When Hoover Met Palmer: Domestic Surveillance and Radical Suppression in the Early Days of the FBI

In his best-selling book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, now a Martin Scorsese film, David Grann depicts an FBI and its new director J. Edgar Hoover struggling to assert authority over the investigation regarding the murders of Osage natives in  Oklahoma. “The situation,” Hoover acknowledged was “acute and delicate,” the smallest indication of “misconduct” would prove disastrous. This Bureau cannot afford to have a public scandal visited upon it,” Hoover wrote to his agents.[1]  

The Osage case provided the FBI and the agency’s new director a chance to reestablish itself, turning the page on its controversy ridden early 1920s, during which time the DOJ and FBI became perceived as a “law enforcement backwater, riddled with scandal, failure, and controversy.”[2] Though Hoover distinguished himself from the agency’s more rogue elements at the time, his own actions a few years earlier in the Palmer Raids, which ignited the nation’s first Red Scare, led to public controversy and private resentment, while also establishing a national surveillance system that persisted for decades.  

For Hoover, radical politics. – and more specifically communist infiltration – promised disaster for the United States, and he saw its tendrils everywhere. Later, in part due to his own racism, he would accuse the civil rights movement of collaborating with or knowingly tolerating communist members. His obsession with communist influence undoubtedly contributed to the Red Scare of the 1950s, making the 1919 Palmer Raids a key vantage point for the agency’s development under Hoover.  The papers of Montana Senator Thomas J. Walsh, who oversaw a Senate investigation into the raids in 1921, in the Manuscript Division serve as a window into this tension while also providing a view of the organization’s direction for the next four decades.

The raids, an attempt to arrest and deport anarchist, communist and other “radical” activists In the United States, resulted in widespread criticism of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and the DOJ. They simultaneously legitimated and undermined Hoover’s authority with various aspects of the public and internally at the bureau, and helped establish the FBI’s history of domestic surveillance. Palmer endured the lion’s share of criticism of the raids, yet Hoover, recognizing his own vulnerability, continually downplayed his role in the raids even after fully consolidating power at the agency.[3]

Group of people in front of home of Alexander Mitchell Palmer, after bomb explosion, Harris & Ewing, c.1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

On the evening of June 2, 1919 Palmer’s home exploded. The only person killed was the bomber himself, but the event undoubtedly shook the attorney general. Nor had it been the first such attempt at violence. A few months earlier in April and May, authorities discovered nearly 30 bombs targeting prominent Americans such as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, circulating in the mails. Though they largely failed, the attempts shaped Palmer’s later response.[4] In addition to the explosion at Palmer’s home six other bombings in six other cities occurred the same evening. Palmer declared the “anarchist element” responsible and promised a reorganization of the Justice Department so as to focus its efforts into “anti-radical and investigative operations.”[5]

Hoover, recently hired by the DOJ, sent his first memo on radicalism in the nation less than two weeks later, perhaps hoping to capitalize on the agency’s new direction. It worked. By July 1, Palmer had appointed Hoover as head of the Radical Division. In addition to the bombings, a wave of labor unrest washed over the nation in the immediate post war years while the Russian Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power, deepening Hoover’s Manichean world view.

Hoover’s actions during this period “forever changed the nature of American politics, launching an unprecedented experiment in peacetime political surveillance,” argues Yale historian Beverly Gage.[6] Though Hoover did not pitch the idea of raids or even dictate their strategy, he laid the groundwork for their enactment and established structures of surveillance at the agency.

U.S. Army transport BUFORD, the “Soviet Ark,” used to deport aliens to Russia, Dec. 21, 1919 – broadside view, ca. 1907, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Hoover and his team at the Radical Division modeled their work on the Library of Congress card catalog and its numbered classification system, organizing data into over 100,000 index cards documenting name, state, city, organization, ideological orientation, periodical, and event, over the course of Hoover’s first year heading the division.[7] Labor leaders and civil rights activists all found their way into these files. The reports often missed their mark and lumped together disparate elements of the anarchist, socialist, civil rights, social reform, and intellectual movements of the day, but the more important point was that it archived all this information, accurate and inaccurate, in one place for easy retrieval and action. The sheer mass of information surprised even Hoover’s targets, such as his bête noire, anarchist Emma Goldman, who expressed shock when she saw her dossier “piled high: on her inquisitor’s desk.[8]

On the evening of November 7, though he had only secured arrest warrants for 400, the raids of meeting halls and private homes across the nation netted 1,182 men and women. Palmer credited Hoover’s Radical Division for the critical role it played in the raids and ultimately deporting 246 men and three women on the Buford in December of 1919.[9]

Initially, the raids were showered by accolades, but over the course of the next few months, critics arose. Individuals we would describe today as civil libertarians took issue with Hoover and the agency’s tactics. The National Popular Government League, which included renowned legal theorist Roscoe Pound and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter among others, criticized the raids as “lawless,” and accused the agency of using “agent provocateurs” to instigate violence within radical organizationsand violating the Constitution with illegal search and seizures.[10] Frankfurter later congratulated Walsh on his 1921 investigation: “The country owes you a deep debt of gratitude for the painstaking and persistent courage you pursued this subject…”[11] Even Labor Secretary Louis Post, who had aided in organizing the raids, later denounced them as “drastic proceedings on flimsy proof to deport aliens who are not conspiring against our laws, and do not intent to.”

Others contacted Walsh regarding his investigation. Former Library of Congress law librarian and Yale law professor Edwin M. Borchard applauded Walsh’s investigation and criticized “super patriots” like Palmer for jeopardizing the Constitution. “It will be a good thing for law schools to know that the United States Senate disapproves of the violation of the constitution, even when done by a Department of the Government.”[12]George Foster Peabody wondered aloud to Walsh that Palmer suffered from “shell shock,” thereby losing his Quaker bearings and selfishly did “damage .. to the reputation of [President Woodrow] Wilson’s” administration.[13] Walsh commiserated with Peabody, offended by Palmer’s “smug complacency.”If constitutional guaranties which are fundamentals of our liberties are not available in times of hysteria or public excitement, or when passions run riot, they are useless to us,” he wrote to Peabody. [14]

Actual participants in the controversy also reached out to Walsh. Judge George W. Anderson who oversaw the trials of several potential deportees in Boston, contacted Walsh. During proceedings, Anderson freed many of the accused, criticized the Department of Justice for overreach, and argued most of the alleged communists were ignorant of the party’s tenets. [15] “Communists were nothing but a negligible set of theorists emitting crusade rhetoric, in favor of constituting a government of the masses through the general strike,” he wrote Walsh, “which was not force and violence within the meaning of the [Espionage Act of 1918], but one of the many rampant absurdities of our modern thinking, or lack of thinking.”[16] In a letter to Walsh, Post agreed with Anderson, noting that if the Department of Labor had only deported those communists aware of its goal of overthrowing the government, “the deportations would have been enormously less in number than they were.”[17]

Walsh’s investigation failed to dislodge Hoover, but if his files on the investigation are any indication, the Senator remained skeptical. In 1927, Walsh interviewed former FBI agent Franklin Dodge, who admittedly had his own history of questionable ethical decisions, and issued a series of accusations against Hoover.

Appointed by attorney general and future Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone in 1924, Hoover had promised Congress he would “limit … investigations in the field to violations of federal statues” and not legal activities such as reading communist literature.[18] Dodge revealed to Walsh that Hoover had broken that promise and had continued to conduct “these so-called [B]olshevik or radical investigations” for which the bureau “had not legal authority.” The 1919 raids, “organized and supervised directly under Francis F. Garvin by and through J. Edgar Hoover and the [FBI],” were cynically meant to boost Palmer’s 1920 presidential campaign. Moreover, Hoover had been feeding propaganda about the “Bolshevik” threat to the State Department and friendly journalists in violation of his 1924 testimony to Congress, alleged Dodge. Since Hoover’s appointment, the bureau’s annual report has been “false and misleading.”[19]

Such reports made an impression. Upon his appointment to attorney general in 1933, Walsh vowed to clean house removing all Republican holdovers in the DOJ and replacing them with Democrats. However, after scrambling off to Cuba to marry a well-off Cuban widow, the 73 year-old Walsh collapsed and died on his returning train to Washington, a victim of an apparent heart attack.[20] In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rescinded Stone’s executive order prohibiting the FBI from surveillance of domestic political activities, but Hoover had never paid it any attention anyway.

By the mid-twentieth century Hoover had shaped the bureau in his image and enjoyed incredible popularity in American society, yet he repeatedly obscured his role in 1919 and often concealed the agency’s tactics. Begun by the Radical Division, harnessed in the name of the Palmer Raids and later distorted by his own racism, the surveillance apparatus built by Hoover and the FBI created an entity unprecedented in American life, but who it surveyed and who it pursued, sometimes rested on questionable assumptions and the biases of J. Edgar Hoover.[21]  

[1] David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, (New York: Vintage 2017), 120.

[2] Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, (New York: Viking, 2022), xi.

[3] Gage, G-Man, 62.

[4] Gage, G-Man, 65.

[5] Gage, G-Man, 66.

[6] Gage, G-Man, 61-2.

[7] Gage, G-Man, 69.

[8] Gage, G-Man, 72.

[9] Gage, G-Man, 73-4.

[10] “Palmer Flays Judge Anderson,” Boston Daily News, June 4, 1920.

[11] Felix Frankfurter to Thomas J. Walsh, March 14, 1921, Thomas J. Walsh and john Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] Edwin M. Bochard to Thomas J. Walsh, March 23, 1922, Box 278, Thomas J. Walsh and john Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] George Foster Peabody to Thomas James Walsh, March 16, 1922, Box 278, Thomas J. Walsh and john Edward Erickson Papers, Box 278, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[14] Thomas James Walsh to George Foster Peabody, March 20, 1922, Box 278, Thomas J. Walsh and john Edward Erickson Papers, Box 278, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[15] “Find Reds Ignorant of Own Party Faith” Boston Daily Globe, April 9, 1920.

[16] George W. Anderson to Thomas J. Walsh, April 26, 1922, Box 278, Thomas J. Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[17] Louis Post to Thomas J. Walsh, March 12, 1922, Box 278, Thomas J. Walsh and John Edward Erickson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[18] David Williams, “’They Never Stopped Watching Us’: FBI Political Surveillance, 1924-1936,” UCLA History Journal, 2(0), (1981): 7.

[19] Thomas J. Walsh, Notes from interview of Franklin L. Dodge, January 21, 1927, Box 278, Thomas J. Walsh and john Edward Erickson Papers, Box 278, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[20] Gage, G-Man, 149.

[21] Gage, G-Man, 616.