WORLD WAR II PERIOD
Germany, Italy, and Japan embarked on an unchecked series of invasions
during the late 1930s. Hitler and Mussolini supported the Spanish Falangists
in their successful civil war against the "Loyalist" Spanish government
(1937-39). Although many Europeans and North Americans considered the
Spanish Civil War an opportunity to destroy Fascism, the United States,
Great Britain, and France remained neutral; only Russia supported the
Loyalists. To the shock of those who admired Russia for its active
opposition to Fascism, Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression pact in
August 1939. The following month, Hitler seized Poland, and Russia took
Finland and the Baltic States. Great Britain and France declared war on
Germany, which formed the "Axis" with Japan and Italy--and World War II
began. The United States, however, continued to adhere to the neutrality
acts it had passed in the mid-1930s.
As these events unfolded in Europe, the American Depression continued. The
Depression provided as fertile an environment for radicalism in the United
States as it did in Europe. European Fascists had their counterparts and
supporters in the United States in the German-American Bund, the Silver
Shirts, and similar groups. At the same time, labor unrest, racial
disturbances, and sympathy for the Spanish Loyalists presented an
unparalleled opportunity for the American Communist Party to gain adherents.
The FBI was alert to these Fascist and Communist groups as threats to
Authority to investigate these organizations came in 1936 with President
Roosevelt's authorization through Secretary of State Cordell Hull. A 1939
Presidential Directive further strengthened the FBI's authority to
investigate subversives in the United States, and Congress reinforced it by
passing the Smith Act in 1940, outlawing advocacy of violent overthrow of
With the actual outbreak of war in 1939, the responsibilities of the FBI
escalated. Subversion, sabotage, and espionage became major concerns. In
addition to Agents trained in general intelligence work, at least one Agent
trained in defense plant protection was placed in each of the FBI's 42 field
offices. The FBI also developed a network of informational sources, often
using members of fraternal or veterans' organizations. With leads developed
by these intelligence networks and through their own work, Special Agents
investigated potential threats to national security.
Great Britain stood virtually alone against the Axis powers after France
fell to the Germans in 1940. An Axis victory in Europe and Asia would
threaten democracy in North America. Because of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the
American Communist Party and its sympathizers posed a double-edged threat to
American interests. Under the direction of Russia, the American Communist
Party vigorously advocated continued neutrality for the United States.
In 1940 and 1941, the United States moved further and further away from
neutrality, actively aiding the Allies. In late 1940, Congress reestablished
the draft. The FBI was responsible for locating draft evaders and deserters.
Without warning, the Germans attacked Russia on June 22, 1941. Thereafter,
the FBI focused its internal security efforts on potentially dangerous
German, Italian, and Japanese nationals as well as native-born Americans
whose beliefs and activities aided the Axis powers.
The FBI also participated in intelligence collection. Here the Technical
Laboratory played a pioneering role. Its highly skilled and inventive staff
cooperated with engineers, scientists, and cryptographers in other agencies
to enable the United States to penetrate and sometimes control the flow of
information from the belligerents in the Western Hemisphere.
Sabotage investigations were another FBI responsibility. In June 1942, a
major, yet unsuccessful, attempt at sabotage was made on American soil. Two
German submarines let off four saboteurs each at Amagansett, Long Island,
and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. These men had been trained by Germany in
explosives, chemistry, secret writing, and how to blend into American
surroundings. While still in German clothes, the New York group encountered
a Coast Guard sentinel patrolling the beach, who ultimately allowed them to
pass. However, afraid of capture, saboteur George Dasch turned himself
in--and assisted the FBI in locating and arresting the rest of the team.
All were tried shortly afterward by a military tribunal and found guilty.
Six who did not cooperate with the U.S. Government were executed a few days
later. The others were sentenced to life imprisonment, but were returned to
Germany after the war. The swift capture of these Nazi saboteurs helped to
allay fear of Axis subversion and bolstered Americans' faith in the FBI.
Even before U.S. entry into the War, the FBI uncovered a major espionage
ring. This group, the Frederick Duquesne spy ring, was the largest one
discovered up to that time. The FBI was assisted by a loyal American with
German relatives who acted as a double agent. For nearly two years the FBI
ran a radio station for him, learning what Germany was sending to its spies
in the United States while controlling the information that was being
transmitted to Germany. The investigation led to the arrest and conviction
of 33 spies.
War for the United States began December 7, 1941, when Japanese armed forces
attacked ships and facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States
immediately declared war on Japan, and the next day Germany and Italy
declared war on the United States. By 9:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, on
December 7, the FBI was in a wartime mode. FBI Headquarters and the 54 field
offices were placed on 24-hour schedules. On December 7 and 8, the FBI
arrested previously identified aliens who threatened national security and
turned them over to military or immigration authorities.
At this time, the FBI augmented its Agent force with National Academy
graduates, who took an abbreviated training course. As a result, the total
number of FBI employees rose from 7,400 to over 13,000, including
approximately 4,000 Agents, by the end of 1943.
Traditional war-related investigations did not occupy all the FBI's time.
For example, the Bureau continued to carry out civil rights investigations.
Segregation, which was legal at the time, was the rule in the Armed Services
and in virtually the entire defense industry in the 1940s. Under pressure
from African-American organizations, the President appointed a Fair
Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). The FEPC had no enforcement
authority. However, the FBI could arrest individuals who impeded the war
effort. The Bureau assisted the FEPC when a Philadelphia transit workers'
union went out on strike against an FEPC desegregation order. The strike
ended when it appeared that the FBI was about to arrest its leaders.
The most serious discrimination during World War II was the decision to
evacuate Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent from
the West Coast and send them to internment camps. Because the FBI had
arrested the individuals whom it considered security threats, FBI Director
Hoover took the position that confining others was unnecessary. The
President and Attorney General, however, chose to support the military
assessment that evacuation and internment were imperative. Ultimately, the
FBI became responsible for arresting curfew and evacuation violators.
While most FBI personnel during the war worked traditional war-related or
criminal cases, one contingent of Agents was unique. Separated from Bureau
rolls, these Agents, with the help of FBI Legal Attaches, composed the
Special Intelligence Service (SIS) in Latin America. Established by
President Roosevelt in 1940, the SIS was to provide information on Axis
activities in South America and to destroy its intelligence and propaganda
networks. Several hundred thousand Germans or German descendants and
numerous Japanese lived in South America. They provided pro-Axis pressure
and cover for Axis communications facilities. Nevertheless, in every South
American country, the SIS was instrumental in bringing about a situation in
which, by 1944, continued support for the Nazis became intolerable or
In April 1945, President Roosevelt died, and Vice President Harry Truman
took office as President. Before the end of the month, Hitler committed
suicide and the German commander in Italy surrendered. Although the May 1945
surrender of Germany ended the war in Europe, war continued in the Pacific
until August 14, 1945.
The world that the FBI faced in September 1945 was very different from the
world of 1939 when the war began. American isolationism had effectively
ended, and, economically, the United States had become the world's most
powerful nation. At home, organized labor had achieved a strong foothold;
African Americans and women, having tasted equality during wartime labor
shortages, had developed aspirations and the means of achieving the goals
that these groups had lacked before the war. The American Communist Party
possessed an unparalleled confidence, while overseas the Soviet Union
strengthened its grasp on the countries it had wrested from German
occupation--making it plain that its plans to expand Communist influence had
not abated. And hanging over the euphoria of a world once more at peace was
the mushroom cloud of atomic weaponry.
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