Fifth column

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A fifth column is a group of people who undermine a larger group, such as a nation or a besieged city, from within. 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.

Origin[edit]

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.[1]

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. Madeleine Albright, for example, in a lengthy account of German sympathizers in Czechoslovakia in the first years of World War II, reserves it for their possible response to a German invasion: "Many, perhaps most, of the Sudetens would have provided the enemy with a fifth column".[2]

Contemporaneous usage[edit]

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".[3] In August 1940 the New York Times mentioned "the first spasm of fear engendered by the success of fifth columns in less fortunate countries".[4] One report identified participants in Nazi "fifth columns" as "partisans of authoritarian government everywhere", citing Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, and the Netherlands.[5]

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.[6]

Later usage[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction novel Sixth Column (1949) describes the work of a "sixth column", a hidden resistance movement fighting an oppressive occupying force of Asians on American soil. The novel included many references to the Spanish events in which the term originated, so as to contrast—in the author's view—the traitorous fifth column with the novel's patriotic sixth.[14]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Fifth Column and Forty-Nine Stories. The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved 24 June 2010.
  2. ^ a b Albright, Madeleine (2012). Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. NY: HarperCollins. p. 102. 
  3. ^ Richard W. Steele, Free Speech in the Good War (St. Martin's Press, 1999, 75-6
  4. ^ New York Times: Delbert Clark, "Aliens to Begin Registering Tuesday," August 25, 1940, accessed June 27, 2012.
  5. ^ New York Times: Otto D. Tolischus, "How Hitler Made Ready: I - The Fifth Column," June 16, 1940, accessed July 7, 2012. "Luxembourg was almost completely seized by German tourists with machine guns even before German regulars arrived."
  6. ^ New York Times: Frederick R. Barkley, "Nation Shapes Defense against Foes at Home," August 11, 1940, accessed July 7, 2012
  7. ^ Robert G.L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Post-War Germany, 1918-1923 (1952), 88
  8. ^ Yale Law School: Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 4, 215, December 20, 1945, accessed July 19, 2012
  9. ^ Thomas G. Paterson, Meeting the Communist Threat: Truman to Reagan (Oxford University Press, 1988), 10
  10. ^ Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Politics of Freedom (Heinemann, 1950), 92-3
  11. ^ "North Koreans in Japan have long been vilified as a communist fifth column" (Hans Greimel, "Test sparks N. Korea Backlash in Japan", Associated Press dispatch, October 24, 2006 [1])
  12. ^ "... they hurl accusations against us, like that we are a 'fifth column'." (Roee Nahmias, "Arab MK: Israel committing 'genocide' of Shiites", Ynetnews August 2, 2006)
  13. ^ "... a fifth column, a league of traitors" (Evelyn Gordon, "No longer the political fringe", Jerusalem Post September 14, 2006)
  14. ^ Robert A. Heinlein, Sixth Column (Gnome Press, 1949), 36: "this would not be a fifth column of traitors, bent on paralysing a free country; but the antithesis of that, a sixth column of patriots whose privilege it would be to destroy the morale of invaders, make them afraid, unsure of themselves." See sffworld.com: Mark Yon, Review of Heinlein, Sixth Column, accessed July 23, 2012

Further reading[edit]