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

American security.


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

the government.


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.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page