Professor Charles is an historian of the United States (broadly speaking) who researches and publishes on the history of the FBI. He has focused on its intersections with gay and lesbian history, political surveillance, British intelligence, obscenity regulation, and American politics and diplomacy. He’s currently writing a history of the FBI pre-1908 to 2018; it is meant to be a synthesis of FBI scholarship plus original research. He is also co-editing an FBI encyclopedia for ABC-CLIO.
A leading historian of the FBI and public scholar, he’s written three books on the Bureau, numerous articles, and has appeared on C-SPAN, NPR’s “All Things Considered” & “On Point,” NY Public Radio’s “The Take Away,” Australian radio’s “Rear Vision,” the History Channel, and in a Yahoo News documentary. He has also given talks across the United States and in Europe. Dr. Charles has been interviewed & referenced in the New York Times (3x), Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Le Parisien Magazine, La Croix, de Volksrants (Netherlands), Folha de S. Paulo (Brazil), Business Standard (India), Australian Broadcasting Corp., NBC News, Yahoo News, Time Magazine, and PBS News Hour while contributing multiple OpEd and historical pieces as a public scholar to illuminate popular understanding of contemporary events.
My interest in history began, I suppose, with the stories my grandparents and other relatives told me when I was a child. My paternal grandfather served in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War flying aboard blimps that searched for Japanese subs out of Mountain View, California. My maternal grandfather was a foreman in a Western PA steel mill and told me many stories about working there and all sorts of other tales. (During summers and one winter while in college I had the opportunity of working in the same steel mill, experiencing what that life was like. I worked on this milling machine (a tandem mill) one summer; it was awful.) I learned his father, my great grandfather, died in the 1918 influenza epidemic when his son was only 5. My grandmother described her and her family moving to our area, driving in what must have been a Model T with flaps as side windows. My other grandmother explained to me once about the communist relatives she didn’t like very much — they just asked for money in correspondence — who lived in Yugoslavia. Later, I learned that my step-great grandfather served in the First World War in northern Russia helping to stem the success of the Red Army during the Bolshevik Revolution; I even found out the compass my grandfather gave me was, in fact, his step father’s from the war. I even vividly remember the bicentennial of the United States in 1976 — when I was but 4 years old — having a picnic, playing carnival games, wearing a plastic, blue tri-cornered hat, and watching the fireworks over the local elementary school. I later seemed to enjoy “social studies” (whatever that is?) in elementary school, when I believed historians were people who each day wrote down what happened so we all knew about it! Cementing all of this must have been my first trip to Europe (France) with my High School French Club, which was an eye-opening historical experience for a naive and otherwise provincial 17 year-old from Western Pennsylvania.
Today, I am an historian of the United States with a focus on the FBI and its political surveillance activities, interest in obscenity, and targeting of gays and lesbians. My research interests began very early in my education: in my 7th grade history class. My teacher had a Great Moments in History day every Friday, and I was introduced to the aviator Charles Lindbergh. The vivid and exciting presentation stuck in my head. When, as a first-generation college student, I took my undergraduate US history survey course I then learned that Lindbergh had opposed US entrance into World War II. Fascinated, and probably in part because my grandparents were of the WWII generation, I resolved that when I took an upper-level course I would write a paper on this. I did exactly this, and in my research discovered the FBI had investigated Lindbergh, but we knew very little about it. As an enterprising history major, mostly on my own but with help from a history faculty member, I submitted an FOIA request to the FBI and acquired Lindbergh’s file with only a few weeks left in the semester. I brought the file to my (other) professor asking for an extension to work it into my paper and, stunned, he permitted it. (I still recall the moment bringing a heavy box of FBI file into class, plopping it down, and asking to be allowed to add it in. If that happened to me, as a professor today, I would probably fall over.) This then evolved into an independent study project to further dig into the FBI and Lindbergh and this is where my passion for FBI history was born. I read all the major FBI literature, wrote a thesis-length paper, and then reworked it and submitted it for publication. It became my first academic article published in The Historian in 1997 by the time I was in grad school.
The FBI then became my professional research focus, which led me to study with Athan Theoharis for my master’s degree at Marquette University. It’s funny looking back on how innocent I was not fully understanding I should apply to grad schools where the top scholars were located! At Marquette, I expanded my Lindbergh-FBI interest to the broader anti-interventionist movement, its opposition to FDR’s foreign policy, and the FBI. My MA thesis became my second major academic article in the leading journal Diplomatic History (2000). My interests ultimately led me to Scotland where I took my PhD at Edinburgh University studying with FBI and CIA historian Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, expanding my previous research and including the FBI’s liaison with British intelligence. I was even lucky enough that leading British intelligence scholar David Stafford was also there, and served on my committee. My dissertation became my first book, J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Interventionsts: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State (2007), with Ohio State University Press.
My post-dissertation research began by examining the FBI’s obsession and investigation of gays and lesbians. In the midst of this work, on a lark, I requested the FBI’s Obscene File (knowing its physical file of obscene items had been destroyed) to see what I might glean from the FBI. I received a batch of files from the FBI, which I soon realized was the previously unknown yet extant administrative file of the Obscene File. Believing this warranted its own study, and was necessary prior to continuing my FBI and gays work (it contained gay-related information), I wrote a book about it: The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade Against Smut (2012). Subsequently, I returned to my FBI and gays research, about which the literature was widely scattered and incomplete. My goal was to bring everything we knew about it together, with original research, to merge the separate fields of FBI history and LGBT history. I acquired all the relevant FBI files I knew existed on the topic – from targeted individuals and organizations to FBI policy files – and learned about and acquired more, including archival research. Along the way, I published two articles on the FBI monitoring of the homophile movement and one of its leaders, Harry Hay, as early results of my research in The Journal of the History of Sexuality and American Communist History. For my book project, I even discovered the previously believed destroyed FBI Sex Deviates Program policy memo, a significant document (and wildly exciting, heart-pumping discovery), which became the core of my book, Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program, finished and published in 2015 after I received tenure.
I’ve since published another article – in The Historian 20 years after the first(!) – completing my research on gay activist Jack Nichols and his FBI agent father I first uncovered for the book, but was unable to resolve due to slow FBI document responses. I also published a book chapter examining the FBI’s public educational efforts centered on “morality” and how this unfolded in similar and dissimilar ways in both the FBI’s efforts targeting gays and obscenity. From this point, as I see it, my next logical research project, and the one I am currently writing, is a history of the FBI bringing together as a synthesis all of the relevant literature. (I’ve written 4 chapters.) I’ve also signed a contract to co-edit a two-volume FBI encyclopedia that will include primary documents with ABC-CLIO (due in 2021). After this I plan to write a comparative history of the FBI and British MI-5, organizations with roughly parallel histories and interests.
My work has drawn significant public and media attention in the U.S. and around the globe. I was invited to participate in a Yahoo News documentary on government repression of gays, gave a book talk on C-SPAN, wrote 8 OpEds for The Conversation, and was cited 3 times in the New York Times and once in Washington Post, among other outlets. I’ve also been interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered, The Takeaway, and for Detroit Public Radio. Internationally, I was interviewed about recent FBI news by Le Parisien Magazine, deVolksrant, Folha de S. Paulo, La Croix, Elsevier Weekblad, and Australian national radio.