Thursday, July 05, 2007

Kenneth D. Ackerman's "Young J. Edgar" (review)


Reading Kenneth D. Ackerman's book, one has to wonder why the "Palmer Raids" weren't called the "Hoover-Caminetti Raids." It's unlikely that there will be a better telling of the Palmer Raids--and by his almost central role in them--the early-years and rise of J. Edgar Hoover within the bureaucracy of the Department of Justice. Few have ever achieved the power that Hoover did at such a tender age (a mere 24 when Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer tapped him to run the new Radical Division in that fateful year of 1919), and Mr. Ackerman's keen eye for important anecdotes, social scope, personal details, and the importance of key-documents serves this book well.

It's more than just important historiography, it's an accessible treatment on our history, and is required reading for those of us who value our liberties and eschew the politics of the "strong man" and frontier justice.
Most of the book covers the Palmer Raids (late-1919-to-late-1920) themselves, but we learn a number of things about J. Edgar Hoover's early-years that appear to have escaped some authors: his mother's stern authoritarianism and emotional coldness, the emphasis on punishment in Hoover's psychology and behavior that emerges early in his youth (Hoover loved attending lurid trials), a possible African-American ancestor, the effects of his father's mental illness on his behavior at home, the demographics of Washington D.C. and his own neighborhood (Hoover's own during the early-part of the 20th century was populated with Blacks and Whites), the racism of the times towards immigrants (especially Russian, thanks to the October revolution in 1917), the working-class, and Blacks. Hoover--and most of his contemporaries in government--held these xenophobic views. They were very common in America at that time.


Like Hitler, Hoover's father was a government clerk, a functionary, and Hoover modeled himself as the ultimate apolitical bureaucrat over time. Ackerman brings the era Hoover grew-up in with a storyteller's skill and a historiographer's discipline. The years covering the Palmer Raids are brought to breathtaking life, and the parallels with our own war on terror are inescapable without any need on the author's part in citing them.

This serves the text well, as it never lapses into the pedantic or the fantastical, as many Hoover biographies tend towards. What we get is what we really know about the Palmer Raids--the attorneys and government bureaucrats who fought the illegal nature of the raids and subsequent detentions, their effects on people and their liberties, Hoover's role in them (a central one), the major events of 1919 that contributed to their creation, and their enduring legacy.


Was the threat as great as people thought at the time? One gets the feeling that some in the federal bureaucracy were still fighting WWI, a period replete with its own abuses of civil liberties and crackdowns under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, as well as the Immigration Act of 1918 that gave the Palmer Raids some of their dubious legal foundation. As with most postwar periods, a deep recession occurred, and labor violence was prevalent. So was fear of the American left and immigrant communities. Ackerman makes a good case that it certainly appeared revolution and chaos were nigh, and notes that the issues are the same now as they were then.


Context is everything. In January of 1919, Seattle was in a general strike that lasted around a week, while in March, the Third International was declaring an international revolution with communists (Bolshevism directed by Lenin) at its vanguard. Then, there were the "May Day" bombings that targeted J.P. Morgan, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Rockefeller, four cabinet members, and a commissioner of immigration. And there was more-to-come. A police strike in Boston, a national coal and steel strike (imagine the effect of 1 million going-on-strike in a crucial industry today), and more bombings throughout the nation, even as late as September of 1920 when the hysteria had already died down.

It's a minor-quibble, but another aspect of the raids (including those of the Lusk committee in New York City) and bombings could have been stimulated by real espionage, some of it by Russian operatives, double-agents, as well as informants and provocateurs working for Great Britain's SIS office. It's a little-known sidebar, and Ackerman does include American Military Intelligence in the picture, so he has some of it covered. Hoover was probably aware of this angle, and had files from Military Intelligence on one of the possible players in the September, 1920 bombing of Wall Street:
Kurt Jahnke.

Hoover may even have known from existing-files from his friends at Military Intelligence of the possible involvement of Sidney Reilly (and many other players) in wartime profiteering, espionage, and the bombing of munitions dumps at the Black Tom Terminal in New Jersey, 1916. He might have been aware of Reilly's possible connections to some of the bombings of 1919 in the United States. New York City was a hub for international commerce and espionage--frequently the same thing--during the era, and most of the players were double and triple-agents. This is the lot of the informant/provocateur and secret agent. Jahnke also worked for Sidney Reilly. Again, a minor-quibble, and easily a subject for another book. This absence does nothing to impair "Young J. Edgar."

Jahnke is directly-linked to both Black Tom and the Wall Street bombings, as well as Reilly and various spy agencies at that time. The Black Tom bombing is usually ascribed to "German" saboteurs, but the event was also useful as one more action that pushed America into siding with Great Britain in WWI. The seizing of a Sinn Fein activist during the raids also tends towards these possibilities. British intelligence had been working overtime towards getting Americans involved in the Great War. With the war over, and Russia in a revolutionary stasis, British interests were eying the Baku oil fields, and wanted to dominate Russia economically.

They were hardly alone: so did the American State Department and sundry other business interests. One of them was J.P. Morgan. The 1920 bombing of Wall Street came at a propitious moment for Britain--it likely sealed the deportation of Ludwig Martens, then trying to gain recognition for the Soviet regime in America. Major banking and business interests were interested. The Red Scare killed any possibility for recognition for at least a decade. Then there's the war we almost had between Great Britain and Japan during the early-1920s...


In March of 1919, Hoover was made A. Mitchell Palmer's assistant at the Department of Justice, and would shortly head the Bureau of Investigation's Radical Division after June of that year. It's just one of several fateful mistakes made by appointed politicians in our nation's history, and one-of-many that would propel J. Edgar Hoover into a position of unchallenged power and authority for nearly fifty years. Much of this was dumb luck. Even a good number of Hoover's challengers during the legal fight against the raids seemed to underestimate his role, and he did as much as he could over the years to hide it. The truth is, he was practically the architect of the Palmer Raids, and his subsequent career almost plays like a rerun of them, even decades later.


Ackerman asks us an important question as citizens of a democracy: how do we balance public safety and civil liberties in a time of upheaval and unrest? We should be wary of those in public office who feel they know all the answers to these questions in the immediate aftermath of any terrorist attack or bombing. One has to wonder if the raids would have happened at all had a bomber not tripped on his way to Palmer's front-door the night of June 2nd, 1919. Attorney General Palmer wasn't the only person on the list of the terrorists. Nearly all were prominent politicians or businessmen. To most, it appeared that Bolshevik revolution was spreading throughout the globe and onto American shores in the form of immigration.


Today, we don't really know what the threat even constitutes, but the reactions have been not only similar to those during the years 1919-1920, they have gone much further. At the time of this writing, habeas corpus is still in-suspension by the Military Commissions Act of 2006, a piece of legislation that Mr. Ackerman astutely lists in his notes. With the Senate Judiciary hearings into the U.S. Attorney firing scandal (that's now being connected by committee chair Sen. Patrick Leahy to the warrantless wiretapping programs of the Bush administration), we're finding that people of the same age as Hoover circa-1919 are being given unparalleled power at the Department of Justice and other sectors of the federal bureaucracy. We're only beginning to discover what they've done in the name of fighting terrorism, now that our current national hysteria has begun to abate.

Monica Goodling and several other appointees at Justice were being consciously culled from Regents School of Law in-the-aftermath of September 11th, 2001. We should be asking ourselves why. "Are we creating new Hoovers?" asks Kenneth Ackerman. We very well could be. Were it not for legal scholars and attorneys like Felix Frankfurter, Clarence Darrow, as well as men like Secretary of Labor William Wilson, or assistant Sec. of Labor Louis F. Post, the precedents of the Palmer Raids would have stood. Were it not for them--as Mr. Ackerman notes--our very concepts and legal traditions surrounding civil liberties would be as impoverished as they were in 1919. As in Hoover's day, the key to curing unaccountable power will be in finding the incriminating files.


5,000-10,000 human beings were shunted into detention centers in various locations throughout the country without access to legal representation, or even a working-toilet under the Palmer Raids. Hundreds of "radical aliens" were deported from Ellis Island in a horrible inversion of the American dream. Can it happen again? In various-forms under the war on terror, it already has.

J-7 would like to thank Mr. Ackerman and publicist Gene Taft for allowing us the honor of reviewing this very important book. "Young J. Edgar-Hoover, The Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties," is available now from Carroll & Graf, at $28.95. Ignore its message at your own peril.