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U.S. Originals

Continued: FBI - 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 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. 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. The swift capture of these Nazi saboteurs helped to allay fear of Axis subversion and bolstered Americans' faith in the FBI.

Also, 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.

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 impractical.

Non-war 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.

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.

The FBI is situated in the J. Edgar Hoover Building
The FBI is situated in the J. Edgar Hoover Building



Document Information
Source: Federal Bureau Of Investigation FBI
Last modified: 20070501
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