The Pauling FBI Files: An Introduction

J. Edgar Hoover

[Ed Note: This is Part 1 of 7 of a series of posts taking an in depth look at Linus Pauling’s lengthy FBI file.]

[J. Edgar] Hoover’s imposing presence gave much of the country a sense of stability and safety as he gathered to himself the strands of permanence that connected Americans to their past: religion, patriotism, a belief in progress, and a rational moral order. To attack him was to attack Americanism itself. Millions were sure that Hoover’s secret power was all that stood between them and sinister forces that aimed to destroy their way of life.

-Richard Gid Powers, Secret and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover, 1987.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, and its budding force of special agents, was officially organized during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. While 1909 is the popularly accepted pen and paper date for the organization’s establishment, the Bureau’s roots run much deeper, as far back as 1871, the year after the United States Congress created the Department of Justice and authorized it to detect and prosecute federal crimes. Borrowing Secret Service agents from the Department of Treasury, the Department of Justice battled Ku Klux Klan members in the 1870s, but also pursued other sources of domestic criminality, including investigations of business and Congress.

Like much of its history, the initial founding of the agency was controversial, as the expansion of federal powers required for its genesis conflicted with the oft-embattled principles of state’s rights. However, concerns about interstate crime and cultural changes resulting from industrialization eventually won over the commonly held notions of many that policing and law enforcement were the sole jurisdiction of states and local governments.

Though the Bureau spent a large portion of its initial history fighting racial injustice, in the early twentieth century its priorities were marked by prominent prejudice – a result, according to some speculation, of the redistribution of power that occurred following Reconstruction and the racially motivated fears that followed. Since its early formation, the Bureau has been repeatedly criticized for its disproportionate focus on minorities (in terms of enforcement and surveillance) and for a conspicuous lack of diversity in its hiring processes.

While such practices certainly do not fully encapsulate uniform conduct by FBI agents during the early chapters of its history, the notion that the organization surveilled and discriminated against citizens based upon their gender, race, sexual orientation and political ideology was a consistent and widely held thematic conception of the Bureau throughout much of the 20th century. This perception of the FBI is especially relevant when its investigative actions are examined with respect to Linus Pauling’s personal case file.

A main actor in the drama that unfolded between Pauling and FBI investigators was J. Edgar Hoover. Serving as director of the FBI for nearly 50 years, Hoover loosely oversaw the bulk of the investigative material that the Bureau collected on Linus Pauling from the 1950s on. Various documents throughout the file highlight Hoover’s interactions with the content, and detailed inter-agency memos demonstrate Hoover’s personal awareness of the ways in which Pauling was being handled and of the case that was being built around him.

Many historians, both critics and supporters, have attempted to downplay perceptions that J. Edgar Hoover was the sole source of power behind the FBI’s rise to national prominence. These authors instead point to the much misunderstood role of the Attorney General, and later the CIA, in determining the basic structure of the domestic Bureau’s operations. However, though Hoover may not have been the bogey man that many detractors have made him out to be, his long reign as director was both unprecedented and a signal of his might as a shaper of history.

Pauling's copy of "Masters of Deceit," published 1958.

Without question, the FBI and other agencies proved very useful to American interests in many respects during and after the Second World War. Profound accomplishments in this regard include disruption of German war-time secret intelligence activities, aid to state and local law enforcement agencies, identification of national organized crime networks, and actions taken against domestic hate groups. While these commendable national services deserve recognition, they must be viewed historically as having operated in tandem with the FBI’s utilization of racial-, xenophobic- and communist-inspired fears to justify very intrusive practices.

It was as a consequence of such practices that the Bureau came under increasing fire in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly as its more politically oriented agenda came to stand in stark contrast to its relative lack of effective action against organized crime. By the 1970s, a number of congressional committees and special investigations began to initiate change and reform. In many respects, famed and formidable secrecy was forced to give way as citizens, politicians and even agents within the Bureau began mounting pressure against abusive practices.

While the self-published general history of the FBI, available to the public on its official website, elaborates on its struggle with the violence and disregard for authority used by anti-war protesters and “anti-establishment groups” in the 1960s and 1970s, the text makes no mention of the Church, Pike and similar committees. Final reports released by these groups, emanating from controversies relating to COINTELPRO and other FBI operations, disclosed a wide range of improper FBI and CIA practices.

Before meaningful action was taken to address the growing crises of democracy threatened by FBI and CIA indiscretions, Linus Pauling was subjected to nearly thirty years of wasteful and fruitless investigation by Hoover and the FBI. The FBI’s growing interest in Pauling coincided largely with his increasingly progressive activism and his subsequent tribulations with investigative boards and congressional committees. Though the FBI was only one of many forces that conspired against Pauling throughout his middle years, the Bureau played a distinctive role in reinforcing the lens through which Pauling was viewed by most U.S. institutions.  Close analysis reveals that, in the case of Pauling as with many others, the Bureau frequently sought to uncover the non-existent communist convictions that they suspected were harbored.

The history of the FBI and its longstanding director defies any kind of simple categorization, and has been the subject of considerable analysis by admirers and critics alike. While much of the value of the FBI’s activity during the 20th century is debatable and subject to differing perspectives, the in-depth focus that was directed toward Pauling has a tendency to demonstrate the more unsavory aspects of the organization and its mission. Though it is impossible to discern whether or not the actions of the FBI (particularly with regard to Pauling) were justified in light of the era’s circumstances, they remain very well documented and open to interpretation.


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