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
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