UW News

June 22, 2022

Q&A: New book from UW professor examines history, consequences of fifth columns

Hand controlling a man as puppet

The term fifth column refers to groups accused of working with hostile countries to damage the population or government of their home country.Pixabay

Fifth columns have appeared in countries around the world for centuries.

The term refers to groups accused of working with hostile countries to damage the population or government of their home country. These accusations create doubt about the loyalty and belonging of targeted populations, which can lead to human rights abuses, political repression and even ethnic cleansing.

A new book co-edited by Scott Radnitz, associate professor in the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies, gathered scholars from multiple disciplines to write original papers on the roots and implications of the politics surrounding real and imagined fifth columns. Those scholars presented their papers at a workshop sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities in 2019.

“Enemies Within: The Global Politics of Fifth Columns” was co-edited by Radnitz and Harris Mylonas, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Both also wrote chapters.

UW News sat down with Radnitz to discuss the book, which will be available on July 15 from Oxford University Press.

Q: Can you explain what fifth column means, particularly as it relates to this book?

SR: We’re defining fifth column politics as the rhetoric, policies, or mobilization about these “enemies within.” What they have in common is the claim that some group — usually it’s an ethnic minority group or a disliked or marginalized community that people are suspicious of — is secretly working against the interests of the nation or the state. This can be a volatile thing. It can generate massive resistance against the group. It could lead to persecution and further discrimination because this group is already vulnerable. They don’t usually have protection from the state.

There are some real fifth columns — groups inside that are secretly working for other countries from the outside. But what we’re studying is the phenomenon of claims about fifth columns, which is probably more common than the reality of them.

Q: The chapter you wrote is titled “No Collusion! Or is There? Presidents as Puppets in Russia and the United States.” What’s the focus of this paper?

SR: The archetypal fifth column is a vulnerable minority group. This is when powerful people exploit the fact that one group is marginalized in order to further increase their power. We label that a subversive claim, which describes anti-state activity from below. Another form of fifth column accusation is what we call a collusive claim, which involves people in power who are secretly doing the bidding of outside countries. This probably occurs less often, but there are still a few important, prominent cases like the ones identified in this chapter.

Americans will be familiar with the accusation — and some people think the reality — that Donald Trump was an asset of the Kremlin. This is a claim about a fifth column. The claim was Trump is American, but he’s secretly working for Russia by adopting policies that work in the interests of Russia against the American national interest and by undermining democracy and stability in the United States.

Why? According to people who believe this, Russia was controlling him because they had compromising material, or they were blackmailing him. This kind of fifth-column accusation has different dynamics than claims about subversive activity because the accusers are people from below or the opposing political party and the accused is the head of the state. In this chapter, that’s Trump or former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was accused by his Communist opponents of serving the interests of the U.S. at the expense of Russia in the 1990s.

Q: What are other examples of fifth columns?

SR: There is a sordid history of fifth column accusations in the United States. A classic case is the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. They were accused of working with Japan, which was the sworn enemy of the United States. There was actually very, very little evidence that Japanese Americans were working with Japan. Even if there was a small number of people who did, it certainly wouldn’t justify rounding up the entire Japanese American population and putting them into concentration camps.

There is this strain of thinking — even in democracies — that people who are different, who look different, who speak a different language and are not well integrated into society are always going to be vulnerable to the accusation that they may not be true patriots. Today we hear this accusation across democracies, including the United States, questioning whether people are truly loyal to the nation. If you’re not, then that means you’re subject to various kinds of exclusion, harassment, discrimination and persecution.

Democracies are not immune to fifth-column politics. If geopolitical rivalries lead some states to fear threats from other countries and that those countries might try to use internal populations to gain some leverage, those dynamics will heat up. In fact, the number of fifth-column claims is probably on the upswing with the rise of ethnonationalism and populism across the world in democracies and autocracies alike. I hope the book will start some conversations and stimulate a research agenda on this topic.

For more information, contact Radnitz at srad@uw.edu.