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Roosevelt's Address on the "Fifth Column"

Roosevelt Fifth Column
US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)
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tags: politics of fear

type: Newsreel

Nazi Germany's invasion of northern and western Europe in the spring of 1940 deeply shocked Americans. Many credited the fall of France in less than six weeks not to military weakness, but to the weakness and panic created by a Nazi "Fifth Column."1 The rapid German victory increased fears of subversion and foreign propaganda at home in the United States. It was widely believed that the Nazi "Fifth Column" served as the advance force of the German military, paving the way for invasion.

Even before the French army surrendered, President Franklin Roosevelt took to the airwaves on May 26, 1940, to assure the American people of the country’s military preparedness and to criticize those who closed their eyes to what was happening in Europe. But just as importantly, he stoked fear, warning of a growing threat to American security: "the Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery."2

According to Roosevelt’s address, a portion of which is featured here, the methods of these "spies and saboteurs" was "to create confusion of counsel, public indecision, political paralysis and, eventually, a state of panic.... The unity of the State can be sapped so that its strength is destroyed."

Roosevelt’s statements about a Nazi "Fifth Column" in the United States, which were echoed by other politicians and media, generated widespread public concern. At a press conference in May, several reporters questioned the president about the growing "hysteria" concerning the "Fifth Column" in America. One journalist even asked whether he and other government officials bore some responsibility for the panic, and questioned the existence of such anti-state forces. As proof, Roosevelt reported that members of a "Fifth Column" had attempted to destroy tools in over forty US factories.3

The widespread fear of a Nazi "Fifth Column" had both predictable and unforeseen consequences. Suspicion fell upon those deemed "foreign" or unpatriotic, such as undocumented residents in the United States; Jehovah's Witnesses; American citizens of German, Italian, and Japanese descent; and refugees trying to get into the country.4 US officials worried that the situation might boil over, noting that it could be necessary for the government to pressure local and state officials to maintain order.5

This term dates back to the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), and is attributed to Nationalist general Emilio Mola who reportedly announced that he was sending four military columns to advance on Madrid and had one column of sympathizers and agents operating inside the city to aid the revolt. It quickly entered into the popular vocabulary through the world press, film, and a play of the same name by Ernest Hemingway.

Roosevelt reiterated the message of his May 26, 1940 television broadcast in a radio address that day.  See “Fireside Chat on National Defense,” May 26, 1940 in Nothing to Fear: The Selected Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932—1945, ed. Ben D. Zevin, (New York: Popular Library, 1961), 215-224. For more on Roosevelt and the question of a potential US entry into the war, see Steven Casey, Cautious Crusade: Franklin D. Roosevelt, American Public Opinion, and the War Against Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

See Press Conference Held with Representatives of the American Youth Congress in the State Dining Room of the White House, June 5, 1940, 8:50 pm.

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, more than 110,000 people with Japanese heritage—the majority of them American citizens—were imprisoned indefinitely in internment camps. For more on Japanese internment, see also the Densho documentary project

See the entry for Saturday, June 15, 1940, in The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, vol. III (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955), 208-212.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA)
RG Number 60.3033
Date Created
May 26, 1940
Duration 00:01:09
Sound Yes
Reference Location
Moving Image Type Newsreel
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