Let Us Not Persecute These People Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This radio address, delivered by United States Attorney General Francis Biddle, outlined the process to be followed to identify, register, and monitor citizens of nations that were then at war with the United States. The enemy alien registration of 1942 was the latest in a series of steps taken in an effort to contain perceived threats from within the country. Japanese, German, and Italian citizens living in the United States were forced to register and be fingerprinted at local post offices, and they were required to carry their enemy alien registration card with them at all times. Most Americans, influenced by prevailing ideas about race and ethnicity and frightened that there were enemy agents living among them, supported this registration and the subsequent internment of people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, on the Pacific coast. A far smaller number of Germans and Italians were also detained. Attorney General Biddle argued that the burden on the people identified as enemy aliens was light—just a simple registration form—and was a necessary step in wartime. He also emphasized that the vast majority of these people were peaceful and loyal, and that persecuting them would only make them more likely to be sympathetic to the enemy nation of their birth.

Summary Overview

This radio address, delivered by United States Attorney General Francis Biddle, outlined the process to be followed to identify, register, and monitor citizens of nations that were then at war with the United States. The enemy alien registration of 1942 was the latest in a series of steps taken in an effort to contain perceived threats from within the country. Japanese, German, and Italian citizens living in the United States were forced to register and be fingerprinted at local post offices, and they were required to carry their enemy alien registration card with them at all times. Most Americans, influenced by prevailing ideas about race and ethnicity and frightened that there were enemy agents living among them, supported this registration and the subsequent internment of people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, on the Pacific coast. A far smaller number of Germans and Italians were also detained. Attorney General Biddle argued that the burden on the people identified as enemy aliens was light—just a simple registration form—and was a necessary step in wartime. He also emphasized that the vast majority of these people were peaceful and loyal, and that persecuting them would only make them more likely to be sympathetic to the enemy nation of their birth.

Defining Moment

The United States has a long tradition of suspending civil liberties during times of war. Following the country's entrance into World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued regulations restricting the rights of enemy aliens. The restrictions were broad enough to allow for large numbers of aliens to be arrested and questioned and sometimes incarcerated. Regulation 12 stated that “an alien enemy whom there may be reasonable cause to believe (is) about to aid the enemy… or violates any regulation promulgated by the President… will be subject to summary arrest… and to confinement in such penitentiary, prison, jail, or military camp.” Over six thousand aliens were arrested during World War I, most on espionage charges stemming from alleged support of the German government.

In the heightened international tension of the 1930s, as Japanese and German (and after 1937, Italian) aggression pushed the world toward war, the United States again looked within its borders for subversive elements. The idea of the fifth column, a term coined during the Spanish Civil War, was that enemy agents working within a country could turn the tide of war and could spread misinformation and chaos by infiltrating the fabric of the nation they fought against. Fifth column elements were seen as being responsible for the rapid fall of France, and for Russia's early alliance with Hitler, among other things. In 1936, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) was given broad authority to investigate suspected enemy organizations and operatives. In 1940, the Alien Registration Act, known as the Smith Act, outlawed subversive speech and forced all noncitizen residents of the United States to register with the government. Though the primary purpose of the Smith Act was to identify aliens living in the United States, it was also used to prosecute over two hundred perceived Communist and fascist sympathizers.

On December 7, 1941, the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked by the Japanese. War with Japan was declared the following day in a joint session of Congress. On December 11, Germany declared war on the United States, and hours later the United States followed with a declaration of war on Germany. Immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Public Proclamation 2525, in accordance with the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, which gave the government the authority to take property from and detain enemy aliens. This proclamation specifically targeted Japanese citizens. The following day, Public Proclamations 2526 and 2527 expanded the regulations to German and Italian aliens. Aliens who were considered potential threats were arrested by the FBI and turned over to military and immigration authorities. On February 2, the government required citizens of enemy nations (Germany, Japan, and Italy) over fourteen years of age to register and be fingerprinted. At the same time, the government began discussing the removal of both Japanese aliens and citizens from the Pacific coast to inland detention camps. On February 19, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the relocation and internment of over one hundred thousand people of Japanese ancestry.

Author Biography

Francis Beverley Biddle was born in 1886 in Paris, France, and was the third son of American parents. After his law professor father died in 1892, the family lived in Switzerland for two years before returning to the United States. Biddle attended the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts and then earned a law degree from Harvard in 1911. After graduating from law school, he became the private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes before joining a Philadelphia law firm where he worked in corporate law for twenty-three years. Though he was a longtime Republican, he was at odds with labor policies in his party, and President Roosevelt appointed him as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board in 1934. In 1941, Biddle was appointed attorney general. Biddle had been in this position for three months when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In February 1942, after initially opposing the measure, Biddle agreed to Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the mass removal of people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps. Biddle resigned as attorney general after Roosevelt's death in 1945, and Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, named him a judge in the postwar Nuremberg Trials, where twenty-one senior Nazi officials were tried for war crimes, twelve of them subsequently sentenced to death. After the war, Biddle served as chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Commission. He authored several books, including a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Biddle died in 1968 in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Historical Document

STARTING tomorrow, February 2, the United States Government tackles a new and important part of the job of making America safe. Tomorrow the Department of Justice begins the process of identifying all German, Italian and Japanese aliens, 14 years or older—all non-citizens of enemy nationality—now living in this country.

This is a program of personal identification. It means adding vital information to the record we already have of these aliens. It means establishing their identities through signatures and photographs. And to each alien of enemy nationality so registered, it means the possession of a certificate of identification to be used at all times and in all places, for the duration of the war.

By this means, persons who through no action on their part have technically become “alien enemies”, but who have remained above suspicion, will be protected from injustice or persecution which might arise from mistaken identity. Also by this means, the Department of Justice places further restraint on any alien enemy who may deliberately seek to violate our laws. And it is with both these objectives in mind that I describe the identification programs as another part of the job of making America safe—safety for the nation against the small minority of alien enemies who may be contemplating trouble, and safety for the great majority of aliens who are above suspicion.

It is a big job. It is a job that must be done with a minimum of misunderstanding and with a maximum of accuracy and dispatch. For those directly affected, the Department of Justice has prepared detailed instructions which are now available at every post office. Without going intothose details, I want at this time to describe briefly the nature of the job that must be done, the machinery set up to do it, and the schedule for its completion.

More than a year ago, as a precautionary measure, we required registration by all aliens of all national origins residing in the United States. That was also a big job. But it was completed quickly, smoothly, in an atmosphere of understanding and with a fine spirit of cooperation.

Among the 5,000,000 aliens of all nationalities who made their presence in the country known at that time were natives of Germany, Italy and Japan numbering, all told, approximately 1,100,000 persons. We made no special demands on this group, and required of them no more than we did of any others.

Now that we are at war with all three of these nations, we are obliged to take new precautions with their nationals and subjects residing in our country—thorough-going, wartime precautions. The initial steps leading up to these measures, such as the Alien Registration of 1940, had been prepared well in advance. Enforcement of actual wartime regulations awaited only the proclamations relating to the conduct of alien enemies, which President Roosevelt signed on December 7 and 8, 1941. From that time forward, a number of regulations to insure the internal safety of the nation have been put in force as the necessity arose. This identification program becomes a part of the wartime regulations of alien enemies.

Among the 1,100,000 registered aliens of German, Italian and Japanese origin, a small proportion have records which suggest doubtful or divided loyalties. Some 3,200 have been apprehended by the FBI. They are allowed to tell their stories individually before special civilian hearing boards appointed for this purpose in each judicial district, but upon each one rests the burden of proof of his own harmlessness to our cause. Unless and until he is able to give that proof to our complete satisfaction, he must remain in custody. The others—the overwhelming majority of these people who are technically called alien enemies—have thus far come through with a clean bill of health. There is no reason to suspect them, certainly none to persecute or inflict unnecessary hardships upon them.

But because of the disloyal few, the many must be inconvenienced. They must submit to certain blanket regulations which are intended to make this nationwide checkup simpler and more effective. We have forbidden alien enemies to possess cameras, for example, or short-wave radio sets, or any equipment which conceivably might be used to the detriment of our cause. We have laid down certain rules as to where they may go and where not. We require that they obtain permission for travel. Such regulations are neither oppressive nor, by implication, hostile.

So with this new identification program. There is implicit in this program no singling out of the individual for accusation or suspicion. That is not the intent; that will not be the effect. Rather, the individual alien's full compliance with the program and his cooperation with those who have the work in hand will be additional evidence of his good faith and will serve as his protection.

At the same time, the requirement of certificates will be of aid to federal and local authorities in making such checkups as are deemed necessary in the interest of national safety. We cannot take the risk, for example, of allowing complete or unregulated freedom of movement within the country to persons classed as alien enemies. We cannot risk the chance that a certain few such persons may attempt to impersonate others, or use in any way the credentials of others. In this way, the identification program is a necessary part of our wartime protection.

The identification program will take at least a month to accomplish. The sheer mechanics involved in taking stock of more than a million individuals—each to be dealt with separately—makes it a huge job. If the aliens do their part as intelligently and cooperatively as they did in the registration completed last year—and there is no reason to assume that they will not do so—then the load will be lightened and the time required will be kept to a minimum.

To facilitate this task, the program is scheduled in two periods, and the work divided geographically. In the first period, starting tomorrow and carrying through February 7, eight states in the western part of the country will be covered—California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, Utah and Idaho. We are handling the West Coast first because that is a potentially critical area. We don't take chances. Between February 9 and February 28, the job will be completed in all other states.

The procedure which the alien must go through to obtain his certificate is simple enough. He studies the printed directions now available at all post offices. Then he goes to the nearest first or second-class or county seat post office, bringing with him the receipt card which was issued to him in the alien registration of 1940. He also brings three small unmounted photographs of himself, two by two inches in size. At the post office he fills out an application form. That is all he does. Then he is fingerprinted and goes home. Later his certificate of identification will be delivered to him. And that is all.

Aliens may get assistance from friends or relatives, or from recognized social agencies. The post office officials will also be glad to assist them in filling out the necessary forms.

The aliens should pay no one any money in connection with this program. The only expense the alien need incur is the cost of the three small photographs he is required to submit. If any one approaches a person for money in connection with wartime regulations of alien enemies, he is a racketeer and should be reported to the Department of Justice immediately.

The alien will be required to carry his certificate with him at all times. That is his obligation, as well as his protection. That same government which has seen to it that he is not persecuted in this country will be just as firm in its insistence upon strict compliance on his part. Alien enemies who fail to apply for their identification certificates face severe penalties. One penalty will be internment for the duration of the war. Our government, in time of war, cannot accept carelessness or neglect as excuses from those of its own citizens who fail in their duty to the Nation. It cannot be expected to make exceptions of those who are subjects of enemy power.

Thus far I have addressed my remarks primarily to the aliens of enemy nationality. I now wish to talk for a minute or two to our citizen population. I wish to assure you that your government is taking every precaution to guard against espionage, sabotage, or other fifth column activities. Through the splendid work of the FBI and other divisions of the Department of Justice, we have been very much on the alert and have thus far met all problems as they arose. And I promise you that your Department of Justice will continue to be on the alert in protecting the internal security of our country.

At the same time, I want to point out that persecution of aliens—economic or social—can be a two-edged sword. Such persecution can easily drive people, now loyal to us, into fifth column activities. Economic discrimination against loyal aliens deprives us of skills and manual labor which will become more important as time goes on. It also deprives these people of a livelihood. The logical conclusion of a policy of economic discrimination is to make of these people public charges. It is entirely unnecessary. And don't forget there are still many Americans in Axis and Axis-controlled countries. Let's not give the Axis countries any excuse for retaliation against innocent Americans living abroad.

And let us remember, also, that the great majority of the so-called alien enemies came to our shores for the same reasons that many of our fathers came—to escape persecution; to enjoy the privileges and obligations of democracy; to raise their children in a free world. These people are loyal to our ideals and loyal to our form of government. Let's encourage that loyalty rather than discourage it. Let us judge people by what they do and not by what they are.

You have all read in the papers of the landing a few days ago of an American Expeditionary Force in North Ireland. Perhaps you will recall that the name of the first American soldier to march down the gang plank was Private Henke. Private Henke is the son of a German immigrant who came to our country in search of freedom and opportunity. His son is in the vanguard of our Army fighting to preserve that freedom and our land of opportunity.

I give you this incident not because it is odd but rather because it is typical. The alien of today is the citizen of tomorrow. Large numbers of those people we classify as alien enemies have American-born children—perhaps future leaders of our country.

Let us not be hasty in our judgment of them. Let us not deprive them of their jobs. Let us not be suspicious of them unless we have grounds for suspicion. Let us not persecute these people as an outlet of our emotions against the bandits who are at the moment in control of the nations where they were born.

Glossary

fifth column: a group of people who act traitorously or subversively out of a secret sympathy for an enemy of their country; originally from a 1936 statement about Franco sympathizers in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War

incur: to come into or acquire some consequence, usually something undesirable; to become liable; to take upon oneself

racketeer: a person engaged in a racket, which is an organized illegal activity, such as bootlegging or extortion of money

Document Analysis

This radio address was given on February 1, 1942, nearly two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fear of enemies residing within the country permeated the national consciousness, and the attorney general's address is intended to reassure the American people that their government is taking extensive measures to keep its citizens safe. The address is also meant to convince the public that the government knows who the dangerous elements in the population are and that there is no need to persecute enemy aliens who had not been thus identified.

Biddle begins by introducing the purpose of this identification, the “new and important part of the job of making America safe.” The alien registration a year prior to Biddle's speech identified all “non-citizens of enemy nationality,” but Biddle stresses that this is a matter of identification and not one of condemnation. Indeed, correct identification will ultimately help to protect innocent people from “injustice or persecution which might arise from mistaken identity.” The nation will be protected from aliens who mean them harm, and aliens who are loyal will be safe from suspicion.

Of the aliens identified in 1940, Biddle estimates that 1.1 million were Germans, Italians, and Japanese. They were not singled out then, but since the United States was now at war with those nations, it needed to take precautions, “thorough-going, wartime precautions.” Measures to control the “conduct of enemy aliens” were issued on December 7 and 8, 1941, and the identification of enemy aliens is one more step in that process. The burden of proof in cases where the allegiance of an enemy alien is questioned is on the accused. “A small proportion have records which suggest doubtful or divided loyalties… upon each one rests the burden of proof of his own harmlessness to our cause. Unless and until he is able to give that proof to our complete satisfaction, he must remain in custody.” Biddle explains that even enemy aliens beyond suspicion are restricted: They are unable to travel freely, unable to own cameras or radios, and will be forced out of areas considered too sensitive. Biddle defends these restrictions. “Such regulations are neither oppressive nor, by implication, hostile,” and he does admit that some individuals may be “inconvenienced.”

Biddle describes the registration process in detail. It will begin on the West Coast, as this is a “potentially critical area.” This special attention paid to the western states foreshadows the particular suspicion that fell on those of Japanese descent whose population was highest near the Pacific.

After describing the process of registration and warning enemy aliens that failure to register or follow the restrictions set for them would not be tolerated, Biddle turns his attention to “our citizen population.” The government was doing everything in its power to keep the nation safe, he explains, and therefore it would be counterproductive to retaliate in any way against those identified through this process. Aliens provide needed labor, and if they are deprived of jobs, they would become a burden on the state. Biddle reminds his listeners that most of them came to the United States as immigrants to “escape persecution; to enjoy the privileges and obligations of democracy; to raise their children in a free world,” and that immigrants and the children of immigrants were fighting for their country. Enemy aliens should not be unjustly held accountable for “the bandits who are at the moment in control of the nations where they were born.”

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this radio address is the need to identify Japanese, German, and Italian citizens living in the United States and then restrict and control their behavior. Attorney General Biddle argued that this was not only in the best interest of the nation and necessary for the nation's security, but that it was vital that for their own safety, innocent aliens also be correctly identified. Though the burden of proof is on the alien if he or she is under suspicion of any kind, Biddle argued that this is a not a heavy burden to be borne, and he urges Americans to not treat them badly without cause. This was a case of the mass suspension of civil rights in time of war and in the name of protecting the nation and its citizens. The identification of potential enemy aliens opened the way for the internment of over one hundred thousand Japanese immigrants and citizens before the end of the month in which this speech was given—an action that has been a matter of controversy ever since.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Back Bay, 2012. Print.
  • Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps, USA: Japanese Americans and World War II. New York: Holt, 1971. Print.
  • Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. Print.
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