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The F.B.I. uncovered Nazi sympathisers and Cold War spies

Posted in America, Communism, Espionage, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Law, World War 2 on Monday, 26 November 2012

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This edited article about the F.B.I. originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 788 published on 19th February 1977.

Charles Lindbergh, picture, image, illustration

Charles Lindbergh, whose son was kidnapped and killed in 1932, by Ron Embleton

Since its instigation in 1908, the F.B.I. has helped solve many cases from the most famous, like the Rosenberg Spy Ring of the postwar years, described below, to the smaller, unpublicised local crimes of suburban America. Some lawbreakers have taken years to apprehend, some only hours or days to bring to justice. In any case, the criminal, whether he be forget, kidnapper or common thief, takes on a massive organisation when he confronts the F.B.I.

During the early years the G-man was frustrated by his lack of power when handling investigations. The complexity of U.S. law tied his hands, to the limit of assisting local police who often resented his interference. It was the lawlessness of the inter-war years which led to new legislation giving F.B.I. agents more responsibility and greater powers of arrest. Prohibition was the watershed for both lawbreaker and Bureau. America was officially declared dry – i.e. alcohol was banned – in January 1920, raising the curtain for the bootlegger and gangster.

Initially the public was apathetic, finding excitement in ‘speakeasy’ bars and illegal alcohol. They attached a certain glamour to the underworld personalities of the period, turning a blind eye to gang wars and corruption in local government. By the time J. Edgar Hoover took over the F.B.I. in 1924, the reputation of police agencies in the U.S. was at its lowest. Soon the Attorney-General had given Hoover powers to form special squads to investigate corruption in city police forces and reform was on the way.

After the Lindbergh affair in 1932 when the great flier’s child was kidnapped, then killed, kidnapping reached its peak, so did crime generally in the U.S., by which time the public was outraged and demanding action by law enforcement agencies. The big round-up started as Hoover and his agents tracked down the hoodlums one by one. The cost was high, F.B.I. men and police alike were killed, but by 1934 the gangs were crippled and corruption at least partly crushed.

Geographically isolated, unlike other Allied countries, the U.S. was able to cope more competently with its espionage problems during World War Two.

By the late 1930s Hoover had put the F.B.I. in readiness for War. A close watch was kept on undesirable aliens, also on government workers in key positions. A programme to train local police in handling security problems was put into operation, so by 1940 law enforcement throughout the country was ready for action. Just three hours after the bombs had fallen on Pearl Harbour in late 1941, the F.B.I. and the police had taken over 1,000 potentially dangerous enemy aliens into custody. Six months later, agents captured eight saboteurs landed by German submarines on the Long Island and Florida coasts. The group, all of U.S. origin and trained by the Reich, were to embark on a two-year plan of destruction across America. They had fared no better than their predecessors. Duquesne and Ludwig who, together with forty compatriots, were secretly surveyed, then captured before getting plans of U.S. weapons projects out of the country.

Peacetime was heralded by new threats from cleverer criminals on the home front and the chill of the Cold War from Europe. Big-time domestic lawbreakers had abandoned the fast cars and the hit-then-run robberies of the thirties for more organised, carefully planned operations. The Brink’s robbery of 1950, when a group of armed, masked men got away with some three million dollars, took six years to solve involving thousands of interviews and following countless leads. Eventually the Bureau narrowed the chase down to ten men, all known criminals, one of whom turned informer on the others. He and F.B.I. agents pieced together the most elaborately planned theft in the history of U.S. crime, ranking it with Britain’s Great Train Robbery of the 1960s.

Although initial investigation of Communist activities in America started prior to World War Two, the situation flared with detonation of the A-bomb. Atomic secrets were now the nation’s main security risk and the Cold War started in earnest. Government employees were scrutinised and their every move monitored, but secrets leaked out. David Greenglass was in the U.S. Forces when attached to the Atomic project at Lost Alamos in 1944. He and his wife were Communist sympathisers through his sister Ethel and her husband Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were thought to be working with Russian Intelligence to secure U.S. defence secrets and it was not long before the Greenglasses were committing treason.

Though the Rosenbergs were eventually convicted, serious doubts have been cast on their guilt. But the spy ring branched into a maze of treachery, involving Carl Fuchs, later arrested in Britain, and other Atomic workers. But it was 1951 before the F.B.I. amassed enough information to smash the organisation.

No volume could record all of the cases solved by the F.B.I., they are too numerous especially those where the organisation has cleared people suspected of crimes. Proving innocence is more satisfying than proving guilt. A Virginia woman was accused by local police of shooting her husband. She claimed he had accidentally shot himself while cleaning the pistol in another room, F.B.I. agents were called in and found indentations on a hot-air grille in the wall above the body. Careful examination of paint on the grille was found to match fragments on the hammer of the gun. The victim had thrown the gun against the wall causing an accidental discharge.

No case is too big or too small for the F.B.I.

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