Newsletter #86: Listeners’ Mailbag w/ Beverly Gage - The New Deal and the FBI

Last month, the historian Beverly Gage, author of a brilliant biography on the long-time FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, joined The Dig to discuss the man who made America’s domestic intelligence service. Subscribers to our patreon account had a chance to ask Gage some questions, and dive further into G-Man and the making of modern American politics.

Marshall M.: I liked both the book and this interview, but I was surprised they didn’t cover more about the larger significance of siccing the FBI on the left as early as 1938, setting up the Red Scare as backlash to the New Deal and specifically its most left-affiliated personnel. The book basically vindicates Hoover’s suspicions about the extent of Soviet infiltration, but whether that’s true or not, it simply can’t have been the motivation for the long Red Scare.

I think the ‘Long Red Scare’ was a multifarious operation, in the sense that it was a national security issue (ostensibly under the purview of the FBI), a set of geopolitical issues, and of course a lot of it has to do with domestic political issues–both related to the communist party but also the left more broadly.

So, it’s true: Hoover did have a better record on Soviet espionage than he might have been given credit for, certainly by his detractors at the time. But there is no question that for him and for many of the people he was working with, anti-communism involved something broader than that. It was ultimately about containing liberalism, containing progressive forces, and he had a very expansive view of who fit in there. I think for Hoover the question of the New Deal per se was not always of great interest – I mean, Hoover was not a warrior against social security! I don’t think he was alarmist about the expansion of the social welfare state, the sorts of things that a business right was looking to mobilize anti-communism to attack; I think there are some distinctions to be made there on the political Right. Nevertheless, he did certainly view anti-communism as a capacious campaign. He went after liberals themselves as communist dupes all the time.

Ben M.: Related to the question above, I was curious to hear more about the FBI’s origins in the New Deal, especially considering its role in fighting the popular front. The New Deal, of course, is not a straightforwardly or one-sidedly progressive moment in American history, but braided together concessions to the working class and strategies of containing left wing working class organizing, at the same time that it developed the sort of state capacity that stabilized and supported private capital. Does the FBI change the way we think about this period as perhaps being more checkered than left-wing nostalgia would sometimes have it? Is one way to think about this moment, particularly the later red scare, as the victory of one New Deal against another?

That’s a really interesting formulation. I think there are elements of that at work. You can certainly see a tragic story in which Franklin Roosevelt and the people around him enabled an institution like the FBI that became a powerful force pushing back against many of the things that they hoped to see happen in the 1940s and 1950s. But you could also think about it a little bit differently, too: that Franklin Roosevelt did not see the FBI and its operations as being particularly distinct from the other forms of state power that he believed in. There was ‘social security’, ‘national security’, ‘security of personhood’, and all of these elements fit together for him into a comprehensive vision for state and society. And of course, he was happy to use the FBI to help contain left movements and left critics who he was not very enthusiastic about.

Steph W.: I was fascinated by the discussion of where Hoover, and the FBI’s power really originated from–and the suggestion that part of the potency of the FBI as a domestic intelligence service and political police force derived from the grassroots support that it developed. It’s also interesting to think about Hoover’s own conservatism, and how that was baked into the DNA of the bureaucracy that he ran. Sometimes your interview seems to suggest that the FBI was pursuing politics by extra-political means. How did the mainstream conservative or right-wing movements of mid century America think about the FBI? Were they self-consciously supportive of its efforts to police the boundaries of American political life?

One of my inspirations in writing the book was looking at histories of conservative organizations as they were emerging in a self-conscious way in the 1950s–people like Phyllis Schlafly, the John Birch Society. In their newsletters they would put out reading lists, lists of books to read if you wanted to be a good conservative. Hoover’s books were always on there.

I was fascinated by their overt admiration for and championing of this man who was, after all, a career federal bureaucrat. They really loved him. They were certainly self-conscious about embracing his expansive view of anti-communism in particular, but he was a little more ambivalent about them: they were nutty sometimes, he felt like he couldn’t always control them, so he wanted to cultivate those groups while containing them too.