The Shadow War: How a conflict between the FBI and CIA spilled out onto the streets of America (Part One)

Following the Second World War, the American government would be rocked by a conflict between two of its most powerful agencies; the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Although part of the problem was down to jurisdiction, with the two sharing an overlapping remit of national security, the key driver was ideological. At the head of the FBI sat J. Edgar Hoover, a staunch traditionalist who had dedicated his life to preserving his conservative image of America. As a result, he clashed with the more liberal orientation of the CIA, with the resulting attempts by both to shape American society blowing up into political chaos across the United States.

In practice, Hoover’s conservatism aligned the FBI with the established systems of power in America’s big cities. Known as political machines, these networks of patronage had emerged towards the end of the 19th century amid waves of mass immigration from countries such as Ireland and Italy. In doing so, the new arrivals had displaced the existing ruling caste, who traced their lineage back to the country’s founding settlers, and accurately viewed the rise of the political machines as a threat to their power. As it happened, the CIA was largely staffed by men from these more elite backgrounds, with the agency recruiting heavily from Ivy League universities such as Yale.

Back in the 1930s, this conflict had subsided as both the political machines and the elite reformists grappled with the crises of economic depression, working-class radicalism, and the onset of global war. After the crisis passed however, the two would see their rivalry come back into focus, sharpened further by the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947. For years, Hoover had used the unique powers of the FBI to influence politics. Now, he had a rival. Moving quickly to attack, Hoover leaked information about supposed Communist infiltrators in the CIA, along with other liberal agencies of the federal government, to more public figures such as Senator Joe McCarthy.

This initial skirmish, which saw Hoover assert himself to the newly-created CIA, reflects the difference between the two organisations. In the case of the FBI, their intention was to immediately stamp out the Communist Party by force. Over in the CIA however, their approach was to win over the Communists, diverting them away from Marxism and towards more humanistic philosophies which were less of a threat to capitalism. Moreover, while the immediate powers of the FBI allowed it to score a quick win, the more diverse abilities of the CIA meant it was able to slowly build up its influence in the approaching years.



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