Prof. Beverly Gage, the director of undergraduate studies in history at Yale University, shared insights into the life of J. Edgar Hoover — the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a lecture Wednesday.
Gage focused on elements of Hoover’s character and accomplishments that she said are often overlooked.
Gage said her interest in Hoover as the subject of her book stems from the complexity of his life and its relation to a specific time period.
“One of the things that’s really exciting about the project and about Hoover as a figure is that it takes me in so many different directions,” she said. “It gives me the opportunity to be what I fundamentally am, which is a historian of American politics.”
Gage aimed to answer the question of how Hoover emerged as a giant in American politics, diving deeper than the popular impression of Hoover, saying that the negative impression demonstrates a “misunderstanding” of Hoover’s life.
“This idea that he ruled only through fear, only through blackmail and intimidation is really a misunderstanding of who he was during his lifetime and particularly it’s a misunderstanding of how he came to be the person that he ultimately became,” Gage said.
Gage detailed Hoover’s rise in politics and the government, calling him a leader that people accepted.
“The most interesting thing about Hoover is not who feared him, but who supported him, believed in him, worked for him and liked him. That is a piece of the story that we want to start to understand,” Gage said. “My big project is to take Hoover from being this one-dimensional villain and bring him back into a much bigger story of American politics in the 20th century.”
Gage also talked about Hoover’s larger influence in bringing the Bureau of Investigation a step closer to the modern FBI.
“His vision of what he’s doing is a perfect progressive era vision,” Gage said. “It’s about technique, it’s about expertise, it’s about science, it’s about voluntary centralization and it’s about the organization of information.”
According to Gage, Franklin Roosevelt greatly influenced the reform of the FBI through the extended authorization of Hoover’s jurisdiction.
“It seems somewhat anomalous that Franklin Roosevelt would be the person who provided Hoover with most of his expanded jurisdiction and most of his power, but in fact this is the case in the 1930s and 40s,” Gage said.
Although many people have a negative impression of Hoover, Gage stressed that the leader must be viewed in the context of his time period.
“One of the things that historians usually try to do is not read from the present back into the past, but take the past on its own terms,” she said. “This tells a very different story about the origins of Hoover’s story that is not about the secret files, that is not about his ideological vendettas, but is about his skills as a government servant.”
Gage also said that the breadth and selectivity of information constituted her greatest challenge in researching Hoover’s biography.
“One is the incredible mass of information, which is to say he was the head of this huge bureaucracy for forty-eight years … and then the second piece is the total lack of information because a lot of that was meant to be kept secret and a lot of it is still redacted,” she said.
Gage added that she hopes her lecture series and her book will provide a more holistic view of Hoover and his accomplishments, despite the misgivings surrounding Hoover’s reputation.
“I am no sympathizer to J. Edgar Hoover but because he is such a one-dimensional villain, this biography has a slightly redemptive quality in saying we need to take him seriously as this political force,” Gage said. “It is not my aim to rehabilitate his reputation, but it is my aim to tell an accurate history.
Gage is a prominent 20th century historian and author of The Day Wall Street Exploded. Her next book, a biography of Hoover called G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century, prompted the topics of her lectures.