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FBI History
History of the FBI

Postwar America: 1945 - 1960's

In February 1946 Stalin gave a public address in which he implied that future wars were inevitable until Communism replaced capitalism worldwide. Events in Europe and North America convinced Congress that Stalin was well on his way to achieving his goal. The Russian veto prevented the United Nations from curbing Soviet expansion under its auspices.

Americans feared Communist expansion was not limited to Europe. By 1947, ample evidence existed that pro-Soviet individuals had infiltrated the American Government. In June, 1945, the FBI raided the offices of Amerasia, a magazine concerned with the Far East, and discovered a large number of classified State Department documents. Several months later the Canadians arrested 22 people for trying to steal atomic secrets. Previously, Americans felt secure behind their monopoly of the atomic bomb. Fear of a Russian bomb now came to dominate American thinking. The Soviets detonated their own bomb in 1949.

Counteracting the Communist threat became a paramount focus of government at all levels, as well as the private sector. While U.S. foreign policy concentrated on defeating Communist expansion abroad, many U.S. citizens sought to defeat the Communist threat at home. The American Communist Party worked through front organizations or influenced other Americans who agreed with their current propaganda ("fellow travelers").

This is a photograph of President Eisenhower presenting J. Edgar Hoover with the National Security Medal at a 1955 CeremonySince 1917, the FBI and its predecessor agencies had investigated suspected acts of espionage and sabotage. In 1939 and again in 1943, Presidential directives had authorized the FBI to carry out investigations of threats to national security. This role was clarified and expanded under Presidents Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Any public or private agency or individual with information about subversive activities was urged to report it to the FBI. A poster to that effect was distributed to police departments throughout the country. At the same time, it warned Americans to "avoid reporting malicious gossip or idle rumors." The FBI's authority to conduct background investigations on present and prospective government employees also expanded dramatically in the postwar years. The 1946 Atomic Energy Act gave the FBI "responsibility for determining the loyalty of individuals ...having access to restricted Atomic Energy data." Later, executive orders from both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower (pictured right, presenting National Security Medal to J. Edgar Hoover) gave the FBI responsibility for investigating allegations of disloyalty among federal employees. In these cases, the agency requesting the investigation made the final determination; the FBI only conducted the investigation and reported the results. Many suspected and convicted spies, such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, had been federal employees. Therefore, background investigations were considered to be just as vital as cracking major espionage cases.

Despite the threats to the United States of subversion and espionage, the FBI's extended jurisdiction, and the time-consuming nature of background investigations, the Bureau did not surpass the number of Agents it had during World War II--or its yearly wartime budget--until the Korean War in the early 1950s. After the Korean War ended, the number of Agents stabilized at about 6,200, while the budget began a steady climb in 1957.

Several factors converged to undermine domestic Communism in the 1950s. Situations like the Soviet defeat of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956 caused many members to abandon the American Communist Party. However, the FBI also played a role in diminishing Party influence. The Bureau was responsible for the investigation and arrest of alleged spies and Smith Act violators, most of whom were convicted. Through Hoover's speeches, articles, testimony, and books like Masters of Deceit, the FBI helped alert the public to the Communist threat.

This is a Wanted Flyer of Willie SuttonThe FBI's role in fighting crime also expanded in the postwar period through its assistance to state and local law enforcement and through increased jurisdictional responsibility. On March 14, 1950, the FBI began its "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" List to increase law enforcement's ability to capture dangerous fugitives. Advances in forensic science and technical development enabled the FBI to devote a significant proportion of its resources to assisting state and local law enforcement agencies.

A dramatic example of aid to a state occurred after the midair explosion of a plane over Colorado in 1955. The FBI Laboratory examined hundreds of airplane parts, pieces of cargo, and the personal effects of passengers. It pieced together evidence of a bomb explosion from passenger luggage, then painstakingly looked into the backgrounds of the 44 victims. Ultimately, Agents identified the perpetrator and secured his confession, then turned the case over to Colorado authorities who successfully prosecuted it in a state court.

At the same time, Congress gave the FBI new federal laws with which to fight civil rights violations, racketeering, and gambling. These new laws included the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964; the 1961 Crimes Aboard Aircraft Act; an expanded Federal Fugitive Act; and the Sports Bribery Act of 1964.

Up to this time, the interpretation of federal civil rights statutes by the Supreme Court was so narrow that few crimes, however heinous, qualified to be investigated by federal agents.

The turning point in federal civil rights actions occurred in the summer of 1964, with the murder of voting registration workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney near Philadelphia, Mississippi. At the Department of Justice's request, the FBI conducted the investigation as it had in previous, less-publicized racial incidents. The case against the perpetrators took years to go through the courts. Only after 1966, when the Supreme Court made it clear that federal law could be used to prosecute civil rights violations, were seven men found guilty. By the late 1960s, the confluence of unambiguous federal authority and local support for civil rights prosecutions allowed the FBI to play an influential role in enabling African Americans to vote, serve on juries, and use public accommodations on an equal basis.

Other civil rights investigations included the assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr., with the arrest of James Earl Ray, and the murder of Medger Evers, Mississippi Field Secretary of the NAACP, with the arrest of Byron De La Beckwith who, after two acquittals, was finally found guilty in 1994.

Involvement of the FBI in organized crime investigations also was hampered by the lack of possible federal laws covering crimes perpetrated by racketeers. After Prohibition, many mob activities were carried out locally, or if interstate, they did not constitute major violations within the Bureau's jurisdiction.

An impetus for federal legislation occurred in 1957 with the discovery by Sergeant Croswell of the New York State Police that many of the best known mobsters in the United States had met together in upstate New York. The FBI collected information on all the individuals identified at the meeting, confirming the existence of a national organized-crime network. However, it was not until an FBI Agent persuaded mob insider Joseph Valachi to testify that the public learned firsthand of the nature of La Cosa Nostra, the American "mafia."

This is a photograph of J. Edgar Hoover with local officials at the 1964 reopening of the Jackson FBI Office.On the heels of Valachi's disclosures, Congress passed two new laws to strengthen federal racketeering and gambling statutes that had been passed in the 1950s and early 1960s to aid the Bureau's fight against mob influence. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 provided for the use of court-ordered electronic surveillance in the investigation of certain specified violations. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Statute of 1970 allowed organized groups to be prosecuted for all of their diverse criminal activities, without the crimes being linked by a perpetrator or all-encompassing conspiracy. Along with greater use of Agents for undercover work by the late 1970s, these provisions helped the FBI develop cases that, in the 1980s, put almost all the major traditional crime family heads in prison.

By the end of the 1960s, the Bureau employed 6,703 Special Agents and 9,320 Support Personnel in 58 field offices and twelve Legal Attache offices.

A national tragedy produced another expansion of FBI jurisdiction. When President Kennedy was assassinated, the crime was a local homicide; no federal law addressed the murder of a President. Nevertheless, President Lyndon B. Johnson tasked the Bureau with conducting the investigation. Congress then passed a new law to ensure that any such act in the future would be a federal crime.

Directors Then and Now
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