|Was there a genuine need for Hoover’s ‘War on Crime’?
The late 1920’s and 1930’s are popularly presented as one of the most violent, criminal and heartless periods in the history of the United States. It seems lawbreakers ran freely through both city and countryside without fear of capture or punishment by the nation’s apparently powerless police forces and corrupt legislature. Bank robbery, kidnapping, murder, bootlegging, shootouts and stick-ups seem to be staple activities of the day, and many of 20th century America’s most iconic figures are born out of these spectacular confrontations between law and disorder.
It would seem then, from this image of an amoral free for all, that the answer to the question of whether or not there was a real need for a ‘war on crime’ is a clear yes. From this perspective, the bloody nature of this crime wave warranted more than enough justification for an increase in the nature of policing in all its forms, both good and bad. The point could also be made, however, that this nationwide requirement for a ‘war on crime’ (and the subsequent gain in power, budget and popular presence that it afforded to J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation), was a fabrication on the part of the state, particularly of a few zealous individuals for the sake of institutional and personal rewards. This essay looks at the rate and nature of law breaking and law enforcement during this period, and the public moral reaction to both, to say that there indeed was a need for a change, and acceleration in the nature of policing to have any chance of apprehending criminals and creating public respect for the nation’s laws and police. The point is also being made here however, that the reformation of the FBI as a well equipped and well funded organization with nationwide powers of arrest and surveillance was an inevitable part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plan for a more socially supportive and intrusive system of government.
The scene in which Hoover’s ‘war on crime’ was staged was a grim one; the Wall Street crash of 1929 had left around a quarter of Americans out of work1, and many felt angry and disillusioned at what they saw as the fault of the faceless and uncaring federal government. ‘Attacks upon property of all forms and phases one would expect in times such as these’ said J. Edgar Hoover in a 1932 address before the International Association of Chiefs of Police, ‘will be greatly augmented in number and intensity’2. Statistical data seems to support this claim, with the murder rate of 1933, arguably the peak year of this crime wave, reaching 9.7 murders per 100,000population3. This figure was not reached again until the 1970s, and the national level of homicide could be seen as indicative of the skyrocketing levels of violent crime that were afflicting the devastated nation, although murder rates alone are not indicative of crime. The idea of a society in freefall is also apparent in some contemporary opinion; Richard E. Enwright, a former police commissioner of New York City commented in 1929 that ‘George Gangster’ and ‘Bill Bootlegger and Company, Unlimited’ were the beneficiaries of the country’s most lucrative industry, that of crime4. He put the crime ‘budget’ at $11,800,000,000, whereas the value of national exports came to $5,129,000,000. Such a comparison would seem ‘farcical’ to Enwright, ‘if it didn’t happen to be such a humiliating commentary upon the nation’s social inefficiency’. The former commissioner also makes the point that a period of economic depression would accentuate present conditions ‘into a veritable reign of anarchy and bloodshed5’, and suggests that a ‘National Police Bureau’ could bring an end to ‘(t)he undesired growth of the biggest business in America.’6
This anticrime rhetoric was echoed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Attorney General Homer Cummings7, and perhaps most of all by Edgar J. Hoover himself. Indeed, one of Hoover’s main targets in his ‘war on crime’ was the public perception of crime and law enforcement itself. Criminals such as John Dillinger, undoubtedly violent, dangerous and unpredictable, did not suffer moral chastisement from the public, but rather sympathy, solidarity and understanding, and films such as Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) took the exploits of these characters to the big screen. These bank robbers and stick up kids were perhaps seen as social bandits in the mould of Jessie James or Billy the Kid, as individuals forced by dire circumstances to do battle with the injustices of heartless business and wicked government. Hoover’s conservative beliefs could not stand for this. ‘People no longer respect respectability’ he wrote in 1931.’Citizens of this country must become enemies of crime.’ He initiated a very public ‘war on crime’ by manipulating mass media, working closely with journalists that portrayed the bureau in a good light and pressuring Hollywood into making pro law-enforcement films. Hoover also launched his own series of publicity campaigns, reaching out to boy scouts, fraternal organisations and visitors to the Bureau’s headquarters to have their fingerprints added to collection.
This tactic however, was not seen favourably by all at the time, and has also taken criticism from historians looking at this period. Samuel Walker argues that this ‘publicity machine created a myth of a national crime wave, inflating the exploits of... criminals in order to enhance the reputation of the Bureau’8. Indeed, some people, notably the youths employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal, resisted giving their fingerprints, even the risk of expulsion from the program. Evidence such as this shows ‘latent suspicions about the extension of state power’, and suggests that the essentiality of Edgar J. Hoover’s ‘War on Crime’ and the justification for the increase in police and state power was not a vision shared by all.
Walker also looks at the overall level of crime to say that reality did not reflect Hoover et al’s doom-saying, and that criminologists found ‘no evidence here of a ‘crime wave’, but only a slowly rising level’. This view is supported by that of Willard M. Oliver and James F. Hilgenberg, Jr., who argued that Hoover’s ‘public enemies were nothing more than a series of common criminals... but they gained notoriety ... because of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s newly created ‘Most Wanted List’9. This criticism of Hoover’s media policy goes hand in hand with another criticism, that of his apparent failure in going after corruption and organized crime10. The argument could be made here that Hoover, a steadfast conservative, had a misguided focus in choosing to publicly hound the criminal elements driven by hardship and depression (to an extent at least), and not aiming to bring down those criminal elements present in ‘high society’, the bootleggers, gangsters, and corrupt officials, although they showed even greater disregard and contempt for the laws of the land. Different reasons have been given for Hoover’s hesitation in going after organised crime, from his own blindness to see any conspiracy11, to the idea that the Mafia were blackmailing him with a compromising set of photographs12.
One issue that cannot be overlooked in the study of this ‘war on crime’ is that of the character of J. Edgar Hoover himself. Hoover began his federal career as a clerk in the Department of Justice in 1917, and by 1921 had been appointed assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation. A ‘skilled, patriotic, no- nonsense bureaucrat’, he had initially gained respect in his role in the deportation of over 200 radicals in 1919, and cleverly managed to distance himself from this ‘red-baiting’ when it fell from public favour. Following the departure of William J. Burns in 1924 as a result of the Teapot Dome scandal and other political embarrassments, Hoover was offered the job of director. He took the role, but on the condition that the bureau, and its appointments, be divorced from political influence. The president, Calvin Coolidge, agreed, and Hoover made efforts to effectively both transform the bureau from its role as a ‘political football’ filled with ‘corrupt, feckless agents with shady backgrounds and little in the way of qualifications’ into a professional, effective federal police force, and to secure his own position, as a highly powerful, influential, and ‘virtually unaccountable’ powerhouse, who would serve as director of the bureau for over forty-eight years13.
This ‘war’, largely initiated by Hoover himself undoubtedly expanded his own power and jurisdiction over the country’s law. Claire Bond Potter argues that by exploiting spectacular crimes, such as the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. in 1932, the director was rewarded with legislation to increase the sphere of crimes that warranted federal intervention14. (Potter focuses on kidnapping, and the Lindbergh case particularly, as a crime that touched the lives of the United States’ most wealthy and powerful families, and attributes this to the speed at which legislation was passed to combat the deviancy.) Another point made is the Bureau’s change in policy by the Dillinger manhunt in 1934; from a policy of ‘cooperation and coordination’ to a policy of ‘shoot first – then count to ten.’15
There is the idea, however, that this ‘war on crime’ was not so much the doing of Edgar J. Hoover, but rather the creation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Homer Cummings to justify the increase in federal policing and surveillance16. FDR’s ‘New Deal’ meant an increase in all aspects of social intervention - welfare, housing, agriculture and labour standards just to name a few. It therefore seems logical that the policing system of the United States would also be developed and expanded to meet the needs of this new kind of government. A nationwide crime wave of epic, almost unstoppable proportion would therefore be the perfect reason in the eyes of the public to up the ante in terms of law enforcement, surveillance methods and data categorization. Using Samuel Walker’s argument, that crime rates did not increase at a particularly alarming rate at all during the late 1920’s and 1930’s, it could be said that the ‘war on crime’ and expansion of the Bureau of Investigation was an action, rather than a reaction, against crime on the part of the state. As Walker says, ‘Hoover simply took advantage of the war-on-crime atmosphere that the president and attorney-general initiated.’17
In conclusion, I would argue that there was certainly a climate of violence and criminal behaviour in America during the 1930’s, but this was not by any means the only reason for the ‘war on crime’ initiated by Hoover and the Roosevelt administration. This political and cultural exercise established the FBI as a national force with the powers of investigation, arrest and summary execution. It also publicly enforced the notion that crime did not pay, and criminals would not be able to outrun the ever-encroaching federal government. In answer to the question as to whether or not this ‘war’ was genuinely needed, my answer is yes, but no more than it ever had been before or has been since. This expansion of state power was an inevitable part of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the interventionist politics it was built with. This period was perfect for a character such as Edgar J. Hoover to flourish; he was essentially granted free rein to do as he pleased and impose his own ideals through the revitalised Bureau of Investigation.
Samuel Walker, ‘Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice’ Oxford University Press 1998
Mark Jones, ‘Criminal Justice Pioneers in US History’ Pearson Education 2005
Claire Bond Potter, ‘War On Crime: Bandits, G-Men, and the Politics of Mass Culture’ Rutgers University Press 1998
Willard M. Oliver and James F. Hilgenberg, Jr., ‘A History of Crime and Criminal Justice in America’ Pearson Education 2006
Interview with Bryan Burrough, author of ‘Public Enemies’-http://www.newseum.org/programs/2009/0627-inside-media/audio-public-enemies-vs--the-fbi.mp3
‘J. Edgar Holder and His Misplaced Priorities’, Frank Burke http://www.americanthinker.com/2011/02/j_edgar_holder_and_his_misplac.html
Gene Smiley, ‘Great Depression’ The Concise Encyclopaedia of Economics - http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/GreatDepression.html
US Department of Justice Crime Atlas (2000), pp. 38-39 - http://www.jrsa.org/programs/Crime_Atlas_2000.pdf
A brief history of the FBI
J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime: An Historical Antidote, Athan Theoharis -Review by Richard Gid Powers in The Journal of American History, Vol 82. No. 3. Dec 1995
Richard E. Enwright, ‘Our Biggest Business – Crime’ The North American Review (October 1929) Vol 28, No 4
J. Edgar Hoover, ‘The United States Bureau Of Investigation in Relation to Law Enforcement’ Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1931-1951), Vol. 23, No. 3 (Sep. - Oct., 1932)
A New Deal for the FBI: The Roosevelt Administration, Crime Control, and National Security, Kenneth O’ Reilly, in The Journal of American History Vol. 69. No. 3. Dec. 1982
THE MECHANICS OF REPRESSION: J. EDGAR HOOVER, THE BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION AND THE RADICALS 1917-1925
Michal R. Belknap in Crime and Social Justice, No. 7 (spring-summer 1977), pp. 49-58