Civil Liberties, World War II

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The federal government, in response to periods of insecurity and conflict, sometimes restricts civil liberties in an effort to maintain national security. U.S. involvement in World War I brought about such restrictions, and World War II proved to be no different. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government took into custody almost 11,000 persons it considered enemy aliens. The arrest of the 8,000 Japanese Americans, 2,300 German Americans, and several hundred Italian Americans followed due process of law. However, on February 19, 1942, presidential action targeted one specific group for detainment. Executive Order 9066 provided the initial authority for the roundup and internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, including those who were American citizens. Congress later passed legislation to enforce the order. The Japanese Americans affected by the mandate, primarily those living on the West Coast, were divided and sent to ten detention centers located in California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.

The War Relocation Authority served as the administration responsible for overseeing the detention centers. Life in the camps was humane for the occupants, but even efforts meant to help or entertain the detainees often proved to be culturally insensitive. In 1943 the federal government forced the internees to take a loyalty oath, forswearing "any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor," and it asked if they were willing to serve in the United States military. Some Japanese-American men refused to serve and over 200 were sentenced to prison for their resistance. Others, however, served honorably. In fact, the 442nd Combat Regiment, composed of Japanese Americans, was the most decorated American unit in World War II and suffered the highest percentages of casualties and deaths.

The decision to intern Japanese Americans sparked opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union as well as from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A series of court cases also challenged the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans. The first, Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) regarded in general the restrictions placed on all Japanese Americans on the West Coast. After violating a curfew imposed on Japanese Americans, Gordon Hirabayashi objected that the law infringed on his civil rights. He also challenged the federal order authorizing the detainment of Japanese Americans in camps. In its decision, the Supreme Court avoided the issue of internment and instead ruled on the curfew, arguing that wartime conditions sometimes made it necessary to "place citizens of one ancestry in a different category from others." The decision not only maintained the curfew but also sanctioned continued limitation of Japanese Americans' movement, regardless of their citizenship status.

Other court cases directly contested the internment of Japanese Americans. A key case resulted from the resistance of a Japanese-American man who attempted to avoid detainment. Fred Korematsu ignored the orders for evacuation and remained in Oakland, California. After being arrested by the FBI, Korematsu argued in court

that due process of law had been violated. Despite the expectations of many legal professionals, the Supreme Court did not strike down the legislation authorizing detainment. Instead, in Korematsu v. United States (1944) the Supreme Court upheld the detention of Japanese Americans.

Finally, the Supreme Court acknowledged that not all Japanese Americans posed a threat to national security. In April 1942 Mitsue Endo filed a petition of habeas corpus, protesting her detainment at the Topaz Camp in Utah. After two years, in Endo v. United States (1944), the Supreme Court ruled that the War Relocation Authority should make an effort to separate "disloyal" internees from "loyal" ones and release the latter from the detention centers. Following the decision, the government announced that all the camps would be closed and the detainees released. The last of the camps closed in 1946.

The detainment episode can be put into a larger context of discrimination toward Asians. Decades earlier, the federal government enacted such measures as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in order to curb Asian immigration. Although provoked partially by security fears, the wartime internment was ultimately another expression of the United States' racism toward Asians. In 1982 a presidential commission declared that racism, a deficiency of leadership, and war hysteria provided the impetus for the detention. A few years later, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, awarding $20,000 each, as well as an official apology, to more than 80,000 individuals who had been detained.


Daniels, Roger. The Decision to Relocate the Japanese Americans. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1985.

Daniels, Roger. Prisoners without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese Internment Cases. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Taylor, Sandra C. Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Angela Frye Keaton

See also:Civil Liberties, Civil War; Civil Liberties, World War I.

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Civil Liberties, World War II