Review of Betty Medsger's "The Burglary"


Murray Polner is a regular book reviewer for the History News Network.

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI
By Betty Medsger
Knopf 2014

During and after World War I, and especially after the notorious Palmer Raids, the government and a legion of vigilantes went hunting for “subversive” left-wingers. Phones were tapped and postal workers opened mail, which led an old-fashioned traditionalist named  Henry L. Stimson, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, to close down the government’s cryptological section  in 1929 with a quaint warning,  “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

How charming, how innocent, how calming.

In late 1970, however, William Davidon, “a mild-mannered physics professor at Haverford College,” writes Betty Medsger, decided to issue a frontal challenge to government snoopers (full-discloser: I interviewed him several times about another case) and  “privately asked a few people this question: ‘What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?’”

Davidon hated the Vietnam War and a draft which forced reluctant kids into the military, which he believed had helped make the country an imperial, warrior state.  Inspired by pacifist men of action Dan Berrigan and A.J. Muste, he wanted to do more than march and picket and lend his name to antiwar ads.

To do so, he recruited six like-minded men and two women who “were looking for more powerful nonviolent ways to protest the war.” Betty Medsger’s striking and well-paced investigative reportage in The Burglary, sympathetically describes the burglars, and unkindly to say the least, J. Edgar Hoover and his relentless pursuit of political opponents.

On March 8, 1971, ironically  the day of the epic and widely-viewed Ali-Frazier bout,  eight otherwise commonplace people, led by Davidon, forced open the door of an FBI office in Media, a suburb of Philadelphia, with a homemade crowbar and snatched about a thousand confidential files, which when publicized, sent Hoover and his supporters into shock.  Never before had the unchallenged FBI been so violated. The burglars’ unprecedented catch revealed what Hoover’s FBI had been up to for decades. As Medsger carefully outlines the raid and its consequences, she reveals that  Hoover had been running a “secret” and illegitimate FBI program called  Cointelpro, whose purpose was to destroy dissent and dissenters. The burglars also discovered a long-established “Security Index,” aimed at rounding up and detaining “subversives” in the event of a “crisis.”

Once they read and absorbed the documents their job was done since only the national press had the means and the voice to spread the news.  They mailed the documents to Medsger, then a Washington Post reporter, the Los Angeles Times's Jack Nelson and the New York Times’s Tom Wicker. Copies also went to antiwar Senator George McGovern who loathed Hoover but denounced the burglary and returned the materials to the FBI. The group then retreated into a 43-year silence. Several weeks after the burglary, Medsger filed the first piece about the stolen files in the Post.

NBC’s Carl Stern began successfully filing Freedom of Information requests for the documents and thereby played a crucial role in introducing Cointelpro to the American people.  It was, we learned, a covert and unlawful program designed to penetrate, shame and destroy domestic, essentially left-wing, political groups. It included the now-famous  letter threatening to expose Martin Luther King Jr. for adultery unless he  killed himself.

In previous years, the FBI had accomplished much, notably investigating and  breaking up Soviet spy networks, as a forthcoming book by Mark A. Bradley, A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior (Basic Books), clearly  demonstrates. But Hoover’s narrow-mindedness and absurd obsession that Moscow lurked behind critics and nonconformists, his inability to accept the slightest disparagement, and especially his refusal to recognize the growing presence of organized crime, tarnished his record further. Medsger even tells of FBI agents unhappy with his methods that were ignored or told to follow orders.

In 1950, Max Lowenthal’s ground-breaking book The Federal Bureau of Investigation deeply upset Hoover and his admirers trashed the book in their reviews. Still, the more the deification of Hoover and the FBI soared in films and pop culture, so did his dark side. Cointelpro portrayed him as petty, cunning, pitiless and indifferent to fairness and justice. For years he directed a chilling vendetta against dissidents, African-American faculty (Metzger says he despised blacks), college students, academics, politicians on whom he compiled extensive files, especially their sexual peccadilloes for possible future blackmail and reprisals. Signers of  newspaper antiwar, anti-draft ads were placed on file. Those who wrote letters to newspapers deemed anti-FBI were noted. The antiwar, college-age daughter of Rep. Henry Reuss (Dem,-WI), was placed under FBI surveillance. As was a 14-year-old boy whose case was dropped when a sane agent finally protested that he was only a kid. He rarely read a serious book but detested intellectuals and writers. William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann, Carl Sandburg, Truman Capote, Ray Bradbury, Hannah Arendt and Graham Green all merited watching while files on them were assembled.

 Medsger includes the FBI’s manufacture of a “crime” falsely meant to indict 28 draft board raiders, which a Camden. NJ, judge wisely threw out.  Hoover also informed a House Appropriations Subcommittee without a shred of evidence that the Berrigan brothers were leading a new and gigantic conspiracy in America and planning to “kidnap a highly placed government official [Henry Kissinger]. William Sullivan, the FBI’s third-ranking agent who supervised criminal activities, espionage, and intelligence, was stunned at his boss’ statement. “I don’t think we’ll even have a case against them, and they could have a case against us.” Earlier, at a United Press International editors meeting, Sullivan was asked, “Isn’t it true that the American Communist Party is responsible for the racial riots and all the academic violence and upheaval?” “No,” he answered, “it’s absolutely untrue.”  

When Washington Post cartoonist Herblock  mocked him  Hoover ordered a file opened on him. Jimmy Wechsler,  a critic and editor of the once liberal New York Post and Murray Kempton, the brilliant literary journalist who believed Hoover’s anti-Communist crusade was a travesty, earned their own files.

Perhaps more inexcusable was the prosecution and persecution of four non-political Boston men “framed” by the FBI for a killing they did not commit. “They were convicted and kept in prison for more than three decades—where two of them died—on the basis of the false testimony of an informer the FBI knew was lying, and who, worse, actually had been coached by the FBI in his lying,” notes Medsger, who points directly at Hoover, who, she writes, “was informed of, and approved, each step of the framing of the men.”

Toward the end of World War II, the British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell offered his insight into every age’s Torquemadas and the terror and panic they were able to spread: “Neither a  man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a Great Fear.”

Hoover, the propagator of fear, may or may not have been clinically paranoid but given the absence of any oversight, he could do just as he pleased to preserve his unparalleled power.  Medsger dispenses with psychobabble and a full portrait of the man, leaving that to his able biographers Athan Theoharis, John Stuart Cox and Curt Gentry. Instead, she concentrates on how and why one man was able to generate so much anxiety among Americans.

For five years the FBI searched unsuccessfully for the Media burglars and  produced 33,698 pages about the case.  At the same time, many more conventional Americans may have asked themselves “Who would go to prison to save dissent?” And who would dare resist so powerful a government agency?  Obviously, Medsger believes the Media raid and the positive things it produced was well worth the risks involved  since for her it was really about the indefensible power of unnecessary government secrecy.

William Davidon died in 2013. John Raines, in 1971 a Temple University professor of religion, and his wife Bonnie, the parents of three young children, were among the burglars. Raines had been introduced to the Catholic Left peace movement by a nun, Sister Sarah Fahy,whose father was Judge Charles Fahey of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. Looking back, John Raines rightly told Medsger,” It looks like we were terribly reckless people. But there was absolutely no one in Washington—senators, congressmen, even the president—who dared hold J. Edgar Hoover accountable. It became pretty obvious to us that if we don’t do it, nobody will.”

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