In the years after World War I, the United States fell into the Red Scare of 1919-1920. Following upon the Russian Revolution, a series of terrorist bombings in the United States set off a national panic against “radical” elements who were seen as threatening to overthrow the government. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer established the General Intelligence within the Bureau of Investigation and appointed a young J. Edgar Hoover to lead the charge. Hoover unleashed a horde of undercover informants and he and Palmer then launched a series of raids in which thousands of aliens were indiscriminately rounded up and arrested for suspected radical
activities. More than a thousand of these individuals were quickly deported.
By 1921, the nation began to come to its senses and increasingly realized that it had grossly overreacted both during World War I and the Red Scare. In 1922, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone reined in Hoover and warned of the dangers of “secret police.” By 1923, all persons who had been convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 had been released from prison. Thereafter, they were all granted amnesty on the premise that the nation had violated their rights under the First Amendment. From the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, free speech was increasingly celebrated in the United States by the press, educators, civil libertarians, and political leaders as a fundamental American value.
Pressure on this new consensus soon began to build, however, as new radical voices began to be heard during the Depression from both the left (the Communist Party of the United States) and the right (the German-American Bund). By the late 1930s, government investigating committees had begun to look into these new “subversive” organizations.
Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Unlike World War I, the enemy had directly attacked the United States. The public rallied to the nation’s its defense. Prior calls for isolationism disappeared after Pearl Harbor, and there was almost no dissent during the “Good War.” (If you’re interested in the dissent that did exist during World War II, and especially the government’s prosecution of “Nazi sympathizers,” see pages 252-280 in Perilous Times.)
The major civil liberties issue in World War II arose out of the internment of 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, representing 90% of all American citizens of Japanese ancestry. It is useful to compare how the United States dealt with individuals of German and Italian ancestry. All German and Italian citizens who were in the United States during World War II (that is, citizens of those nations) were reviewed by the FBI and military authorities. If they were determined to
be dangerous to the national security, they were detained. If they were found not to be dangerous (as was the case for the vast majority), they were allowed to remain in the U.S. under relatively modest restrictions. Of course, no effort was made to round up American citizens of German or Italian origin.
In the weeks after Pearl Harbor, there was no call for the internment of persons of Japanese ancestry. But gradually (false) rumors spread along the West Coast about planned espionage and sabotage, and against a background of long-standing hostility to persons of Asian descent, many citizens became increasingly alarmed and angry about having to live near people who looked like the enemy and might share their aims. When asked why Japanese-Americans should be treated differently from German and Italian Americans, California Attorney General Earl Warren explained that it’s possible to tell a loyal German or Italian from a disloyal one, but that such a determination was simply not possible with those of the Japanese race.
As the clamor for internment grew, it was fed by opportunistic politicians and hysterical newspaper accounts. General DeWitt, who was in charge of the United States’s Western Command, finally recommended that all persons of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens, should leave their homes and be relocated to
Although J. Edgard Hoover vehemently opposed this recommendation on the ground that it was unnecessary, excessive, and entirely the product of public hysteria, and Attorney General Francis Biddle opposed it as unconstitutional and immoral, FDR nonetheless issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. Under this order, all persons of Japanese ancestry in California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon, men, women, and children, regardless of age, were ordered to abandon their possessions (except those they could carry) and were transported to “internment” camps, where they remained behind barbed wire for almost three years. Why did FDR do this? Certainly, it was not because there was a military necessity. Rather, it was a political decision. FDR did not want to lose the support of the western states in the 1942 congressional elections.
So, here’s a question for you: Suppose the United States is hit with six terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 in the next three weeks. Suppose some of the terrorists are foreigners and some are American citizens who are Muslim. Suppose the Bush administration
orders the detention of all non-citizen Muslims in the United States and the temporary detention of all Muslims who are citizens of the United States, at least to determine which may pose a threat to the security of the nation. Would you support this? Can you distinguish it from the World War II internment?