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