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Photograph of American Nazis

A BYTE OUT OF HISTORY: 70 Years Ago
Rise of Fascism leads to FBI Casework

It was 1934, and the nation was reeling from the Great Depression: unemployment stood at 24.9% and the Dow-Jones average was sputtering from a low of 50 to a high of 108. Since the ascent of Adolph Hitler to the position of Chancellor in Germany in January 1933, groups in America supporting his fascist ideology and Nazi vision had become more and more vocal, claiming fascism could be the answer to American woes.

President Roosevelt was deeply concerned. Although the American Nazis seemed simply to be building their party and espousing their ideology, Roosevelt suspected the groups could be allying themselves to a foreign political movement that rejected key parts of democratic governance. It was already clear in Germany that the Nazis, after coming to power, were removing democratic safeguards there, abrogating certain international treaties, and making noise about needing more “living space,” which soon translated into capturing neighboring lands.

The President Calls A Conference
On May 9,1934, Roosevelt called a meeting at the White House to discuss the situation. In attendance were Attorney General Homer Cummings, the Secretary of Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, the Secret Service Chief, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Roosevelt posed the question: “should the Nazi groups in the U.S. be investigated?” Conference members, weighing the dangers, said yes—if legally possible. “But under what law?” It was agreed that immigration laws offered solid grounds for investigating the foreign connections of domestic groups—and the Bureau was given the assignment, working with the Secretary of Immigration and with some assistance from the Secret Service.

The Bureau Investigates
Back at FBI Headquarters, the order went out. Each FBI Field Office at once formally opened an investigation in its geographical region into the intelligence threats posed by domestic groups connected with Hitler’s Germany. This initial effort was limited in scope and time: it sought to determine only if foreign agents were working with the American Nazi groups.

Then, in 1936, under new orders from President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the Bureau opened new and more extensive investigations of fascist groups. These were conducted under the newly passed Foreign Agents Registration Act, and with substantial results. Through close counterespionage work, we uncovered 50 Nazi spies operating in America before the U.S. ever entered the war.

Links: See more Bytes Out of FBI History on the FBI History page.

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