As I flipped through old Cosmopolitans from the days when the magazine introduced critical national issues to its young, largely female readers, an article from the Oct 1940 issue jumped out at me.* It was written by White House correspondent John Jay Daly and author Donald E. Kehoe. In light of our current battles about the credibility of our intelligence agencies, and a recent tweet from our soon-to-be president: “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” this article, “Inside the Trojan Horse,” seems relevant. As a header, the Cosmo editor wrote: “A shocking exposé of the extent to which Fifth Column activity has already undermined America and a ringing challenge to every citizen to do something now — before it’s too late.”
The article begins with a quote from then Attorney General Robert H. Jackson assuring Americans that the “Department of Justice is well-equipped to deal vigorously with sabotage and espionage, but if our work is to be effective it is imperative that the people, too, be alert and watchful, cool and sane.” [Jackson’s tenure as Attorney General was short-lived; Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1941 where he served until 1954.] Daly and Kehoe continue with an anecdote. A private wire to the White House had been cut — “it’s a direct presidential line to the suite of a high government official residing at a hotel. Over this supposedly inviolate wire, the President infrequently discussed matters of foreign policy based on confidential reports from Europe.” It turned out that spies (“later linked with a Nazi ring”) were listening in as the Nazis invaded the Low Countries and France to see what the American Administration’s reaction would be.
In 1940, protecting the nation from attacks by thousands of subversive agents inside the country, rather than in cyberspace, was a huge challenge. (It still is.) “There is hardly a phase of our economic and social structure without at least a few of these hidden enemies,” Daly and Kehoe wrote. FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover, warned: “Their insidious propaganda has even gained entry into some of our churches and many of our schools. Unless we unite to resist these efforts, America will regret the day when it let down the bars.” Not surprisingly, Daly and Kehoe note, the Nazi agents “operate behind a cloak of anti-Hitlerism.” Italian and Russian agents pretending to attack Fascism and Communism in public were also building up sabotage rings inside America. “The Nazi, Fascist and Communist legions in America are trying with every trick of hatred and violence to wreck this democracy and destroy our freedom. It is time they were shown that there is an end to American patience.”
The foreign spy rings were under precise orders. “And every day confidential reports to the FBI bring fresh evidence that the secret war orders are being carried out.” Numerous examples may have riveted Cosmo’s readers — fake humanitarian work, sabotage in factories, aircraft plants, shipyards, and ubiquitous propaganda that confused the public. “The FBI has not been asleep. With the aid of Army, Navy and Coast Guard Intelligence, the more dangerous members of the Fifth Column are kept under surveillance. Six hundred new agents were being trained by the FBI to try to handle more than 3000 daily complaints and tips. But we needed more agents then. “To prevent the blackout of true free speech and at the same time pull the fangs of the Fifth Column is a difficult problem within limits of a democracy.”
Attorney General Jackson urged Americans to “strike against this hidden menace” by learning “every symptom of its cancerous growth; the vicious system by which it corrupts youth, coerces peaceful aliens, misleads honest citizens; this thousand and one lying tricks by which it shields itself behind “front” organizations — falsely named leagues, guilds and societies — controlled by alien governments.” What was the penalty for those accused of sabotage? Ten years in jail and a $10,000 fine had not proved a deterrent. In fact, Nazi propaganda had tripled in the months before them article was written.
Business men in America and owners of industries, perhaps the equivalent of some of our current billionaires, considered appeasement with Hitler. Their argument: “Why build up a vast defense machine, ruin business with huge taxes when you can cooperate with Hitler? He’d rather make a business deal with the United States than go to war.” (Of course, we know how that worked out.) And then, Daly and Keith noted, one of the tactics of the subversive propaganda experts was “a smear campaign directed against the FBI and other government enforcement agencies, to create public fear of a Gestapo. Another campaign, costing at least $50,000 in printing bills, was aimed at stirring up religious hatred with a story of a Jewish revolution plot against the American government.” Communists used even more devious tactics to disrupt American democracy, especially after the alliance between Hitler and Stalin.
Situations such as those described in great detail in this article must have made neighbors suspicious of neighbors at times. Today, some of our most dangerous threats come from invisible hackers as well as foreign agents operating inside this country. The intelligence community has had to grow as the nature of espionage has changed. And in the current climate, Americans still need to be “alert and watchful, cool and sane.” But we must also be vigilant against suggestions that we should appease Vladimir Putin possibly to protect shadowy business deals. Above all—no matter what comes out in the twittersphere —–we must not assume that people whose backgrounds, dress, customs, skin colors, or even political parties are different from our own are subversive or dangerous. To paraphrase FDR’s famous statement, one thing we have to fear is fear itself — in this case fear of each other, fear of our neighbors. We are not living in Nazi Germany.
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*(I have the October 1940 Cosmo because it includes Jane Hall’s “The Lady and The Witch,” one of nine short stories.)
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