What is a Fifth Column?

Fifth Column
Japanese American internment notice — 1 April 1942.
Exclusion Order posted to direct Japanese Americans living in the first San Francisco section to evacuate.
First and Front Streets, San Francisco, California.

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What is a Fifth Column?

During World War II, the United States incarcerated 120,000 people of Japanese descent in internment camps. Somewhere around two-thirds were American citizens. At the time, Americans in government and civil society feared the presence of a fifth column who would work against the war effort. A fifth column is a group of people who undermine the government from within the country. During times of crisis like wars, people often suspect marginalized groups as fifth columns. But politicians are also vulnerable to similar attacks or smears. For example, many suspected Donald Trump of collusion with Russia during his campaign and even during his presidency.

The notion of a fifth column is complicated because traitors really do exist. However, fifth columns refer to something more than the isolated traitor. A fifth column claim conjures an image of a widespread group acting against the interests of the country. It’s difficult for so many people to work against the state without making themselves known so fifth column claims are often conspiratorial. They also rely on the presence of divergent group interests. Consequently, most claims of fifth columns focus on marginalized groups or communities. So, it’s really no surprise that fifth column claims frequently arise from racial, ethnic, or religious prejudices. Historically, many conspiracy theories imagined Jewish communities as active fifth columns working against their country.

The most dangerous fifth column claims come from those in power. When elected officials make fifth column claims, they have the power to act upon their instincts. People may lose their jobs, freedom, and even lives from conspiratorial ideas. Most notably, the Jews were subject to fifth column claims in Europe for decades, if not centuries. Indeed, the holocaust is a tragic reminder of where unfounded claims based on fear and prejudice inevitably lead.

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