Internment of Enemy Aliens

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Internment of Enemy Aliens. Inevitably in time of war, American expectations of due process and protection of civil liberties have been reshaped into a peculiar synthesis of principle and expediency. Too frequently, expediency has triumphed over principle, and while the lapses in American commitment to these liberties has always been characterized by its perpetrators as temporary, and resulting from emergency conditions, it may be appropriate to ask: if such vital legal protections are disregarded when they are most needed, how deeply do they reflect American devotion to them?

Although internment of enemy aliens during the Civil War was of minimal importance, given the internal nature of the conflict, in both world wars the practice was much more common. It had deep roots in American history, beginning with the Alien Enemies Act of 1792. Part of the notorious series of statutes known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, this act somehow had escaped repeal—and President Woodrow Wilson invoked its provisions in April 1917 shortly after the United States entered World War I. By the time of the armistice, more than 6,300 German aliens had been detained, while others who had not been arrested were forced to register with federal authorities and barred from moving without official sanction. Moreover, authorities frequently found it convenient to label labor‐organizing activities as conduct by enemy aliens. Indeed, the infamous Red Scare took place well over a year after the armistice, and resulted in the internment of more than 4,000 individuals—arrested and imprisoned without either warrants or trials.

Americans fought in World War II with much less antiforeign hysteria than in 1917–19, yet one episode involving enemy aliens remains a terrible blot on the American tradition of civil liberties. The internment of Japanese Americans was in fact what the constitutional scholar Edward Corwin called “the most dramatic invasion of the rights [of U.S. citizens] by their own government that had thus far occurred in the history of our nation.” Although no specific evidence of sabotage by Japanese Americans was produced, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor neither the Justice Department nor the U.S. Attorney General was willing to confront the military on what it claimed to be a matter of “military necessity.” Nor, were the executive and judicial branches of federal government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the evacuation and internment order without any discussion with his cabinet, followed by the supine acceptance of this action by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Solely because of their racial heritage, rather than their conduct, Japanese Americans on the West Coast suffered severe personal stress and loss. They were forced, often overnight, to sell their property—including “land, stores, homes,” and personal possessions—before being forcibly relocated to confinement camps. The fact that Congress apologized for the internment many years after the war, and awarded some financial restitution to its survivors, only indicates the sense of national guilt over this episode, guilt that was fully warranted. The internment of Japanese Americans as enemy aliens, classified as such for reasons of expediency rather than evidence, remains an unnecessary blemish on the American heritage of equal protection under the law.
[See also Japanese‐American Internment Cases.]


Martin Grodzins , Americans Betrayed: Politics and the Japanese Evacuation, 1949.
Paul L. Murphy , The Constitution in Crisis Times, 1918–1969, 1972.

Jonathan Lurie

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Internment of Enemy Aliens

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