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FBI History
History of the FBI

Vietnam War Era: 1960's - 1970's

President Kennedy's assassination introduced the violent aspect of the era known as the "Sixties." This period, which actually lasted into the mid-1970s, was characterized by idealism, but also by increased urban crime and a propensity for some groups to resort to violence in challenging the "establishment."

Most Americans objecting to involvement in Vietnam or to other policies wrote to Congress or carried peace signs in orderly demonstrations. Nevertheless, in 1970 alone, an estimated 3,000 bombings and 50,000 bomb threats occurred in the United States.

Opposition to the war in Vietnam brought together numerous anti-establishment groups and gave them a common goal. The convergence of crime, violence, civil rights issues, and potential national security issues ensured that the FBI played a significant role during this troubled period.

Presidents Johnson and Nixon and Director Hoover shared with many Americans a perception of the potential dangers to this country from some who opposed its policies in Vietnam. As Hoover observed in a 1966 PTA Magazine article, the United States was confronted with "a new style in conspiracy--conspiracy that is extremely subtle and devious and hence difficult to understand...a conspiracy reflected by questionable moods and attitudes, by unrestrained individualism, by nonconformism in dress and speech, even by obscene language, rather than by formal membership in specific organizations."

The New Left movement's "romance with violence" involved, among others, four young men living in Madison, Wisconsin. Antiwar sentiment was widespread at the University of Wisconsin (UW), where two of them were students. During the very early morning of August 24, 1970, the four used a powerful homemade bomb to blow up Sterling Hall, which housed the Army Math Research Center at UW. A graduate student was killed and three others were injured.

That crime occurred a few months after National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded several others during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University. The FBI investigated both incidents. Together, these events helped end the "romance with violence" for all but a handful of hardcore New Left revolutionaries. Draft dodging and property damage had been tolerable to many antiwar sympathizers. Deaths were not.

By 1971, with few exceptions, the most extreme members of the antiwar movement concentrated on more peaceable, yet still radical tactics, such as the clandestine publication of The Pentagon Papers. However, the violent Weathermen and its successor groups continued to challenge the FBI into the 1980s.

This is a photograph of J. Edgar HooverNo specific guidelines for FBI Agents covering national security investigations had been developed by the Administration or Congress; these, in fact, were not issued until 1976. Therefore, the FBI addressed the threats from the militant "New Left" as it had those from Communists in the 1950s and the KKK in the 1960s. It used both traditional investigative techniques and counterintelligence programs ("Cointelpro") to counteract domestic terrorism and conduct investigations of individuals and organizations who threatened terroristic violence. Wiretapping and other intrusive techniques were discouraged by Hoover in the mid-1960s and eventually were forbidden completely unless they conformed to the Omnibus Crime Control Act. Hoover formally terminated all "Cointelpro" operations on April 28, 1971.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover died on May 2, 1972, just shy of 48 years as the FBI Director. He was 77. The next day his body lay in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol, an honor accorded only 21 other Americans.

This is a photograph of Clarence KelleyHoover's successor would have to contend with the complex turmoil of that troubled time. In 1972, unlike 1924 when Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone selected Hoover, the President appointed the FBI Director with confirmation by the Senate. President Nixon appointed L. Patrick Gray as Acting Director the day after Hoover's death. After retiring from a distinguished Naval career, Gray had continued in public service as the Department of Justice's Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division. As Acting Director, Gray appointed the first women as Special Agents since the 1920s.

Shortly after Gray became Acting Director, five men were arrested photographing documents at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The break-in had been authorized by Republican Party officials. Within hours, the White House began its effort to cover up its role, and the new Acting FBI Director was inadvertently drawn into it. FBI Agents undertook a thorough investigation of the break-in and related events. However, when Gray's questionable personal role was revealed, he withdrew his name from the Senate's consideration to be Director. He was replaced hours after he resigned on April 27, 1973, by William Ruckleshaus, a former Congressman and the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who remained until Clarence Kelley's appointment as Director on July 9, 1973. Kelley (pictured left), who was Kansas City Police Chief when he received the appointment, had been an FBI Agent from 1940 to 1961.

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