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Hoover's early history is familiar. Born in Washington on New Year's Day, 1895. Son of a civil service worker. Presbyterian Sunday school teacher as a teenager. Law degrees from George Washington University night classes while a clerk at the Library of Congress by day. Joined Justice Department at 22. First major assignment: 1917, with War Emergency Division, dealing with enemy aliens. Transferred to the Bureau of Investigation at age 24 by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. Helped lead the "Palmer raids," dragnet arrests that swept up hundreds of Russians and "radicals" across the nation. Named Assistant Director of the bureau in 1921, Director in 1924 at age 29.
The FBI achieved its fame after the Lindbergh kidnaping and the rash of major bank robberies in the early '30s. The Hoover legend flourished amid a hoopla of bylined stories, radio shows and press releases.
Even then, the Hoover wonders were overdrawn. The FBI tried to conceal the fact that at first it had recovered the wrong baby's body after the Lindbergh ordeal; the kidnaper, Bruno Hauptmann, was detected mainly through the tracing of ransom money by Treasury agents. The Dillinger killing in Chicago stemmed from a paid informer, the celebrated "Lady in Red," rather than from clever police work. Hoover jealously failed to credit the agent in charge at the scene, Melvin Purvis, for his role; Purvis later quit.
Hoover's wartime reputation for protecting U.S. defense plants against saboteurs and nailing German spies (eight were arrested while landing on Long Island) was well deserved. Although sometimes criticized as a haven for draft dodgers, the FBI performed counterespionage duties overseas as well. But after the war, Hoover suffered a bureaucratic blow when Congress created the CIA to handle foreign intelligence-gathering operations.
The agile Director recovered by embarking on his postwar anti-Communist campaign. His agents helped to arrest Alger Hiss, convicted of perjury for denying that he had been a Communist agent; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for treason; Colonel Abel, convicted for passing military secrets to the Russians. They blew one case against Judith Coplon by barging into her room without a warrant, causing charges of espionage to be dismissed.
Although both the bureau and Senator Joseph McCarthy denied it, Hoover's men supplied the rampaging Wisconsin Republican with nearly all of the frail information he had about Communists in the U.S. Government. "I worked on it myself," recalls a former agent. "But we didn't have enough evidence to show there was one Communist in the State Department, let alone the 57 McCarthy was claiming."