The Fifth Column—Can History Repeat?

Origin of the term and its impact

For those unfamiliar with the term, a fifth column refers to a group of subversive people who undermine their own country by any overt or clandestine means to collaborate with an enemy. The term originated in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War when troops of the fascist General Francisco Franco were marching on the Capital, Madrid. Someone remarked that there were four columns of troops marching on the city and a fifth column of rebel sympathizers within the City that would join them when they entered the Capital.

Nazi Germany’s fifth column played a major role in the period preceding the Second World War. When hostilities actually began, the seeds planted years before flourished, facilitating the swift capture and occupation of France and other European countries. How that happened is a matter of history. But since the fifth column’s efforts began in a period of peace, perhaps there are lessons to be applied today? Can a fifth column arise and attempt to undermine this country’s democracy and security? To answer that question let’s look at a brief summary of what history reveals about the Nazi’s fifth column.

President Franklin Roosevelt and William Donovan

In May 1940, after the fall of France to Nazi Germany, President Franklin Roosevelt convened his cabinet. He raised questions about Great Britain’s ability to remain in the war and the best way to help. Recognizing the role the fifth column played in France’s downfall, and keenly aware of the possibility of the United States’ entry into the war, the cabinet also wanted to know how to prevent a fifth column from operating within its own borders.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., Joseph Kennedy, was the likely candidate to gather this information, but President Roosevelt did not trust him. Kennedy had consistently conveyed his belief that Britain was finished, democracy there was dead and generally projected a “defeatist attitude.” Roosevelt did not expect him to provide an honest appraisal and looked instead to one of his political enemies, William Donovan (later to head the OSS, forerunner of the CIA). A highly decorated and celebrated veteran, Donovan was known as “Wild” Bill, from his heroic exploits during the First World War. He was also a lawyer, Republican and possible Presidential candidate to run against Roosevelt. But he was foremost a patriot and shared Roosevelt’s concerns about Germany and the likelihood that the U.S. would be drawn into the war.

Donovan goes to Europe

So Donovan went off to Europe. At that time the U.S. was a “non belligerent” in the war, which made it possible for him to visit not only Britain, but also Germany and other defeated countries then under Nazi occupation. In Germany and the occupied countries he met with many of the contacts he had made as a lawyer representing different business interests after the First World War. In Britain he conferred with all key American and British intelligence and defense officials (without Ambassador Kennedy’s knowledge). While there, he also met with Edgar Ansel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News, considered one of the top foreign correspondents of the time, who had fled from Paris at the time of the Blitzkrieg. Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox had asked Mowrer to work with Donovan and share the information each had assembled.

Given his background in the military, business and law, and his interest in intelligence, Donovan was able to assimilate the information he and Mowrer had gathered, and presented a report to the President. His optimistic conclusion that Britain was not about to surrender, but could continue the battle with American support was instrumental in Roosevelt’s decision to do so. Equally important was what he learned about the German utilization of the fifth column in France and other occupied countries that paved the way for the Nazi armies that followed.

Introduction to the public report by Donovan and Mowrer

Roosevelt and Knox asked Donovan to alert Americans to the danger of a fifth column by working with Mowrer to write a series of newspaper articles. These were later published by the American Council of Public Affairs as Fifth Column Lessons for AmericaSecretary Knox wrote the introduction in which he summarized the objectives of propaganda:

“. . . to create confusion of thought, suspicion and dissension among the masses in order to weaken their morale and lower the stamina of the people.”

“. . . to incite jealousy and antagonism between different classes of society as well as between various political, racial and religious groups. . . . an effective means of weakening a country, by disrupting its unity of purpose and action.”

“. . .to retard any effective preparation for defense.”

“Those personal privileges which in our democracy we value so highly—freedom of speech and of the press—make us particularly vulnerable to this new form of warfare. It represents a new and a grave danger for a self-governing country which springs from many nationalities.”

Knox completed his introduction with the following. “I regard the defense against enemy propaganda as second only to defense against enemy armaments.”

The public report by Donovan and Mowrer

The authors provided a detailed analysis of the fifth column’s work in each of the countries then occupied by Nazi Germany. If you are interested in these historical details, I recommend that you read the report, following the link above. But here we look only at a few of their overall salient points.

They attributed the fifth column’s success in France to Hitler’s planted agents, who for years had “patiently worked with French leaders. When necessary they were assisted by beautiful women.” But then they raise the question:

“How above all can foreigners living under relatively mild and civilized governments be induced voluntarily to betray their own countries for Hitler’s Germany? . . . The answer is $200,000,000 spent annually on organization and propaganda abroad. . . . Often they publicly mix in the politics of the country to which they [diplomatic and consular agents] are accredited. . . . Special attention is furthermore given to winning over possible Nazi friends on the local press and combatting or bringing into disrepute newspapers and periodicals that oppose Hitler.”

They cite Hitler’s comments, “The results at which I aim are only to be attained by the systematic corruption of the possessing and governing classes. Business advantages, erotic satisfactions and ambition, are the three main stops in our propaganda organ.”

Society today

With this historical background, let’s look at the elements of a fifth column that are actually present in society today.

Dissension, jealousy and antagonism between different classes of society as well as between various political, racial and religious groups.

Attacks on the free press.

Attacks on key institutions of democracy like the FBI and judiciary.

Absence of a coordinated defense against cyber attacks by a known adversary.

Attacks on allies and NATO while praising our adversary.

Attacks on trading partners.

Corruption of institutions and individuals by providing business advantages or satisfying ambition.

Leader of the fifth column

There is only one person who can be held responsible for these actions. One man who has created his own personal fifth column in service of a foreign adversary. That one man is the President of the United States, Donald Trump.

We no longer have the option of ignoring the lessons of history. It is time for the Congress of the United States to hold him accountable; at the very least to prevent him from causing further damage. Forewarned should be forearmed.

Remember the words of Sir Winston Churchill in a 1948 speech to the British House of Commons, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”



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