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

J. Edgar Hoover’s ascent within the FBI reveals the birth of an unprecedented surveillance apparatus that would survey US citizens for decades to come.

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.

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. 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.”

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.