With the outbreak of war in 1939, the US initially remained a neutral party in the conflict. As World War II progressed, the US began to bolster its support of the Allies, while publicly remaining neutral. After the fall of France in 1940, the United Kingdom stood alone in Western Europe against Nazi Germany. As Canada was a member of the Allies, and America’s northern neighbor, the US feared an Axis victory could threaten democracy in North America. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was tasked with conducting counter-intelligence operations against Axis threats. With the shift toward American involvement in the war, including the institution of the draft in late 1940, the FBI was tasked with locating draft evaders and deserters.
When America entered World War II in December 1941, the FBI focused its internal security efforts on German, Italian, and Japanese Americans, and those who supported fascism. In June 1942, an unsuccessful attempt at sabotage was conducted by German agents in New York. The agents were captured by the FBI, but the attempt increased American fears of Axis subversion in the US. Like the US armed forces, the FBI saw a massive increase in agents during World War II. Prior to the war the FBI had 7,400 employees, and by 1943 that number jumped to over 13,000.
One of the most controversial moves taken by the United States in World War II was the detainment of thousands of Japanese Americans. While the FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, felt detainment was unnecessary (as the FBI had surveillance on those deemed security threats), the US government chose instead to detain nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans (127,000 Japanese Americans lived in the continental US). The FBI ultimately became responsible in assisting in the detainment of those citizens.
Throughout the war the FBI continued to run surveillance and counter-intelligence operations. It aided in investigating companies that produced defective products to the US military, helping to ensure the troops were not sent to war with inadequate equipment. The FBI also supported Allied intelligence agencies, such as MI5 in the United Kingdom. When the war ended in August 1945, the FBI was faced with a new task, countering Soviet intelligence and subversion. The war had aided the FBI in developing a strong intelligence network, training, and agents that would support the US during the Cold War.
Look for more information regarding the famous FBI agent Melvin Purvis and his service during World War II in World at War issue #48 with the article “FBI at War” and join the conversation on Facebook!