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