What I've been reading
Recently, I read a different Ackerman book about James Garfield. I liked it a lot, so when I saw this, I picked it up. Technically, I shouldn't have read it, as I had already passed this point in the alphabet, but rules are made to be broken, damn it! Plus, this is an extremely relevant book, as you can probably tell by the title.
Ackerman frames this book with an interesting device: he begins in 1924, when Harlan Fiske Stone, the new attorney general of the United States, appointed J. Edgar Hoover, at the tender age of 29, as head of the Bureau of Investigation (which was not yet called the FBI, but it's the same thing, so I'll call it that). Hoover followed Stone's lead in cleaning up the wildly corrupt Bureau, which had been stained (like most of Washington) by the Teapot Dome scandal. Hoover cleaned it up and went on to lead the FBI until his death in 1972. In his later years, of course, he became extremely controversial for the secret files he kept on American citizens that he considered "dangerous," which to him meant anyone who believed in any kind of liberal political ideology. Stone was proud of his choice, but Ackerman makes the point that Hoover was already corrupt. Stone was most disturbed by the so-called Palmer raids, which were anti-communist sweeps that detained hundreds of American citizens, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants - most of whom had broken no laws - in 1919 and 1920. They were named after Stone's predecessor, A. Mitchell Palmer, but Hoover, a 24-year-old special assistant, was the driving force behind them. Unbelievably, by 1924, Hoover had managed to convince Stone and the rest of the country that he had very little to do with the raids. So Ackerman goes back in time to show exactly how involved he was, and how the tactics he devised in his mid-20s would serve him well as he built the FBI into a powerful secret police force.
Ackerman turns the story into a thriller, even if it ends limply (the book doesn't, but if it were a thriller, they'd have to change the ending, as it wouldn't work in a movie). He starts with the bombings in June 1919, when several political figures were targeted by "anarchists." One of the targets was Palmer himself, and he barely escaped with his life. In the aftermath of World War I, with social upheaval wracking the world, with a civil war in Russia that involved, for a time, American soldiers, with unions strong throughout the country, the bombings became the spark for a crackdown on "communists" everywhere. Hoover was tasked to head the Bureau's new Radical Division, which investigated, well, radicals. Ackerman goes into Hoover's early life and his home life, which was dominated by his mother, but he doesn't try to draw too many conclusions about the connection between that and his professional life. He ignores any salacious speculation about his sexuality, mostly because there's absolutely no proof that he was gay at all. More likely he was so devoted to his work that he had no interest in sex, whether with a woman or a man. Ackerman mainly focuses on how he came to believe that anyone who criticized the government was naturally a criminal - remember, during World War I the government promulgated laws against criticizing the war effort, and those laws were still in effect in 1919 - so while he was investigating the bombings, he might as well start rounding up radicals and kicking them out of the country. He needed the help of the Labor Department, which was in charge of deportation, but he got it when he offered to help prosecute Emma Goldman, one of the most famous anarchists in American history. Goldman's lover, Alexander Berkman, had tried to assassinate Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead strike in 1892, and later Leon Czolgosz, who killed William McKinley, said Goldman's speeches inspired him (even though she always said the crime horrified her). Goldman had come to the United States in 1885 and had never become a citizen, although she claimed citizenship through her husband, even though they were divorced. Goldman was a thorn in the side of the Labor Department, because she kept inspiring workers to strike. So Labor agreed to help Hoover deport anyone he wanted if he gave them Goldman. Which he did.
Hoover decided to round up as many anarchists as he could in quick sweeps. He figured this was the easiest way to keep the targets from alerting other cells, and he was right. In two big raids in November 1919 and January 1920, Hoover and his Bureau agents went into legal meetings of communists and other radicals and simply arrested everyone they found. In many cases, Bureau agents posing as communists arranged the meetings to make sure everyone was in one place. The Bureau took the people to holding areas, including Ellis Island, where they were crammed into small cells and deprived of their rights, including their right to lawyers. Of course, most of them were not illegal immigrants, so their only "crime" was attending a meeting. In many cases, the immigrants, whether legal or not, had no idea what kind of meeting they were attending. The Socialist Party was an accepted political entity in 1920 (Eugene Debs, their perennial presidential candidate, received almost a million votes in 1912), but in 1919 and 1920, communists split from the mainstream Socialist Party and in many cases didn't bother to tell those who attended their meetings that they, the communists, were more radical. As many members didn't understand English too well, very often they thought they were going to meetings of a social club and had no idea the group had been radicalized.
The conditions in the holding areas were atrocious, and many people were held for months without access to legal representation or even contact with the outside world. Palmer and Hoover continued to look for the actual perpetrators of the bombings, but when they finally got leads in the case, one witness committed suicide rather than testify against his comrades and two other key figures fled the country, never to return. Hoover and Palmer overreached when they starting arresting prominent Americans like William Bross Lloyd, the so-called "Millionaire Socialist," who wanted to be arrested so he could drag the whole case into court. Clarence Darrow, who hated communists, got involved in the defense of some of the Americans who had been jailed, and his courtroom histrionics made headlines. As the tide slowly turned against Hoover, one man stepped up and became a hero. His name was Louis Post. It's a shame he's not more famous in American history.
In March 1920, through a set of circumstance, Louis Post became acting secretary of labor. Post had always resented Hoover and the Justice Department ordering Labor around to get deportation orders, but he had never had the power to do anything about it. With the actual Secretary of Labor, William Wilson, away for weeks at a time dealing with a sick wife and illnesses of his own, Post decided to sit down and go through every warrant that the Labor Department issued to Justice in order for Hoover to carry out his raids. He decided most of them were fraudulent and started cancelling them. Hoover was blindsided. He managed to get Post in front of a special committee of Congress, but Post dazzled the judges with his friendly manner and his utter devotion to the facts. He had gone over every single case file of the people who had been arrested, proving that Hoover had illegally acquired warrants, arrested people without cause, and suspended habeas corpus while keeping detainees in squalid conditions for months. Post tore apart Hoover and Palmer's case, at a time when Palmer was running for president, destroying the attorney general's political career and ruining Hoover's attempts to squash any and all dissent. It was during this time that Hoover began keeping files on all his political enemies, but he couldn't stop Post. The great quote of the book (and one that should be taught more) is when Edward Pou, one of the committee members grilling Post, said, "You realized, of course, Mr. Secretary, that all of these rules that you have laid out operate to make it more difficult to deport the alien?" Post responded, "Every rule in the interest of personal liberty makes it more difficult to take personal liberty away from a man who is entitled to his liberty." Yeah!
As Hoover's scheme unraveled, another bodyblow came, ironically, from Harlan Fiske Stone, the man who would later promote him. Stone wrote a letter summarizing the views of several lawyers who disagreed with the government's tactics. Stone wrote:
It is inevitable that any system which confers upon administrative officers power to restrain the liberty of individuals, without safeguards substantially like those which exist in criminal cases, and without adequate authority for judicial review of the actions of such administrative officers will result in abuse of power and in intolerable injustice and cruelty to individuals.
Ackerman's book is timely, obviously, because of what is happening in our country following 11 September 2001. Hoover's Bureau of Investigation is one of the first "modern" intelligence agencies, in that the world was connected enough at this point so Hoover could communicate relatively quickly with agents across the country and could also amass a huge file system detailing the indiscretions of his enemies for use against them when he needed it. Hoover's efficiency and ability to deflect blame is chilling, because we have to consider how many lives he ruined for the almost 50 years he ran the FBI. He never changed, either, as he believed people like Martin Luther King, Jr. should be arrested for preaching equality. The parallels between what happened then and what's happening now is disturbing, too. A terrorist attack leads to crackdowns on anyone even remotely linked to the perpetrators (meaning, back then, anyone who argued that people weren't treated well by rich capitalists, while these days it's anyone who's slightly swarthy in skin color) and the denial of due process, while the real criminals remain at large. For all of Hoover's efficiency, the Justice Department never caught the bombers. Maybe they're living in a cave with Osama bin Laden.
This is a tremendous book. It's a scary story about the abuse of power, but more than that, it's disturbing because we haven't learned anything in 90 years. In fact, many of the people in power today would probably read this and think that Hoover got hosed by some crazy radical within the Labor Department. The statements that Post made in front of Congress and that the Stone and other lawyers made to reporters should be self-evident, but too often we forget them. It's certainly easy to, when we experience terror. But as Ackerman makes clear, it's when these ideals are hardest to promote is when we should. I just wish more schools would teach about this period in history and about Louis Post, who really is an American hero.