close down their operations immediately. He had promised the new director of Central Intelligence, General Hoyt Vandenberg, a year for a smooth transition. But by summer’s end, the FBI had left behind nothing but empty offices and angry ambassadors.
Move rapidly & get out of it as quickly as possible,” he commanded. Seven weeks later, the FBI was all but gone from Central America and the Caribbean, and it soon would be out of South America too. “
All investigative files, both pending and closed, were burned,” Hoover’s field lieutenant, C. H. “Kit” Carson, reported to headquarters as he shut down operations in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba.
Hoover went to the White House and laid down the law. If the president wanted the FBI out of the realm of foreign intelligence, if he wanted the director of Central Intelligence in charge, that was what he would get.
But nobody who had ever worked at the Bureau—active, retired, first-rate, third-rate—would be allowed to work for the new Central Intelligence Agency, Hoover told the president’s chief of staff, Admiral Leahy. The admiral advised General Vandenberg “
to avoid offending Mr. Hoover.” But when Vandenberg proposed to create a global registry of foreign contacts, Hoover warned his top FBI aides: “
Watch with meticulous care
Directives of this outfit as I think it is
with power & will slyly grasp for everything.” When Hoover saw newly drafted legislation that would give the director of Central Intelligence more authority, he wrote: “
The ‘empire builders’ … perpetuate their present monstrosity and intrude even more into civilian and domestic fields.”
Hoover’s refusal to work with the fledgling CIA approached insubordination. His defiance of the State Department neared rebellion. Hoover’s spiteful decision threatened “
a major blow to the effectiveness of our security
and intelligence work,” wrote Undersecretary of State Acheson. Hoover was undeterred. He had all but declared war on the White House.
I think we ought to have a showdown,” he wrote to Mickey Ladd.
His rage at the president’s reluctance to fight a full-bore war on communism grew ferocious. He began to petition members of the Senate and House to give him the power to protect America against “
the threat of infiltrating foreign agents, ideologies and military conquest.” His views on the threat were so strong that they started to sway the liberals of Washington—and through them, the president himself.
Hoover was creating the political culture of the Cold War in the United States.
26, 1946, the White House counsel Clark Clifford and his assistant George Elsey delivered a secret report to Truman telling him to prepare for war with the Soviets. They drew from the work of Hoover and the FBI as they sketched out a battle plan for Armageddon.
They told Truman that he had to prepare to fight a third world war with atomic and biological weapons. The enemy was a Soviet dictatorship aiming for world conquest, aided by an insidious intelligence service, and assisted by an American underground. Every American Communist, they wrote, was potentially a spy and a soldier for Moscow. Truman wrote in his diary that week: “The Reds, phonies, and ‘parlor pinks’ seem to be banded together and are becoming a national danger. I am afraid they are a sabotage front for Uncle Joe Stalin.”
In November 1946, for the first time since before the Depression, the Republicans swept the national elections and won majorities in the Senate and the House. Their campaigns had struck a strong new anti-Communist tone. Their message was that Americans had to choose between “Communism and Republicanism.”
The Republicans’ political rhetoric flowed directly from a forty-page pamphlet published by the United States Chamber of Commerce, which printed and distributed 400,000 copies nationwide. Its title was “Communist Infiltration in the United States.” Its message was preached from political stumps and church pulpits throughout the land. Its author was Father John F. Cronin, a Baltimore priest who had many adherents among the heavily Catholic ranks of the FBI. His material came straight from the Bureau’s secret and confidential files, including passages from Hoover’s reports to the White House. Father Cronin befriended a freshman member of
the 80th Congress who had been elected on the issue of the Communist threat and arrived in the capital from California in January 1947.
Richard Milhous Nixon was thirty-four years old, a politician of high intelligence, immense ambition, and a barely tapped but bottomless talent for intrigue. He had risen from humble roots by virtue of hard work fueled by frustrated dreams. Ten years before he came to Washington to be sworn in to the House of Representatives, while he was still in law school, Nixon had applied for a job at the FBI. He never heard back. But he would make the most of his contacts with the Bureau for the next quarter of a century. In February 1947, Father Cronin helped him make the first of those connections. He personally briefed Nixon on the FBI’s investigations into American communism and Soviet espionage, introduced him to agents who specialized in Red-hunting, and became Nixon’s back-channel liaison with the Bureau.
In his first days as a member of Congress, Nixon took a seat on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Its chairman was J. Parnell Thomas, Republican of New Jersey, a petty-minded vulgarian who soon would be doing prison time for political corruption. The committee’s excesses were notorious. Back in 1939, its headline-grabbing investigation of the film industry faltered when, by implication, it called the curly-headed moppet Shirley Temple a Communist. But by now the committee’s professional staff included ex-FBI men and former Party members whose files constituted a secret if highly selective history of American communism. The staff’s liaison with the Bureau would become one of the strongest forces in Cold War politics.
MALIGNANT AND EVIL WAY OF LIFE
On March 26, 1947, the committee convened to hear public testimony from J. Edgar Hoover. It was an epic moment in Hoover’s life. He was fifty-two years old; he had run the FBI for nearly a quarter of a century. He was the face of anticommunism in America.
On this day, Hoover broke with higher authority. For the next quarter of the century, until the day he died, he would obey executive orders when he saw fit. His testimony was an act of defiance against the Truman administration, a declaration that Hoover now stood in alliance with the president’s strongest political enemies in Congress.
He held sway over presidential powers. Five days before, after months of pressure from Hoover, Truman had signed an executive order commanding the biggest government investigation in American history: the Federal Loyalty and Security Program. The FBI would run background checks on more than two million government employees, and launch deep investigations into the personal lives and political beliefs of more than fourteen thousand of them. The program would unearth no Soviet spies inside the government. But the hunt for the disloyal spread throughout the American political system.
Hoover now told Congress and the American people that the Communist Party, driven by Soviet Russia’s dreams of world domination, was burrowing into the social and political frameworks of the United States on a mission to overthrow America—and that the Truman administration was not taking the threat seriously. “
Communism, in reality, is not a political party,” he testified. “It is a way of life—a malignant and evil way of life. It reveals a condition akin to disease that spreads like an epidemic, and like an epidemic, a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation.”
The Communist Party, on paper, might look like an insignificant force in American politics—Hoover said it had seventy-four thousand members—but he said its influence was infinitely greater: “For every party member there are ten others ready, willing and able to do the party’s work. Herein lies the greatest menace of communism—for these are the people that infiltrate and corrupt various spheres of American life.”
Hoover said that far too few Americans “possessed the zeal, the fervor, the persistence and the industry to learn about this menace of Red fascism. I do fear for the liberal and the progressive who has been hoodwinked and duped into joining hands with the Communists. I confess to a real apprehension so long as Communists are able to secure ministers of the gospel to promote their evil work … I do fear so long as school boards and parents tolerate conditions whereby Communists and fellow travelers, under the guise of academic freedom, can teach our youth a way of life … I do fear so long as labor groups are infiltrated, dominated, or saturated with the virus of Communism … I fear for ignorance on the part of all of our people who may take the poisonous pills of Communist propaganda.”
Hoover proclaimed his political support for the Committee on Un-American Activities and its members in the war on communism. They were now a team. The FBI would gather evidence in secrecy, working toward the “unrelenting prosecution” of the subversives. The committee
would make its greatest contribution through publicity—what Hoover called “the public disclosure of the forces that threaten America.”
Hoover and Nixon met eye-to-eye at the hearing that day, and they hit it off famously. Nixon asked where American Communists posed the greatest dangers. Hoover pointed him to subversion on campus, on the airwaves, in the movies, and above all inside the government itself.