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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 propaganda

type: Newsreel

Nazi Germany's rapid invasion of northern and western Europe in the spring of 1940 deeply shocked Americans. Many blamed the rapid fall of France not on military factors, but on the weakness and panic created by a suspected Nazi "Fifth Column" that undermined French resistance.1 The swift German victory increased fears of subversion and foreign propaganda at home in the United States. It was widely believed that a Nazi "Fifth Column" served as the advance force of the German military, paving the way for the invasion through propaganda and sabotage.

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt took to the airwaves on May 26, 1940—before the French army had even surrendered—to criticize those who closed their eyes to what was happening in Europe. He also warned of a potential 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 panic concerning a "Fifth Column" in America. One journalist even asked whether he and other government officials bore some responsibility for the panic, and questioned whether any threat really existed. 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 predictable as well as unforeseen consequences. Suspicion fell upon those deemed to be "foreign" or unpatriotic, such as refugees, recent immigrants, or undocumented residents of the United States. Jehovah's Witnesses and American citizens of German, Italian, or Japanese descent were also viewed with skepticism.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, films, 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. To learn more about Japanese American internment during World War II, see 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
Language(s)
English
Location
Washington, DC
Moving Image Type Newsreel
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