YA Nonfiction Review – Master of Deceit

Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and AMERICA in the Age of LIES.

M. Aronson. 2012. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

In amazing and gripping detail, Aronson chronicles the ascent of the determined J. Edgar Hoover to Director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924 and his continued reign for the next four decades. As an adolescent Hoover excelled at debate and was a gifted performer, “always selling the story he wanted you to believe” (p. 13). These skills would benefit him as he built the agency that came to be known as the FBI and tirelessly pursued citizens and non-citizens suspected of subversive activities.

Hoover socialized in a tight knit group of colleagues and wealthy patrons. He did not mix with other races or ethnic groups, he feared homosexuals, and he endeavored to sustain the image of the United States as prominent, Christian and white. He engaged in consistent publicity to make the Bureau look heroic, the protector of the citizens, posing in pictures with celebrities and marketing movies and books about the courageous work of the agency. He used his power to ruin the reputations of agency employees who disagreed with him and, at one point, he was influential enough to discourage a publisher from publishing the work of an author suspected of Communist thinking.

Early on and throughout much of his career, Hoover’s main war was against the spread of Communism. While many of us grew up thinking Communism was “bad” and capitalism was “good,” Aronson dispels this thinking by unveiling the appeal of Communism to laborers who suffered poor working conditions with inadequate wages and to minorities who suffered discrimination and unfair prosecution in the justice system. He does not stop there, though; instead he also reveals how the implementation of Communism can go awry, infringing on freedom of speech and other civil rights. What becomes clear to the reader is the need, regardless of whether we agree or not, to have discussions and remain open-minded.

Hoover would have none of this, though. “Everywhere he went, he spread the message. Be afraid. Be on guard. Spies lurk all around. The FBI is your protector, for only we see everything; only we can outspy the spies (p. 87).” Hoover and his agents engaged in egregious activities in the name of protecting the nation – using illegal wiretaps, feeding lies to politicians like Joseph McCarthy, and even suggesting suicide in cryptic notes to activists like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hoover’s weapon of fear began to lose its power, though, when people like Dr. King chose not to be afraid and when the media and politicians began to engage the justice system in investigations of FBI files. In the 60’s, the mood of the country began to shift and politicians and leaders like the brothers Robert and John F. Kennedy pushed the FBI to enforce laws regarding desegregation and to investigate the complex networks of organized crime. Fear would not work to resolve these problems. Despite this, Hoover kept a blind eye to what really needed to be done to move the country forward and keep its citizens safe. Aronson points out that, in a sense, the agency became what it had worked so long to fight against – a force that worked in the dark, many times illegally, and served to cause divisiveness and unrest. While Hoover died just weeks before the Watergate incident and is believed to have not been involved, the investigation afterwards revealed the corruption and illegal activity of the agency he had spent a lifetime building.

In the last few pages of the book, Aronson explicitly names two lessons to be learned from Hoover’s story: “Fear allows secrecy in the name of defense. And that which is hidden grows malignant.” He applies these lessons to a discussion of the Patriot Act, implemented in response to September 11, 2001, and the government’s ability to round up Muslims, some of them American citizens and transport them to foreign countries to be questioned and even tortured. Implying that what has happened in the aftermath of 9/11 is much worse than anything Hoover did, Aronson makes the case that the pursuit of protecting democracy without destroying it cannot be a flawless journey. As a result, we must practice open-mindedness to ideas we may or may not agree with “even when the shadow of fear freezes our hearts” (p. 198).

Not to be skipped are Aronson’s notes about how he researched and wrote the book. As a historian, he engaged in extensive reading of books about Hoover and the Cold War with an eye to how historians have changed their perspectives over the last several decades. Then he analyzed a wealth of primary source documents, many available on the FBI Freedom of Information Internet site. When he began to write the book, he had to overcome his own fear, having grown up in this period with childhood friends whose parents lost their jobs because of their leftist, liberal thinking. Being fully aware that history is more complicated than who was right and who was wrong, he also had to overcome the temptation to just write about Hoover and others like Joseph McCarthy from the victims’ point of view. In the end, Aronson wrote a great deal more than what was included in the book, seeking to make sense for his readers of so much information. The result is a story that adolescents will find thought provoking when considering current dilemmas in the tension between citizens’ rights and national security.


2 thoughts on “YA Nonfiction Review – Master of Deceit

  1. Mara Southorn

    After you recommended this at the SRL breakfast, I checked it out, and I’m in the middle of it. I’ve talked so much about it that my husband wants to read it next!


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