Enemy Aliens in the World Wars

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ENEMY ALIENS IN THE WORLD WARS. Since the late nineteenth century, the United States has tried to prevent criminals, political radicals, and other "dangerous" foreigners from entering the country. In 1875, Congress passed a law excluding foreign prostitutes and convicts; in 1882, lawmakers enacted legislation banning lunatics, idiots, and potentially indigent migrants. That same year, the federal government outlawed Chinese immigration, limited the rights of Chinese residents, and prevented them from gaining American citizenship. For the next several decades, American courts upheld congressional authority to exclude aliens. During the twentieth century, federal legislators continued passing laws that excluded a variety of aliens, particularly people who belonged to radical political organizations that advocated the violent overthrow of the government. Originally aimed at anarchists, statutes such as the Immigration Act of 1917, the Alien Registration Act (Smith Act) of 1940, the Internal Security Act of 1950, and the Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran-Walter Act) of 1952, extended the country's exclusion policy to individuals supporting socialism and communism. Congress also claimed the right to deport troublesome aliens. In 1948, the Supreme Court upheld the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, which authorized the president to expel any alien whom he regards as dangerous to the public peace or safety, or whom he believes is plotting against the country. Federal lawmakers also passed legislation in 1950 and again in 1952 giving the United States Attorney General authority to hold an alien in custody without bail.

Federal officials used these powers to crack down on enemy aliens during World War I and World War II. Soon after the United States entered World War I, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 15 June 1917 to intimidate socialists, radicals, and German Americans who opposed American participation in the conflict. Proponents of the law claimed it would only prevent sabotage of the war effort at home. Yet, the act's broad provisions allowed the federal government to imprison for up to twenty years anyone who made disloyal statements or tried to interfere with recruitment and enlistment, and to fine them $10,000. Although most radical groups who opposed the war did not spy on or sabotage the government, federal officials used the Espionage Act as an excuse to suppress unruly political organizations, such as the Industrial Workers of the World. Furthermore, the president ordered enemy aliens to stay away from military camps and munitions factories, and the government prevented them from entering or leaving the United States without special permission. Although federal officials interned a comparatively small number of aliens—2,300 of the 6,300 arrested—they had few procedural limitations and sometimes arrested suspects and held them without trial. The government also seized alien property during the war. Under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, Congress created the Office of the Alien Property Custodian, which maintained jurisdiction over "all money and property in the United States due or belonging to an enemy, or an ally of an enemy." Private citizens also harassed enemy aliens. Suspicious employers fired German American workers, and vigilante groups intimidated and attacked enemy aliens and political radicals around the nation. Popular hysteria reached its zenith during the war when people renamed sauerkraut "liberty cabbage," dachshunds "liberty pups," and German measles "liberty measles."

During World War II, federal officials continued to monitor the activities of enemy aliens. The government, for example, fingerprinted people of German, Italian, and Japanese descent and forced them to carry identification cards. Officials convicted few people for sedition, but the Smith Act curbed freedom of expression. Furthermore, although Postmaster General Frank Walker avoided the extremism of his predecessor, Albert S. Burleson, he rescinded the mailing privileges of Axis-sympathizer Father Charles E. Coughlin's Social Justice and the Trotskyist paper The Militant. By the middle of the war, the government had imprisoned 4,132 enemy aliens. Yet, by contrast, government and public treatment of enemy aliens, with one notorious exception, was more enlightened during World War II. Unlike World War I, federal officials rarely prosecuted citizens for criticizing the government, and vigilante action against aliens and dissenters was virtually unknown. Furthermore, German Americans never faced the same level of vehement discrimination and intimidation that they had suffered during World War I.

People of Japanese descent, however, were not so fortunate. Early in the war, deep-seated prejudice toward Asians and growing public fears convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to place Japanese Americans in internment camps. On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066, giving the secretary of war the power to restrict designated military areas. Under the auspices of this order, the federal government transferred approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans, some 70,000 of whom were American citizens, from California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona to relocation camps in the United States interior. On March 21, 1942, Congress confirmed and ratified Roosevelt's order. Japanese internment, and the treatment of enemy aliens during war, remains one of the most troubling legacies of American history.


Kennedy, David. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. Oxford, U.K.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1980; 1982.

Luebke, Frederick C. Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974.

Murphy, Paul L. World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States. New York: Norton, 1979.

Preston, William. Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903–1933. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989; New York: Penguin Books, 1990; Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.

Joseph A.Dowling/e. m.

See alsoChinese Exclusion Act ; Espionage Act ; Immigration Restriction ; Japanese American Incarceration .