Saturday, April 1, 2023
HomeBreaking News USAHow the FBI bolstered its image in the 1950s

How the FBI bolstered its image in the 1950s

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is honored at ceremony when he received an award on Oct. 3, 1966 in Boston. (AP Photo)

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is honored at ceremony when he received an award on Oct. 3, 1966 in Boston. (AP Photo)


The recent armed assault on the FBI’s Cincinnati office by a right-wing insurrectionist, and his fellow travelers’ social media salvos against the bureau for executing a lawful search warrant at Donald Trump’s Florida estate, indicate that it’s time to recall past efforts to shore up the agency’s public image.

With a passion for history and cinema, a fondness for Jimmy Stewart, and a cousin-in-law in the FBI, I spent part of my childhood watching “The FBI Story” multiple times. I still tune in when the Turner Classic Movies channel runs the 1959 film. Of course, I now realize that it represents a propaganda vehicle created by controversial FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to aggrandize the bureau’s image in the American mind.

Amidst the Cold War, and the FBI’s efforts to fight communism, while recognizing the blowback against McCarthyism from civil libertarians, Hoover calculated in the 1950s that literary and Hollywood paeans to his agency were in order. He and his colleagues cooperated with Don Whitehead, a double Pulitzer Prize winner for international reporting during the Korean War, who published in 1956 a book on the bureau’s history, “The FBI Story: A Report to the People.”

Hoover granted Whitehead access to FBI files and penned the Random House book’s foreword. Noted as a courageous reporter, who had earned the nickname “Beachhead Don” for going ashore with American forces in major World War II invasions (including Normandy), Whitehead was both a credible journalist and a patriot – the perfect author of a book to present the nation’s law enforcement agency in its best light.

And there are plenty of heroic stories in the FBI’s history, from its founding in 1908 to the mid-20th century, including tracking terrorists and saboteurs during the two world wars and the decade between them; chasing Prohibition-era gangsters, most famously John Dillinger and Al Capone; investigating the tragic kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son; intercepting Japanese espionage messages after Pearl Harbor; and capturing communist spies during the Cold War, including the Rosenbergs. Whitehead revised his riveting tales for a children’s version of the book.

Hoover then reached out to his Hollywood friend, film director and producer Mervyn LeRoy, to translate Whitehead’s book for the silver screen. LeRoy had directed World War II films intended to bolster American morale, like 1944’s “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” starring Spencer Tracy as Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, whose 1942 air raid over the Japanese capital represented the first American attack on the enemy’s homeland.

In essence, Hoover acted as co-producer of “The FBI Story” and assigned two of his agents to supervise its filming. If the bureau’s director disliked how scenes portrayed his agency, he asked that they be re-shot. He contributed to casting decisions, as well. Who better to play the movie’s lead fictional FBI agent, Chip Hardesty, than Jimmy Stewart, a World War II hero for his bombing missions over Germany as a pilot in the Army Air Force, for which he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Croix de Guerre.

Even more appropriate, Stewart had portrayed an idealistic senator fighting corruption in Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In 1955, Stewart, then a general in the Air Force Reserve, starred in “Strategic Air Command,” a Hollywood film advocating the need for funding a strong military aviation force during the Cold War. Moreover, Stewart was a lifelong Republican, who supported conservative GOP presidential candidates and promoted patriotic causes.

In 1959’s “The FBI Story,” distributed by Warner Brothers studio, Hoover appears in a cameo role. Stewart’s wife, played by Vera Miles, begs him to leave his dangerous job as an FBI field agent but Hardesty reneges on his promise to do so when he hears an inspirational speech delivered by the bureau’s director. A hagiographic homage to the nation’s law enforcers, the movie covers the FBI’s triumphs featured in Whitehead’s book. Often melodramatic, it still contains moments of genuine pathos, as when Hardesty’s partner is killed in a shootout with a gangster. I admit to shedding a tear when the Hardestys receive a telegram with news that their son has been killed as a Marine at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

By the film’s end, Stewart’s character is a senior desk officer delivering inspirational speeches to new agents. His daughter has married the son of his deceased field partner, who, naturally, becomes an FBI agent to avenge his father’s death. The couple name their son after his war-hero uncle, killed in the Pacific. The final patriotic scene depicts the family driving past the Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery.

The film’s estimated box office take was $3.5 million (more than $35 million in 2022 dollars), making it a top 25 money-maker in 1959. Another Stewart film that year, “Anatomy of a Murder,” was second only to Academy Award winner “Ben-Hur” in ticket revenues. Variety’s review of “The FBI Story” deemed it “a tense, exciting film story told in human terms,” with Stewart’s performance labeled “restrained … wry and intelligent, completely credible.” Clearly, Hoover was pleased, awarding LeRoy the FBI’s Distinguished Service Award.

LeRoy seemed unfazed by his collaboration with the bureau’s director: “I am extremely proud of The FBI Story. … It was authentic[ally] done to the last detail. … I didn’t want to jeopardize my personal friendship with J. Edgar Hoover by doing anything that wasn’t accurate.” As Yale historian and author of the definitive book on Hoover, Beverly Gage, has observed, during his 48 years as the FBI’s director, Hoover was a public relations master.

In today’s wholly different era of incendiary social media, public cynicism, political polarization, partisan television news, and politicians who attack law enforcement, such 1950s-style propaganda is unlikely to reverse the tide. Yet the current FBI director might want to revisit his predecessor’s strategy and construct new tactics to burnish the bureau’s public image in the American psyche.

Barbara A. Perry is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Follow her @BarbaraPerryUVA.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. | All Rights Reserved. Read more from The Hill at

This story was originally published August 29, 2022 12:30 PM.

Source link



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here



Most Popular