Department of Communication
Public Address Conference
Stephen Underhill

J. Edgar Hoover and the Rhetorical Rise of the FBI: The Public Campaigns Against Crime, the Fifth Column, and Communism

"J. Edgar Hoover and the Rhetorical Rise of the FBI: The Public Campaigns Against Crime, the Fifth Column, and Communism" explores Hoover's rhetorical leadership of the FBI during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations (1933-1953). Hoover launched and sustained a concerted domestic propaganda program that helped enhance his own political power, position the FBI as a central force in domestic and international matters, and transition U.S. foreign policy from one grounded in idealism to realism. In the process, he redefined conceptions of U.S. citizenship by promoting his vision of the ideal American. Hoover grounded his rhetoric of Americanism in values rooted in the early decades of the nation's founding, which associated rugged individualism, militarism, industrial capitalism, religious orthodoxy, and white supremacy with patriotism. Conversely, Hoover associated the New Deal's emphasis on cooperation and progressivism with Un-Americanism, turning such New Deal proponents into enemies of democracy.

Hoover entered law enforcement and U.S. politics during the early decades of the twentieth century—a time of increased use of public campaigns sponsored by the U.S. government and presidential administrations to alter public opinion on important policy matters. This period witnessed, for example, the country's experimentation with domestic propaganda during World War I. While the Soviet Union and Germany used disease, vermin, parasite, and body metaphors to organize their own domestic propaganda campaigns, Hoover used these same metaphors to advance the need to purify America and exterminate its enemies. Through his public campaigns, Hoover constructed a reality in which corruption and subversion were immutable elements of democratic life. Increasingly, Hoover's tactics of threat and intimidation began to mimic the tactics of threat practiced by America's enemies, moving the country closer to what many at the time conceived of as a police state. Hoover's coupling of propaganda and coercive tactics ultimately helped him to rapidly expand the FBI and undermine his superiors and counterparts in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Whereas FDR benefited politically from building-up a secret police force, Truman inherited a cunning FBI director eager to use his power to expand, co-opt, and exploit the rhetorical presidency during the red scare.

Stephen Underhill
University of Maryland 

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