There were several types of columns used by the military infantry: marching columns for transiting long distances and columns used on the battlefield. They were not intended as assault formations, except under special circumstances.
Reference to a ‘Fifth Column’ dates to the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and refers to a group or faction of subversive agents (or spys.)
Nationalist General Emilio Mola Vidal coined the term when he told a local journalist that four columns of his soldiers were fighting their way to Madrid, and that a secret ‘Fifth Column’ was intent on undermining the loyalist government from within the capital. The papers reported:
“Out of hiding came a few of the phantom ‘fifth column’ – the fascist auxiliary force dreaded by the loyalists. Scheduled to appear within the city itself and take the defenders from the rear, these rebel sympathizers sniped from rooftops at the government militia.” (North Adams Transcript, November 14, 1936)
The term ‘Fifth Column’ survived that war and has ever since been used to designate secret armies or groups of armed subversives.
Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, that brought the United States into World War II, outraged Americans and sparked a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment across the country.
Many blamed all Japanese for the Pearl Harbor attack, directing their anger and frustration even at Japanese resident aliens and Japanese-Americans who had done nothing that would bring into question their loyalty to the United States. (Weider)
Fear of the ‘Fifth Column” hit home.
The term’s first use in WWII was by Navy Secretary Frank Knox to describe the Japanese in Hawaiʻi, even though his own report proved his charge an unsupported averment. (Tanner)
“I think the most effective Fifth Column work of the entire war was done in Hawaiʻi with the exception of Norway.” (Frank Knox, Secretary of Navy)
“It was common wisdom that the Nazi invasions of Norway and western Europe had been aided by agents and sympathizers within the country under attack – the so-called fifth column – and that the same approach should be anticipated from Japan.” (Executive Order 9066, archives-gov)
Wartime hysteria inherently relied on the narrative of widespread Japanese saboteurs, or the fifth-column myth. This myth developed as “fears (were) spawned by … headlines (blaring,) ‘Secretary of Navy Blames Fifth Column for Raid’ and ‘Fifth Column Treachery Told.’” (Tanner)
In February 1942, Mississippi Congressman Rankin told the US House of Representatives:
“I know the Hawaiian Islands. I know the Pacific coast where these Japanese reside. Even though they may be the third or fourth generation of Japanese, we cannot trust them.”
“I know that those areas are teeming with Japanese spies and fifth columnists. … Do not forget that once a Japanese always a Japanese …. (They had) been there for generations were making signs, if you please …”
“… guiding the Japanese planes to the objects of their iniquity in order that they might destroy our naval vessels, murder our soldiers and sailors, and blow to pieces the helpless women and children of Hawaii. (Congressional Record; Everest-Phillips)
“(S)enior Government officials ’ignored’ reports by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and members of naval intelligence who concluded that nothing beyond careful watching of suspicious people or individual reviews of loyalty was called for.” (NY Times)
A report commissioned by Congress contended that the vast majority of Japanese Americans were loyal but it did nothing to stop the mounting public hysteria and government and military reactionism.
“(Second generation Nisei are) universally estimated from 90 to 98 percent loyal to the United States … The Nisei are pathetically eager to show this loyalty. They are not Japanese in culture. They are foreigners to Japan. … The loyal Nisei hardly knows where to turn.” (Munson Report; UW)
On February 19, 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the military to exclude any person from designated military areas.
“I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders … to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded”.
“(A)nd with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military … may impose in his discretion.”
“The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgment of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order.” (Executive Order 9066)
Beginning in 1942, more than 120,000-Japanese-Americans, most of them living on the West Coast, were ordered to leave their homes and were transported to relocation centers (camps) for the duration of the war. The internees were stripped of both their possessions and their civil liberties. (Papers of the Wartime Relocation Commission)
After the war, Japanese Americans returned home.
“(N)ot a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast.” (Wartime Relocation Commission; NY Times)
In the decades following World War II, the internment of Japanese-Americans has generally been acknowledged as a national embarrassment, a shameful episode that stands as a blot on America’s record. (Weider)
In 1952 the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act finally allowed Issei (first generation) naturalization. In 1976, on the thirty-fourth anniversary of Executive Order 9066, President Gerald Ford declared the evacuation a “national mistake.”
And in 1988 HR 442 was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan providing for reparations for surviving internees. Beginning in 1990 $20,000 in redress payments were sent to all eligible Japanese Americans. (UW)