Journalist Pete Hamill liked to tell the story of the time (before he quit drinking) when he and another writer were drinking together in a New York City saloon, back in the late 1970s. After having consumed a sufficient amount of alcohol, the two of them decided to write down on a cocktail napkin the names of the three individuals they considered to be "the most evil men" in the history of the world. Clearly, a tall order.
After writing down their choices, they swapped napkins, and were surprised to discover that each had not only written the names of the same three men, but they had placed them in identical order: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Walter O'Malley.
For those unfamiliar with baseball history, Walther O'Malley was the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the man who, in 1958, uprooted the team from Brooklyn and relocated it in Los Angeles, a move that broke the hearts of a million New York baseball fans. Although the inclusion of O'Malley was obviously done tongue-in-cheek, it was clear that, even two decades later, Hamill and his buddy were unwilling to forgive.
Over the years, friends and I have conducted the same silly exercise--silly because anything as reductive, arbitrary and subjective as this is bound to be a waste of time. But silly or not, we have asked people (young and old, from varying backgrounds) to name who they thought was the single "most evil" American in history. The results were revealing.
Among those named were: Richard Nixon, Tim Leary (blamed for having "introduced drugs" to America), Charles Manson, Senator Joe McCarthy, Dick Cheney, John D. Rockefeller, Julius Rosenberg, William Randolph Hearst, George Custer, and Earl Warren. Someone actually named the Beatles (claiming they had "undermined" America's youth), which was an odd choice, given that the Beatles were a group and not an individual, and were British, not Americans.
Although my own choice wasn't mentioned, I would challenge anyone to name a more "evil" American. Indeed, the argument can be made that the person I have in mind not only did more damage to more good people--ruined more careers and more decent lives--but single-handedly demonized the political conversation that was going on in this country at a time when such a conversation could have actually made a difference. The person I have in mind is J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI from 1935 until his death in 1972.
According to everything I've read about Hoover, his power--both official and "unofficial"--was staggering, almost unfathomable. The following is a quote from President Truman, back before Hoover had even hit his stride. "We want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him."
Not only did Hoover have the political power to smear as "subversive" anyone who expressed a remotely leftist or European Socialist point of view, he compiled secret dossiers on hundreds of influential Americans, dossiers that prevented anyone (including U.S. Presidents) from ever standing on their hind legs and launching a campaign to unseat him. Hoover was a true "Untouchable." I defy anyone to name a more "evil" American.
David Macaray is a playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition). He can be reached at Dmacaray@gmail.com