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On December 23, 2007, Times The New York ran the headline “Hoover Planned Mass Jailings in 1950” over a story by Tim Weiner, author of last year’s bestselling Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Other news outlets picked up the story: A Scripps Howard columnist titled his recapitulation “Inexcusable Deeds of J. Edgar Hoover,” while England’s Guardian went with “FBI Chief Hoover Planned to Jail 12,000 and Suspend Habeas Corpus.” There is a deeper story here, and it’s more interesting historically than accounts that turned what was really a contingency plan into one more FBI plot against the Republic.

Weiner’s article was about a July 7, 1950, letter from Hoover to President Harry Truman’s Special Consultant for National Security Affairs Sidney Souers. The letter was recently declassified and published in a new volume of the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series covering 1950-55.

In it, Hoover informs Souers about an FBI and Department of Justice plan “for an emergency situation wherein it would be necessary to apprehend and detain persons who are potentially dangerous to the internal security of the country.” Hoover outlined four such emergencies: an attack on the United States, threatened invasions, an attack on American troops in legally occupied territory or a rebellion. Then, to “protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage” the attorney general would be “instructed to apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous to the internal security.”

The president would suspend habeas corpus for those so detained, submit a resolution to a joint session of Congress to “validate” the proclamation and issue an executive order to implement it. The attorney general would then order Hoover, as FBI director, to make the arrests using a master warrant based on a list of “potentially dangerous” individuals that the bureau had compiled.

Hoover told Souers that the list—at that time 12,000 names—had already been distributed to FBI field offices for “ready apprehension.” Space in jails or military facilities had been arranged. After internment, the detainees would appear before a board of one judge and two citizens. The detainee would be told why he was being held, and could submit evidence on his behalf, but the hearing would not be confined by the rules of evidence. Appeals could be made to the attorney general and the president.

Weiner accurately reported that the FBI had been compiling a “security index” of suspects to be detained in an emergency for some time. Hoover had sought authority in March 1946 to compile such a list and had been granted approval in August 1948.

But the story is incomplete.

After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt invoked a section of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act, as Woodrow Wilson had at the beginning of World War I, allowing the internment of aliens from countries at war with the United States. That was how Wilson had authorized rounding up Germans and Austro-Hungarians, and how Roosevelt had rounded up Italian, German and Japanese aliens.

At the same time, Hoover was also planning for a “custodial detention program” in the event of war with the Soviet Union, but he was ordered by Attorney General Francis Biddle to discontinue it in 1943. Instead, Hoover continued the program under a new name, the Security Index, which he later informed Truman’s Attorney General Tom Clark included known and suspected members of the Communist Party “and persons who have given evidence through their activities, utterances, and affiliations of their adherence to the aims and objectives of the party and the Soviet Union.”

Why had Hoover disobeyed Biddle’s orders? First, he had long experience, unrivaled in the government, with the public panics that can accompany outbreaks of war. Hoover knew there would be pressure to round up individuals the public suspected of disloyalty. If the government failed to respond, citizen groups such as the American Protective League in World War I and, later, the American Legion, were prone to vigilante action, and that was something the government had to prevent.

When Hoover first sought approval to compile his list in 1946, most Americans would have conceded that war with the Soviets was possible. Hoover thought it was probable. In that event, he believed there would be overwhelming pressure from the public, from Congress and from the president to intern not just aliens but also U.S. citizens sympathetic to the Soviet Union. And it would fall to Hoover’s FBI to make the arrests.

Wherein lay a great danger to the bureau. While internments during World Wars I and II were based on the nationality of the suspects, the Cold War was ideological. Russian and Eastern European nationals in the United States were, almost to a person, fierce anti-Communists. Therefore, Hoover estimated in his letter to Souers that 97 percent of those detained as Communist sympathizers would be American citizens.

Hoover had experience with ideological roundups, of course, having managed the arrests of alien Communists in the Palmer raids of 1920. The backlash nearly cost Hoover his job and earned him the undying hatred of most of the American left. Hoover knew that emergencies eventually passed, but the indignation and legal retribution over mass internments would not. The backlash against the bureau would intensify as the imagined and improvable danger of the detainees paled in comparison to the actual and easily provable injustices against those Hoover would have arrested.

So what was the FBI director to do? Hoover’s answer was a vast public relations campaign to foster a climate of opinion in support of such detentions if they took place.

In February 1946, Hoover ordered that “an effort should be made now to prepare educational materials which can be released through available channels so that in the event of an emergency we will have an informed public opinion” to counteract the “flood of propaganda” that would accompany the “extensive arrests of Communists.”

The massive FBI intervention in popular entertainment and the news during the late ’40s and early ’50s can be traced to this need for public support. The bureau helped produce the adventure series This Is Your FBI for radio from 1945 to 1953 and worked with author Don Whitehead for his 1956 bestseller The FBI Story, which was made into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart. Hoover published a bestselling anti-Communist tract, Masters of Deceit, in 1958.

The deeper story behind Hoover’s memo to Souers in July 1950 is more interesting than the knee-jerk civil libertarian response of some of the news reports. The letter did little more than inform Souers that a contingency plan was on the shelf if it was needed.

More compelling, however, is that the letter opens a window into an alternative—and most plausible—universe of what might have been if the Cold War had gone hot. It is also illustrative of how our history has sometimes been shaped by the concerns of the powerful over what might happen, but did not.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here