The Wilson Quarterly

As the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover faced a public-relations problem. Amid the centralization of government under FDR’s New Deal, some Americans worried that a federal law enforcement agency would develop into a secret police force. To head off such fears, the FBI under Hoover began what became a decades-long effort to court allies in the press. One of the more unusual aspects of this campaign was the creation of a five-agent ghostwriting division that cultivated journalists with ostensibly personal letters from Hoover. The correspondence unit, housed in the FBI’s crime records division, churned out thousands of these missives during Hoover’s 48-year tenure at the helm of the FBI and its predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, writes Matthew Cecil, a journalism and communications scholar at South Dakota State University.

The correspondence unit took the lead in recruiting new “journalist-adjuncts” to the FBI’s side by engaging potentially friendly reporters in a wide-ranging correspondence. As letters were exchanged, Hoover might offer condolences at the loss of a family member or inquire about his correspondent’s wife—on occasion even maintain a separate correspondence with her—all through the pen of a ghost. Hoover met in person with some of his supposed pen pals, but more often than not letters and information leaks sufficed to give the quarry the impression that he was a member of Hoover’s inner circle. Grateful reporters offered up tips and glowing press mentions of the FBI. “Thank God that a man like J. Edgar Hoover is the head of the FBI,” read one ringing endorsement in The American Magazine in 1955. “He is the greatest bulwark against the insidious Communist menace that is casting a shadow over this great land of ours.”

The unit sometimes suggested particular articles for “special correspondents” to write. In 1950, after the publication of a book criticizing the FBI’s spying and other activities, Hoover’s letter writers convinced Morris Ernst, the general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, to publish a defense of the bureau in Readers’ Digest. “The article’s publication provided Hoover with cover from the Left that the bureau cited for decades thereafter as evidence of its restraint in civil liberties matters,” Cecil notes. Some journalists writing about the FBI even submitted their work to Hoover for his review prior to publication.

Those who believed themselves to be part of Hoover’s inner circle took their relationship with one of Washington’s most powerful men seriously. Writer Courtney Ryley Cooper collaborated with Hoover on articles, books, and film scripts over seven years, and was the frequent recipient of letters ghostwritten by the correspondence unit. But when an article he wrote under Hoover’s name about the surfeit of criminal activity in car-friendly campgrounds was loudly criticized by defenders of the tourism industry, the unit cut Cooper off. He committed suicide within a year, and his wife alleged that he did so because of the depression he experienced after Hoover snubbed him.

Hoover has gone down in history as a master manipulator, but the story of this unit went largely untold. The group, said one disgruntled former FBI administrator, was the “greatest letter-writing bureau in the history of the United States.”

THE SOURCE: “Friends of the Bureau: Personal Correspondence and the Cultivation of Journalist-Adjuncts by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI” by Matthew Cecil, in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2011.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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