Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front

Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front

Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front

Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front


Nazi Germany's efforts to weaken the United States by subversion failed miserably. Bungling spies were captured and half-hearted efforts at sabotage came to nothing. Yet anyone who lived through WWII remembers the chilling posters warning Americans that "Enemy Agents Have Big Ears" and "Loose Lips Sink Ships." Even Superman joined the struggle against these insidious foes. In 1940, polls showed that 71% of Americans believed a Nazi Fifth Column had penetrated the country. Almost half were convinced that spies, saboteurs, dupes, and rumor-mongers lurked in their own neighborhoods and work-places. These fears extended to the White House and Congress. In this book, Francis MacDonnell explains the origins and consequences of America's Fifth Column panic, arguing that conviction and expedience encouraged President Roosevelt, the FBI, Congressmen, Churchill's government, and Hollywood to legitimate and exacerbate American's fears. Gravely weakening the isolationists, fostering Congress's role in rooting out Un-American activities, and instigating the creation of the modern intelligence establishment, the Fifth Column scare did far more than sell movie tickets, comic books, and pulp fiction. Insidious Foes traces the panic from its origins in the minds of reasonable Americans who saw the vulnerability of their open society in an age of encroaching totalitarianism.


From 1938 to 1942 stories of the Axis Fifth Column inundated America. Fears about a hidden enemy boring from within and preparing the way for a hostile invasion extended from the White House to the public at large. In reality, Axis operations in the United States never amounted to much, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation easily countered the "Trojan Horse" activity that did exist. Nevertheless, by the time of United States entry into the Second World War the Fifth Column scare had deeply penetrated the nation's psyche. This study outlines the origins, evolution, and collapse of the hysteria, and it explains the causes and consequences of the panic.

The term "Fifth Column" originated during the Spanish Civil War. It was said to have first been used by the Nationalist general Emilio de Mola. During a radio broadcast in September 1936, Mola allegedly announced that four separate columns were advancing on Madrid, one from the south, another from the southwest, a third from the west, and a fourth from the northwest. He added that a fifth column was making ready to erupt from within the capital city.

Foreign agents, domestic traitors, and enemy dupes would form the backbone of a Fifth Column force. It would employ espionage, sabotage, and subversion in order to leave its host country demoralized, divided, and militarily unprepared for war. In the event of an actual invasion, Trojan Horse operatives would assist the enemies' regular troops. The Fifth Column came to be viewed as a favorite technique not only of Franco's Nationalists but also of several totalitarian regimes. At one time or another, the world press accused Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, and Germany of seeking to undermine their adversaries from within.

While many authoritarian powers were thought to employ a Fifth Column, the term was most strongly associated with Nazi Germany. Hitler's series of triumphs, especially his blitzkrieg victories in the spring of 1940, seemed explicable to many observers worldwide only as the . . .

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