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Political / Social
A fifth column is any group of people who undermine a larger group—such as a nation or a besieged city—from within, usually in favor of an enemy group or nation. The activities of a fifth column can be overt or clandestine. Forces gathered in secret can mobilize openly to assist an external attack. This term is also extended to organized actions by military personnel. Clandestine fifth column activities can involve acts of sabotage, disinformation, or espionage executed within defense lines by secret sympathizers with an external force.
Emilio Mola, a Nationalist General during the Spanish Civil War, told a journalist in 1936 that as his four columns of troops approached Madrid, a "fifth column" of supporters inside the city would support him and undermine the Republican government from within. The term was then widely used in Spain. Ernest Hemingway used it as the title of his only play, which he wrote in Madrid while the city was being bombarded, and published in 1938 in his book The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories.
Some writers, mindful of the origin of the phrase, use it only in reference to military operations rather than the broader and less well defined range of activities that sympathizers might engage in to support an anticipated attack.
In the United States at the end of the 1930s, as involvement in the European war seemed ever more likely, those who feared the possibility of betrayal from within used the newly coined term "fifth column" as a shorthand for sedition and disloyalty. The rapid fall of France in 1940 led many to blame a "fifth column" rather than German military superiority. Political factions in France blamed one another for the nation's defeat and military officials blamed the civilian leadership, all helping feed American anxieties. In June 1940, Life magazine ran a series of photos under the heading "Signs of Nazi Fifth Column Everywhere". In July 1940, Time magazine called fifth column talk a "national phenomenon". In August 1940 the New York Times mentioned "the first spasm of fear engendered by the success of fifth columns in less fortunate countries". One report identified participants in Nazi "fifth columns" as "partisans of authoritarian government everywhere", citing Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, and the Netherlands. Vidkun Quisling aided the Nazis during the campaign in Norway by proclaiming a Nazi government on the day of the German invasion in 1940, and his name of quisling is associated with Nazi collaborators.
Operation Himmler was the code name given to several German operations before the invasion of Poland and involving fifth-column activities by Volksdeutsch within Poland. It included sniper attacks on Polish troops, as well as an infamous false flag operation known as the Gleiwitz incident. John Langdon-Davies, a British journalist who covered the Spanish Civil War, popularized the term "fifth column" by publishing an account called The Fifth Column in 1940. The New York Times published three editorial cartoons that used the term on August 11, 1940. In November 1940, Ralph Thomson, reviewing Harold Lavine's Fifth Column in America, a study of Communist and fascist groups in the U.S., in the New York Times, questioned his choice of that title: "the phrase has been worked so hard that it no longer means much of anything". In the US an Australian radio play, The Enemy Within, proved be to very popular, however, this popularity was due to the belief that the stories of fifth column activities were based on real events. In December 1940 the Australian censors had the series banned.
In Britain the height of the fifth column scare was reached after the fall of France. This resulted in the internment of enemy aliens and the arrest of a number of noted British fascists. The British security services were overwhelmed with information of alleged activities, with particular suspicions directed towards Ireland and the IRA. After the Battle of Britain these fears largely subsided.
British reviewers of Agatha Christie's novel N or M? in 1941 used the term to describe the struggle of two British partisans of the Nazi regime working on its behalf in England during World War II.
In Frank Capra's 1941 film Meet John Doe, newspaper editor Henry Connell warns political ingenue John Doe about a businessman's plans to promote his own political ambitions using the apolitical John Doe Clubs. Connell says to John: "Listen, pal, this fifth-column stuff is pretty rotten, isn't it?", identifying the businessman with anti-democratic interests in the United States. When Doe agrees, he adds: "And you'd feel like an awful sucker if you found yourself marching right in the middle of it, wouldn't you?"
Immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox issued a statement that "the most effective Fifth Column work of the entire war was done in Hawaii with the exception of Norway." The widely-read columnist Walter Lippmann publicized similar accusations of sabotage on the part of Japanese Americans in his syndicated column on February 12, 1942, titled "The Fifth Column on the Coast."
During the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December 1941 said the indigenous Moro Muslims were "capable of dealing with Japanese fifth columnists and invaders alike". Another in the Vancouver Sun the next month described how the large population of Japanese immigrants in Davao in the Philippines welcomed the invasion: "the first assault on Davao was aided by numbers of Fifth Columnists–residents of the town". During the Japanese campaign in New Guinea it was widely believed that German Lutheran missionaries were assisting the Japanese army with information and supplies during their advance.
The term was soon so widely known that it very quickly appeared in popular U.S. entertainment. Introducing a 1941 newsreel, Meet John Doughboy, the animated character Porky Pig asked any "fifth columnists" in the audience leave the theater immediately. The next year in Looney Tunes' Foney Fables, the narrator of a comic fairy tale described a wolf in sheep's clothing as a "fifth columnist". In 1943, an animated cartoon in the Merrie Melodies series was called The Fifth-Column Mouse.
In Australia, with the proximity of the Japanese threat, the fifth column scare became widespread and led to the internment of German and Italian aliens on a large scale. It also led to the arrest of 20 members of the Australia First fascist group who were accused of planning to collaborate as a Japanese puppet government. Unfounded and baseless suspicions were also directed against various groups and individuals in society including Australian Aborigines, who were suspected because of the bush skills and guidance they could offer a Japanese invasion force.
I won't use this shorthand again. Ditto the shorthand of "fifth column." I have no reason to believe that even those sharp critics of this war would actually aid and abet the enemy in any more tangible ways than they have done already. And that dissent is part of what we're fighting for.
Adolf Hitler, The Holocaust, Einsatzgruppen, Reichsführer-SS, Nazi Germany