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Before an audience of agency recruits, longtime FBI agent John Michael "Chip" Hardesty relates the history of the agency as he has experienced it: In 1924, before the FBI is actually a government bureau, Chip and his colleague, Sam Crandall, learn that their ineffective and highly politicized organization has a new director, J. Edgar Hoover. That afternoon, Chip proposes to his sweetheart, a pretty Tennessee librarian named Lucy. Before she accepts, she exacts a promise from him that, directly after he meets the new director on their post-honeymoon trip to Washington, D.C., he will resign from the Bureau, which she considers too unrewarding for a brilliant young lawyer like Chip. The newlyweds join Sam on the train to Washington, and are surprised when Sam makes an emotional plea for Chip to remain in the FBI, which he believes could be an effective crime-fighting force under its new leader. Chip is so moved by Hoover's first speech to the agents, an address that demonstrates the director's fire and drive, that he decides to remain in the Bureau for several more years. Disappointed but determined to support her husband, Lucy agrees to the plan, and the next day, the couple is sent south to investigate the terrorist activities of the Ku Klux Klan. On the night Lucy gives birth to their first child, Mike, Chip and Sam finally arrest the Klansmen as they attempt to destroy a newspaper and murder its editor. During the next few years, Chip tackles assignments in various parts of the country while Lucy has two more children, Anne and Jennie. The Hardesty family then settles in Ute City, Oklahoma, as Chip tries to discover who is murdering local Osage Indians, a poor band made suddenly wealthy by the discovery of oil deposits on their land. The Indians fall prey to a veritable circus of salesmen, who peddle everything from patent medicines to casket linings in "official Osage colors." On the night Chip finally arrests white banker Dwight McCutcheon and his nephew for murdering rich Indians and then quietly appropriating their estates, Lucy suffers a miscarriage, and Chip promises to take the family away from "this God-forsaken place." His following assignments take them to the Midwest, where the FBI has begun to track down dangerous gangsters such as Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger and Ma Barker. After Congress allows the FBI to arm its agents, Sam is killed in a gun battle, leaving a young son named George behind. As the Bureau intensifies its war on the underworld and more agents lose their lives, Lucy's concern for Chip's safety becomes too much for her to bear, and she begs him to resign. When he refuses, she takes the children to live with her parents in Tennessee. Several months pass, and finally, Lucy realizes what her husband and children already know: the family must be reunited. On the very day on which she brings the children home, however, Chip is reassigned and the family moves to Washington, D.C. Years later, during World War II, thousands of agents are accepted into the FBI and instructed to round up "enemy aliens." One of the recruits is Sam's son George, who, while struggling through the Bureau's rigorous training program, becomes seriously involved with Chip's daughter Anne, now an attractive young woman. Young Mike Hardesty joins the Marines and is sent to the Pacific, and Chip is dispatched to Argentina to aid in the interception of coded submarine messages. George is stationed in the jungle there, and he, Chip and a heroic agent named Mario are forced to flee approaching federales . In 1945, the Hardesty family is grieved to learn that Mike has been killed during the landings at Iwo Jima. Following the war, the FBI faces a new threat: international Communism. Using its extensive lab facilities and research capabilities, the FBI tracks down and arrests spies. Chip directs one such case from his desk in Washington. With the help of telephones and radios, the veteran agent coordinates the extended pursuit and ultimate arrest of two New York-based Communist spies. The story of his adventurous life with the FBI over, Chip concludes the day's lecture and joins his waiting family, which now includes a grandson named Mike. Their drive takes them past several of Washington's most famous monuments to freedom, including the sculpture commemorating the landing at Iwo Jima.