FDR’s Sorry Domestic Spying Record

The Japanese internment camps comprised the worst blot on Roosevelt’s civil liberties record, but he also approved spying and harassment of other citizens who opposed the war effort.

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In June 2013 the Department of Justice indicted Edward Snowden, a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, for releasing countless classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Accused of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, he was subject to 30 years in prison. Though the United States government revoked his passport, the Russian government granted him asylum. Because the documents revealed that the NSA was retaining millions of emails of American private citizens, not to mention those of foreign leaders, the incident caused considerable controversy. Snowden's opponents accused him of endangering U.S. security while his defenders claimed he had a duty to expose a government apparatus that had run amok.

Accusations of intimidation have long been levied against the federal government. During the Red Scare of 1919, the Justice Department’s Radical Bureau and the Labor Department's Immigration Bureau coerced confessions from suspected radicals, thereby subjecting many to deportation. During the Cold War, the Federal Bureau of Investigation fed information concerning alleged subversives to Senator Joseph McCarthy and other enemies of the Truman administration. Revelations made during the ’70s showed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had cast an extremely wide net, illegally wiretapping such figures as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and infiltrating such organizations as the Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the Congress of Racial Equality. According to a commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency had assembled files on 300,000 Americans.

Even the much-touted administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt possessed less than a sterling record. Indeed, some on the right use FDR’s administration to justify Snowden’s indictment. Hence the FDR presidency is important to examine, for in reality it showed the extremes to which even a liberal leadership can go.

Americans have long been familiar with the internment of all Japanese Americans, whether citizens or not, who in 1942 were taken from their homes on the West Coast to concentration camps in the interior for the sole offense of carrying “enemy chromosomes.” Though most would admit that the internment was the greatest violation of citizenship in the nation’s entire history, other negative aspects of the Roosevelt leadership remain hidden.

Although memories of World War II are rapidly fading, with many survivors now in their 90s, the conflict is generally perceived as a most positive experience, in which a noble and enlightened leadership successfully defeated evil and alien forces while violating few, if any, rights of fellow-citizens.

Certainly, in comparison to the nation’s record in World War I, the U.S. conducted itself with admirable restraint. During the Great War, as it was first called, the Wilson administration banned radical and Socialist journals from the mails, jailed the leader of the Socialist party (who had drawn almost 900,000 votes when he ran for president in 1912), and encouraged vigilante intimidation of German Americans. In April 1918, a Socialist coal miner was lynched near East St. Louis for making derogatory remarks about the president.

To claim, however, that little intimidation existed during the years 1939-45 would be far from the truth. With the fall of Norway, the Low Countries, and France in the spring of 1940, and with the Battle of Britain still in doubt, many Americans felt most jittery. In Manhattan and Seattle, two men killed themselves upon learning that France was defeated. New York’s colorful mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, griped that his government could not even protect Coney Island. A foundry worker, disliking the water given to him by a friend, murdered the man as a traitor. Illinois farmers demanded antitank guns to protect their cornfields. Everywhere defense corps and rifle clubs appeared. Sixty members of a gun club in Pittsburgh sought official status as paratroops shooters. Navaho Indians banned subversive activities among tribe members.

In the early ’40s, the hysteria against right-wing supervision so penetrated American society that the left, practically paranoid concerning incipient fascism, lost its traditional commitment to civil liberties. In The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War (1983), historian Leo P. Ribuffo goes so far as to find a “Brown Scare” analogous to the “Red Scare” of 1919-20. To such private vigilante groups as the Friends of Democracy, Inc. and such sensationalist writers as John Roy Carlson, whose Under Cover: My Four Years in the Nazi Underworld of America (1943) was a bestseller, a fascist coup was in the immediate offing, with a tiny right wing prepared to strike. Although no serious danger existed, diverse liberals and radicals first exaggerated the power of native rightists, then called for restrictions on their rights.

In the minds of certain American journalists, the reverses of the Allies in spring 1940 could only have been caused by a “fifth column.” The term, which emerged during the Spanish Civil War, referred to civilian traitors who acted as the Trojan horse of General Francisco Franco, causing the defeat of the republic by sabotage and defeatism. In mid-June Life magazine ran a story under the headline “Signs of Nazi Fifth Column.” At about the same time George Britt, a reporter for the New York World-Telegram, published a book entitled The Fifth Column Is Here (1940). The mayor of San Antonio even equipped his police force with machine guns to stop any fifth-columnists approaching from Mexico.

Roosevelt did not discourage such hysteria. Rather he took advantage of such myths to promote his interventionist agenda—conscription, Lend-Lease, convoys to Britain, occupation of Iceland and Greenland, and extension of term of service for draftees. In To Save a Nation: American Countersubversives, the New Deal, and the Coming of World War II (1973), historian Geoffrey S. Smith finds the president deliberately seeking to identify all critics of his foreign policy with external forces threatening national security.

In mid-May 1940, in asking Congress for additional defense appropriations, Roosevelt referred to “treacherous use of the fifth column,” noting in particular the possibility that refugees were enemy agents. In accepting the nomination for a third term, he claimed that he was duty-bound to lead the nation amid the threat of “unbelievable types of espionage and national treachery.”

In January 1941, while seeking public support for the Lend-Lease bill, he accused those encouraging “skepticism,” promoting “disunity,” or advocating “appeasement” as being fifth columnists. He warned against “those American citizens, many of them in high places,” who were often unwittingly “aiding and abetting” the work of destructive foreign agents.

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Little wonder certain prominent administration members portrayed administration critics as fascist dupes, sometimes as little better than Nazis. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, for example, called prominent FDR critics Nazi fellow-travelers. In Roosevelt & the Isolationists, 1932-45 (1983), historian Wayne S. Cole aptly points to a “guilt-by-association” approach, a phrase usually associated with the later tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Words were matched by deeds as the president mobilized the resources of the federal government against critics. His leading instrument was the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, a holdover from the Republican administration of Calvin Coolidge. To ingratiate himself with the Democrat FDR, Hoover used the bureau to discredit political opposition. He hoped that he would discover subversive activity among those Roosevelt’s foes who opposed conscription, massive aid to the Allies, and the convoying of lend-lease munitions.

Declassified FBI files, researched by historian Douglas M. Charles (J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the Rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939-1945, 2007), reveal this collaboration with great precision, showing clearly how the FBI employed illegal observation solely for political purposes. At times the bureau worked in tandem with British intelligence, who supplied it with information, much of it far from reliable. Though lacking evidence of ties with Axis agents or even sympathizers, the FBI targeted leading anti-interventionists. (The term “anti-interventionist” is preferable to “isolationist,” for while they opposed FDR’s foreign policy, particularly in regard to Europe, they never sought “isolation” from the rest of the world.)

Although the Communications Act of 1934 outlawed federal wiretapping, the bureau tapped the phones of Charles A. Lindbergh, the most charismatic leader among FDR’s foreign policy critics. Admittedly, Lindbergh had taken an extreme position by publicly hoping that neither side in the global struggle would obtain a complete victory. He also invited attack in September 1941 by charging American Jews with manipulating the media in an interventionist direction.

The FBI also engaged in illegal wiretapping of the New York chapter of the America First Committee (AFC), the nation’s leading anti-interventionist organization. (In October 1941, a month and a half before the Pearl Harbor attack, Hoover wrote General Robert E. Wood, AFC chairman, falsely denying that the FBI had ever “directly or indirectly at [any] place in the United States tapped the wires, interfered with the mails, or checked the membership lists of the America First Committee.”)

Yet in no case did the bureau produce evidence of subversion. The same holds true for surveillance of such outspoken anti-interventionist leaders as Senators Burton K. Wheeler, Gerald P. Nye, and David Walsh; Congressman Hamilton Fish; and historian Harry Elmer Barnes, at the time best known for his revisionist history of the causes of World War II.

Political use of enforcement mechanisms did not stop with the FBI but reached into the entire Department of Justice, which harassed groups and individuals on both the left and right. The most prominent case was the indictment of Harry Bridges, an Australian immigrant who in 1941 led a strike of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union in San Francisco. Because Bridges was a strong Communist sympathizer who was hindering defense preparations, from 1941 to 1945 the Justice Department sought his deportation in vain.

In October 1939 a U.S. marshal arrested Earl Browder, general secretary of the Communist Party, for using aliases on his passport when he had visited the Soviet Union in the ’20s. The party had just endorsed the German-Soviet pact that had enabled Hitler to attack Poland with impunity, a event that triggered World War II. Browder was sentenced to the Atlanta penitentiary, his sentence being commuted by FDR only in May 1942, when the president obviously sought Communist Party backing.

The Roosevelt administration was equally successful in the case of the “Minneapolis Reds.” In October 1941 the Justice Department indicted 29 leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party for planning a strike that would shut down more than 30 defense contractors. It accused the defendants of advocating the overthrow of the government by force and violence, something made illegal by the 1940 Smith Act. When the defense pointed to the inconsequential size of the alleged conspiracy, the presiding judge said it was well to remember that Hitler “went around in a greasy raincoat in his early days and was belittled for his efforts.” Twelve defendants were sentenced to 16 months imprisonment; others received a year and a day.

Because certain African-American groups criticized the war effort, they, too, faced administration scrutiny, including in some cases trial for sedition. The Nation of Islam (Black Muslims), the Pacific Movement of the Eastern World, the House of Israel in Newark, and certain street preachers endorsed an Axis victory, expressed pro-Japanese sentiments (seeking to bond with other “people of color”), or, more significantly, urged resistance to the draft. In Free Speech in the Good War (1999), Richard W. Steele notes that even if the prosecutors had discovered truly seditious utterances and were relatively free of prejudice, the question remains: Were the activities of such black nationalists sufficiently grave as to warrant such punishment?

In some cases, Roosevelt’s Justice Department was defeated. In 1940 Attorney General Frank Murphy sought to convict 17 street thugs. Organized first in Brooklyn and located in various cities, they called themselves the Christian Front and were murkily tied to the demagogic radio priest Charles E. Coughlin. Evidence of their conspiracy to overthrow the United States included an old cavalry saber and a broken 1873 Springfield rifle. Murphy was unable to prove the Front was part of a plot aimed at establishing Nazi rule in America.

The administration also failed in its efforts to deport members of the German-American Bund, a militantly pro-Nazi organization composed of between 10,000 and 25,000 recent German immigrants who would parade in brown shirts and carry swastika flags. Engaging in a process long used to rid the U.S. of Communists, the Justice Department petitioned federal judges to void a Bundist’s certificate of naturalization on the grounds that one’s words and associations had violated one’s oath of allegiance. A Bundist could be held responsible for activity committed after naturalization, not just before. In 1943, however, the Supreme Court rescued Bundists from such a fate. In the case of Schneiderman v. U.S., which involved an immigrant who became leader of the California Communist party, the court ruled that events and writings involving William Schneiderman since he had become a citizen had little relevance in establishing his earlier state of mind. The prosecution now had to prove clearly that Bundists had taken their oath of allegiance with reservations, something well nigh impossible to establish.

Possibly the greatest setback came during the “Great Sedition Trial” of 1944-45, when the Justice Department indicted 30 native fascists, rightist extremists, and anti-Semites for conspiring with each other and with Nazi Germany. The defendants were accused of disseminating antidemocratic and pro-Axis propaganda and with seeking to impair the loyalty of the armed forces, a violation of the Smith Act. Obviously many of the defendants’ statements were hateful and divisive, but the government could not prove that they sought to incite a revolution, foster dissatisfaction in the military, or resist the draft. The death of the presiding judge in early December 1944 led to a mistrial and in December 1946 the Truman administration dropped all charges.

One should note that all of FDR’s attorneys general during World War II could be perceived as liberals. Frank Murphy, who held office in 1939, spoke out in defense of labor and ethnic and religious minorities. Robert H. Jackson, attorney general from January 1940 to June 1941, had opposed American entry into World War I and believed in government restraint. Francis Biddle, who occupied the position for the rest of Roosevelt’s term, belonged to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yet all three caved in to pressure from FDR and J. Edgar Hoover. In December 1939 Murphy suggested that something like the Palmer raids, in which Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general had organized a roundup of radical aliens, would be more than acceptable. Jackson ended up accepting the need to investigate, even prosecute (the law permitting), people suspected of subversive beliefs and associations. Biddle’s case was possibly the most tragic, for by backing the Bridges deportation and the sedition case, he had betrayed his own libertarian principles. Only 20 years after the Minnesota Reds case did he admit that this handful of political deviants never constituted a “clear and present danger” to the government. At the time of the trial, he claimed that their prosecution struck a blow for free speech!

Ironically, during this time, there was little if any “clear and present danger.” Because of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of late August 1939, the Communist Party was more discredited than ever. American fascism was moribund. Father Coughlin has lost access to major radio networks. The German-American Bund was close to extinction, suffering a nearly fatal blow when its leader, Fritz Kuhn, was imprisoned in December 1939 for misappropriating funds. In the congressional debates over FDR’s foreign policy, the anti-interventionists were always defeated.

Yet, in all its activities, the government offered the rationale of “national security,” claiming that internal dangers were sufficient to discard constitutional guarantees. In responding to criticism over the prosecution of the Christian Front, Hoover had retorted: “It took only 23 men to overthrow Russia.” Administration reasoning in World War II set a precedent for far more massive government spying during the Cold War, particularly against civil rights organizations and opponents of the Vietnam conflict. The very Smith Act used in 1944 against domestic fascists was used with far more severity against Communists during the Cold War, the law’s scope only being limited by the Supreme Court in 1957.

Of course, aside from the Nisei internment, the Roosevelt record could have been worse. Historian Steele can write that the system worked, though just barely. Yet World War II can no longer be seen uncritically as “the good war,” but rather as an object lesson on how even the most enlightened liberals can go astray.


Justus D. Doenecke is emeritus professor of history at New College of Florida. Among his books are works on the America First Committee and the anti-interventionist movement of 1939-41.