War II Period: Late 1930's - 1945
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 Germany and Soviet
Russia seized Poland. A short time later, Russia
overran the Baltic States. Finland, while maintaining
its independence, lost western Karelia to Russia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The swift capture of these
Nazi saboteurs helped to allay fear of Axis subversion
and bolstered Americans' faith in the FBI.
before U.S. entry into the War, the FBI uncovered
another 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
acts were not limited to civil rights cases. In 1940,
the FBI Disaster Squad was created when the FBI Identification
Division was called upon to identify some Bureau
employees who were on a flight which had crashed
near Lovettsville, Virginia.
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.
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