Few people realize that, when war is elected to settle disputes, one's comrades are just as dangerous as their enemies due to counter-intelligence operations. Allegations are often made to settle personal grudges, but experience has showed that during war, when allegations are made against someone, it is very costly to give the benefit of the doubt.

The Chinese communist history from 1921 to 1976 was one of repeated dramas in which counter-intelligence operations turned into witch hunt. Yet, the CPC defeated KMT. On the other hand, the KMT owed its defeat as much to strategic blunders as to spy and espionage: generals were turned into rivals; divisions after divisions of KMT infantry were subverted.

Unscrupulousness has to be a necessary quality of a successful general: first he needs to be merciless to enemies; secondly, when it is necessary to send his soldiers to harm's way, he should not let the number of casualties interfere with his decision making; finally, when it comes to spies, it is definitely safer to purge a thousand innocents than to let slip one real spy through the net.

I wonder if this large scale counterintelligence-turned witch hunt is what war entails. In other words, counterintelligence-turned which hunt is common and necessary on both sides as soon as war is chosen to settle disputes.

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    Do you count McCarthyism?
    – SPavel
    Nov 29, 2017 at 18:22
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    I've added links to the Wikipedia pages for KMT and CPC (for those not familiar with the abbreviations). Please feel free to roll-back or replace them with other links if that's not OK. Nov 29, 2017 at 19:31
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    This reads more like a polemic than an actual question. In particular, the part about the qualities of a successful general seems unnecessary if not downright misleading - besides being IMHO demonstrably wrong.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 29, 2017 at 22:14
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    There is the current Russia hysteria. I wouldn't quite call it a large scale witchhunt yet. Nov 30, 2017 at 3:12
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    @agc That is the kind of thing small time politicians say. As a matter of fact, killing inspires fear rather than hatred; it worked time and again and overwhelming evidence indicates that those whose family and friends were killed tend to fear and worship the killer instead of hating him. Nov 30, 2017 at 17:32

3 Answers 3


I think that when war is declared, there is generally a fear of fifth columns operating at home on behalf of the enemy. I can offer a few examples from the first and second world wars.

  1. Ahead of the first world war, MI5 had prepared extensive lists of potential fifth-columnists who they thought should be interned should hostilities break out [Andrew, 2009]. In the event, the UK government decided to only intern a small percentage of that list, but the fact that the list was made supports your theory. Those who were interred were held in camps on the Isle of Man (which was also used for Prisoner of War camps). The government was quite open about the camps, even allowing journalists to visit and report on conditions there.

  2. During the First World War, there were several large-scale, anti-German riots in British cities. For example, the riots in Liverpool in 1915 targeted German families, and German-owned businesses.

Many businesses that were owned by foreign nationals found it necessary to make that fact clear to avoid being targeted. Images like the one below are all-too-common from that time:

We are Russians - shop sign

  1. During the Second World War, internment camps for German, Italian and Finnish civilians were once again set up on the Isle of Man by the UK government. Many of those interned on the island were refugees from the Nazis, so I have often wondered how they must have felt when the saw the island's emblem on arrival:

Isle of Man flag

On a side-note, one of those interned on the Isle-of-Man during the Second World War was the German archaeologist Gerhard Bersu. He was permitted to continue working as an archaeologist during the war (assisted by other internees), which goes some way towards explaining why we know so much about the archaeology of the occupation of the island during the historic and prehistoric periods.

Records of those interned by the British government during the two World Wars are now held at the UK National Archives in Kew.

  1. Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the United States government introduced internment camps for Japanese-American civilians in many states. Between 110,000 and 120,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were effected. They were motivated to do so by the fear of fifth-columns acting against the US on behalf of Japan.

Japanese internment]

However, the fact that the United States did not set up similar camps for American citizens of German ancestry does suggest that the phenomenon might not be a general one. At the very least, it suggests that the factors that lead to such a "witch-hunt" are rather more complex in nature.

In practice, this phenomenon doesn't actually require war to be declared for the effects to be felt. @SPavel has already mentioned McCarthyism, which was a similar reaction to the fears of the Cold War. In this case, the reaction can be traced back to Executive Order 9835 signed by President Truman in 1947, which required that federal employees (all 2 million of them) should be screened for "loyalty".

But despite all the above examples, the "large scale counter-intelligence-turned witch hunt" you describe in the question seems to be very much the exception rather than the rule.

If we look further back in history, in 17th century England only one torture warrant seems to have been issued in the years leading up to the English Civil War, and none during it [Thomas & Leo, 2012, p31]. Other than that, there was just the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins - which was an actual "witch hunt" rather than a war.

I did an online search looking for examples of torture being used to extract "confessions" to implicate innocents during the American Civil War and the American War of Independence, but couldn't find any examples at all. Obviously, it is probably impossible to prove that it never happened, but it certainly seems it wasn't carried out on a large scale.

Torture was certainly used in France during the Reign of Terror but, for the most part, that wasn't during a war, and so would seem to fall outside your criteria.


  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 30, 2017 at 21:28

When the Soviet Union detonated its own nuclear weapon in the late 1940s, the U.S. government came to the conclusion that the leaking of the relevant secrets was the work of a "spy ring." The investigation focused on the Rosenbergs (Julius and Ethel, a husband and wife team). It eventually pulled in a number of acquaintances, although it didn't exactly discover a "ring." The Rosenbergs were executed, although their guilt probably wasn't proven beyond a reasonable doubt, at least in hindsight.

These events were part of, and contributed to the (Second Red Scare") generally associated with Senator Joe McCarthy. (The first one was connected with Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in the 1920s.)

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    Subsequent revelations from KGB proved that McCarthy was actually right strategically (he did eff up on how he went about his task, admittedly)
    – DVK
    Dec 1, 2017 at 1:06
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    @DVK: The question wasn't "Which counterintelligence operations were mistplaced?" it was which ones turned into a witch hunt? McCarthy's was (initially) well placed, and turned into a witchhunt, like you said. So did KMT's attacks on the CCP, as cited by the OP.
    – Tom Au
    Dec 1, 2017 at 1:23

An example of a counterintelligence operation that turned into a withchunt is the "blue thing". I don't know how to call it in English so I barely translated, but the French word is "Bleuite".

The event consisted in a French governemental action to make the NLF (National Liberation Front = Algerian anti colonialists) think that is was infiltrated by traitors. This was a local tentative, but it grew up in a massive withhunt in all the NLF, with numerous executions, mainly because of some personnal oppositions between chiefs of the NLF, and because it was an "atomic" movement with multiple entities.

  • Boy, that keyword is rare in English texts known to the search-engines… But you might want to include hsdl.org/?view&did=712168 ? Jan 19, 2020 at 18:32
  • @LаngLаngС I will have a deeper look but it seems to speak of the torture exerted during "battle of Algiers" rather than the "fifth column operation" Jan 19, 2020 at 21:37

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