War and civil liberties Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During periods of armed conflict and fear of war, the U.S. government has often restricted and even curtailed the liberties and rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

The civil liberties contained in the U.S. Constitution were designed to protect citizens against abuses of power by government. The Bill of Rights sets limits on the government’s power to regulate an individual’s speech, religion, and political activities. In addition, it provides the government with certain procedures to ensure that individuals accused of crimes are treated fairly. The Constitution also empowers the government to pursue legitimate goals, one of the most important of which is defense of the nation. As the guardian of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has frequently been called upon to decide cases in which the government’s ability to wage war has come into conflict with the civil liberties of its citizens.

During World War II, many people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were American citizens, were relocated to concentration camps away from the West Coast. This relocation order was posted in San Francisco in April, 1942.

(National Archives)

When the Bill of Rights was ratified, attitudes about liberties and rights were much more limited than in later periods of history. During an undeclared naval war with France, for example, Congress passed the Sedition Law of 1798Sedition Law of 1798, which codified the English common law of seditious law of seditious libel, making it a crime punishable by imprisonment or fine to speak disparagingly of the national government or national leaders. Supreme Court justices, while on circuit, presided over trials in which persons were sentenced to prison for their speech. Although most jurists of the time considered the Sedition Law constitutional because it did not authorize prior restraintPrior restraint of expression, the law became very unpopular, especially after its denunciation in the Kentucky and Virginia ResolutionsKentucky and Virginia Resolutions, written by Thomas JeffersonJefferson, Thomas and James MadisonMadison, James. During the War of 1812 (1812-1814)War of 1812 and the Mexican WarMexican War (1846-1848), national leaders apparently saw no need to pass another such law.

The Civil War

During the course of the Civil WarCivil War;and civil liberties[civil liberties] (1861-1865), President Abraham LincolnLincoln, Abraham;Civil War, taking a narrow view of individual liberties, issued executive orders to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, to seize newspapers critical of the government’s policies, and to conduct military trials of civilians. Because the federal courts had not routinely heard claims of civil liberties violations, relatively few cases reached the Court. When they did arrive, Chief Justice Roger Brooke TaneyTaney, Roger Brooke;Civil War, a southerner, was one of Lincoln’s strongest critics.

In the case of Ex parte Merryman[c]Merryman, Ex parte (1861), which involved a pro-Confederate political leader arrested under Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Chief Justice Taney filed an opinion condemning the arrest as unconstitutional, arguing that only Congress had authority to suspend the writ. However, the majority of justices refused to join the opinion, and Congress later defended Linclon by passing a habeas corpus statute. After Clement Valladigham was tried in a military court and banished beyond Confederate lines, he petitioned the Supreme Court for a review of his conviction. In Ex parte Vallandigham[c]Vallandigham, Ex parte (1964), the Court responded that based on the Judiciary Act of 1789Judiciary Act of 1789;and military[military], it lacked jurisdiction to review military proceedings.

In 1866, after the Civil War ended, the Court finally issued a ruling on the constitutionality of military trials of civilians in Ex parte Milligan[c]Milligan, Ex parte. Lambdin P. Milligan had been tried by a military commission in Indiana on charges of conspiring to seize Union munitions. Strongly rejecting the government’s argument that the Bill of RightsBill of Rights;in wartime[wartime] could be suspended in time of war, the Court held that Milligan had been deprived of his constitutional right to a trial by jury. As long as the civilian courts continued to operate, the Court held, military trials of civilians were prohibited. Ironically, Republican liberals at the time denounced the Milligan ruling because President Andrew JohnsonJohnson, Andrew used it as a justification to reduce military authority in the occupied South. Most commentators regard Milligan as a constitutional landmark, although the Court did not refer to it as a binding precedent during World War II.

World War I<index-term><primary>World War I[World War 01];and war powers[war powers]</primary></index-term><index-term><primary>Sedition;World War I[World War 01]</primary></index-term>

During World War I, Congress enacted the Espionage Act of 1917Espionage Act of 1917, which included criminal punishments for anyone making false reports to help the enemy or anyone seeking to interfere with military operations or the draft. An amendment of 1918, commonly called the Sedition Act,Sedition Act of 1918 further punished the uttering or printing of any “disloyal” language. Under this draconian legislation, the government reported a total of 877 convictions out of 1,956 prosecutions. The first case to come before the Court was Schenck v. United States[c]Schenck v. United States (1919), which involved a defendant found guilty of distributing leaflets that encouraged young men to resist the military draft. The Court upheld Schenck’s conviction, saying that his ideas posed a “clear and present danger” of leading to the results that Congress had the constitutional right to prevent.

In Debs v. United States[c]Debs v. United States (1919), the Court upheld the conviction of a prominent Socialist leader Eugene V. DebsDebs, Eugene V. for delivering a speech denouncing the war that, in the Court’s view, had the tendency to promote illegal acts against the war effort, even though Debs did not explicitly advocate illegality. Likewise, in Abrams v. United States[c]Abrams v. United States (1919), the Court upheld, by a 7-2 vote, a sentence of twenty years imprisonment for distributing leaflets that urged people to oppose American efforts to undermine Russia’sRussian Revolution Bolshevik Revolution. In an eloquent dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that the government under the First Amendment could only punish “speech that produces or is intended to produce a clear and imminent danger” of substantive harm. He denied that such a danger existed from “the surreptitious publishing of a silly leaflet by an unknown man.”

World War II<index-term><primary>World War II[World War 02]</primary></index-term>

The Supreme Court’s commitment to civil liberties was severely tested during World War II (1941-1945). In 1942, President Franklin D. RooseveltRoosevelt, Franklin D.;World War II[World War 02] signed Executive Order 9066Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced evacuation of about 110,000 persons ofWorld War II[World War 02];Japanese American relocationJapanese American relocation Japanese ancestry. Despite the protections of the Fifth Amendment, the internees were deprived of liberty without being charged of any wrongdoing. Many lost their homes and businesses. The government argued that some Japanese Americas remained loyal to their ancestral homeland and therefore posed a threat to national security, and that it was impossible to separate the loyal from the disloyal. In Korematsu v. United States[c]Korematsu v. United States (1944), the Court upheld the forced relocation by a 6-3 vote. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo L. BlackBlack, Hugo L.;Korematsu v. United States uncritically accepted the arguments of military leaders; ironically, he affirmed that restrictions of a single racial group should be given “the most rigid scrutiny.”

In reviewing prosecutions of alleged war criminals, the Stone Court usually deferred to the wishes of the executive branch. In Ex Parte Quirin[c]Quirin, Ex Parte (1942), the Court unanimously upheld the use of secret military commissions in the convictions of eight German saboteurs captured in the United States. The Court quickly concluded that Congress had authorized the commissions in Article of War 15, showing little concern about the procedures used. The justices declared that despite the 1866 Milligan precedent, the saboteurs were not entitled to civilian trials because they were enemy belligerents (even though one of the men had been a naturalized U.S. citizen).

In Haupt v. United States[c]Haupt v. United States (1947), the Supreme Court upheld a treason conviction based on evidence that the defendant had done no more than shelter his son. When upholding the very hasty military conviction of a Japanese general charged with failure to prevent war crimes in the Philippines in the case of In re Yamashita[c]Yamashita, In re (1946), Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone,Stone, Harlan Fiske;Yamashita, In re speaking for seven justices, rejected the two dissenters’ concern about the lack of any due process required by the Fifth Amendment. In Duncan v. Kahanamoku[c]Duncan v. Kahanamoku (1946), which involved the use of military tribunals for prosecuting civilians in what was then the territory of Hawaii, the Court eventually held that the use of the tribunals violated Hawaii’s organic law. However, reflecting the Court’s determination not to hinder the war effort, the Court did not issue the decision until two years after the termination of martial lawMartial law;in Hawaii[Hawaii]. Even then, the Court carefully avoided any reference to constitutional rights or to Milligan.

In comparison with its actions during the previous world war, the Court was not faced with the task of reviewing mammoth assaults on free expression. The Roosevelt administration did not prosecute large numbers of people for speech or press violations under either the Smith Act of 1940Smith Act (1940) or the Espionage Act of 1940Espionage Act of 1940. However, the Court did decline to review a few cases in which individuals were punished for illegal advocacy, most notably the sensational case of eighteen communistsCommunism;and Smith Act[Smith Act] convicted in Minnesota in 1941 under the Smith Act. More typical, however, was the case of Hartzel v. United States[c]Hartzel v. United States (1944), in which the Court overturned an Espionage Act conviction for the distribution of profascist literature, finding insufficient evidence that the defendant had intended to impede the U.S. war effort. Likewise, in Keegan v. United States[c]Keegan v. United States (1945), it concluded that the evidence was too meager to sustain the conviction of German American Bund members for conspiracy to oppose the draft. Perhaps the most important free expression precedent during the war was West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[c]West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), which upheld the constitutional right of school children not to participate in salute-the-flag ceremonies.

The Cold War, 1946-1991<index-term><primary>Cold War;and war powers[war powers]</primary></index-term>

After World War II, government prosecutors vigorously pursued communist leaders under the Smith Act, which threatened up to ten years imprisonment for any person who “advocates, abets, advises, or teaches” the desirability of a violent revolution. Chief Justice Fred M. VinsonVinson, Fred M.;and subversion[subversion] as well as other members of the Court were fearful of internal subversion, perhaps influenced by Senator Joseph McCarthy’sMcCarthy, Joseph[MacCarthy, Joseph] anticommunist crusade during the Korean War (1950-1953). In a 6-2 decision, the Court upheld the Smith ActCommunism;and Smith Act[Smith Act] convictions of eleven communist leaders in Dennis v. United States[c]Dennis v. United States (1961), emphasizing the “gravity of the evil” and applying the so-called “grave and probable danger test.”

After the Korean WarKorean War ended in 1953, the justices began to moderate their fears of communist subversion. Setting aside the convictions of fourteen communists leaders in Yates v. United States[c]Yates v. United States (1957), the majority opinion stated that convictions must be based on advocacy of action and not advocacy of belief, which made convictions difficult under the Smith Act. In Peters v. Hobby[c]Peters v. Hobby (1955), the Court reinstated federal employees who had been discharged under the loyalty-security program. In Watkins v. United States[c]Watkins v. United States (1957), the Court put limits on the extent to which congressional committees could require witnesses to answer personal questions.

During the late 1950’s, Justices Felix FrankfurterFrankfurter, Felix;and subversion[subversion] and John Marshall HarlanHarlan, John Marshall;and subversion[subversion] appeared to become more fearful of subversion. In Barenblatt v. United States[c]Barenblatt v. United States (1959), the Court retreated from Watkins and upheld the conviction for contempt of a witness who had refused to answer questions to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).House Committee on Un-American Activities The justices voted five to four to sustain a Smith Act conviction in Scales v. United States (1961), although they insisted that any convictions must be based on evidence of active participation in a subversive group.

During the Vietnam War (1965-1973)Vietnam War (1965-1973), in contrast to its actions during most other U.S. wars, the Court actually expanded constitutional liberties. In the seminal case of Brandenburg v. Ohio[c]Brandenburg v. Ohio (1968), the Court held that advocacy of violence could only be punished when it was intended and likely to provoke “imminent lawless action.” The Court’s ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District[c]Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) recognized that public school students had a constitutional right to display antiwar symbols as long as long as there was no disruption of normal school activities. Refusing to endorse a “prior restraint of expression” in New York Times Co. v. United States[c]New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), the Court rejected the government’s attempt to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers in the name of national security.

Terrorism, Afghanistan, and Iraq

As in other times of fear and war, the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001,September 11 attacksTerrorism;September 11 attacks caused many Americans to become more concerned about national securityNational security;and terrorism[terrorism] than about their civil liberties. Seven days after the attacks, Congress passed an Authorization to use Military Force, empowering the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against terrorists and their supporters. A few weeks later, Congress passed passed the Patriot Act,Patriot Act (2001) which made it easier for executive agencies to gather and share information about persons in the United States. Civil libertarians were highly critical of these statutes, especially since some provisions resembled bills of attainderBill of attainder.

Civil libertarians denounced President George W. Bush’sBush, George W.;and civil liberties[civil liberties] executive order authorizing the National Security AgencyNational Security Agency (NSA) to monitor, without obtaining warrants, conversations among Americans and among suspected terrorists abroad, contrary to legislation requiring that warrants first be obtained by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance ActFederal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Bush administration responded that its policy was justified by the inherent powers of the president as well as by Congress’s endorsement of a war against terrorism. Civil libertarians were outraged with the Bush Administration’s domestic surveillance policies. In 2006, it remained uncertain whether the Supreme Court would be called on to decide the constitutionality of Bush’s policies.

Meanwhile, the Court faced decisions about whether to review cases involving the detaining of persons (both citizens and noncitizens) suspected of giving support to terrorists. After invading AfghanistanAfghanistan in 2001, President Bush ordered an ambitious military operation against IraqIraq War in 2003. The administration endorsed a policy of detaining large numbers of persons suspected of either being terrorists or cooperating with terrorist groups. Many prisoners naturally sought habeas corpus relief in U.S. federal courts. Yaser HamdiHamdi, Yaser, an American citizen raised in Saudi Arabia and accused of cooperating with the enemy in Afghanistan, was imprisoned for over two years in the United States as an “enemy combatant,” without being charged and without the right of habeas corpus. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld[c]Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004), however, the Court held that the due process clause guaranteed all citizens the right to a “fair opportunity” to contest their detention before neutral magistrates, and that Hamdi had either to be tried for a specific crime or be released. An arrangement was worked out through which Hamdi renounced his citizenship and was returned to Saudi Arabia.

An issue of greater significance was the fate of five hundred foreign citizens held on suspicion of supporting terrorism at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo,Guantanamo, Cuba Cuba. The government claimed that these alien prisoners on foreign soil did not have any privilege of seeking habeas corpus relief in the federal courts, emphasizing that the naval base, which was located in a foreign country, did not fall under the jurisdiction of U.S. federal courts. When finally reviewing several habeas corpus petitions in Rasul v. Bush[c]Rasul v. Bush (2004), the Court rejected the government’s position by a 6-3 vote. Speaking for the majority, Justice John Paul StevensStevens, John Paul;on habeas corpus[habeas corpus] concluded that federal courts held jurisdiction over the “territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control.” In addition, he wrote that the right to habeas corpus was not dependent upon citizenshipCitizenship;and habeas corpus[habeas corpus]Habeas corpus;and citizenship[citizenship] status, observing that for three hundred years the English common law had extended the privilege to any person held by the government. In 2006, it was expected that the right of habeas corpus relief would eventually force the government to choose between either releasing or prosecuting at least some of the Guantanamo detainees.

The BushBush, George W.;and military commissions[military commissions] administration made plans to use special military commissions for the trials of aliens who could be charged with crimes of war. The commissions were established under a presidential order of 2003. By early 2006, ten detainees at Guantanamo had been formally charged. The Supreme Court reviewed the case of one of these defendants, Salim Ahmed HamdanHamdan, Salim Ahmed, a Yemeni national accused of conspiracy to commit terrorism. Its 5-3 decision, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld[c]Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), rendered the administration a major setback, as it held that the special commissions were illegal under both the Geneva ConventionsGeneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military JusticeUniform Code of Military Justice;and military commissions[military commissions] (UCMJ). The majority of justices concluded that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) had not authorized the president to create special commissions, and even if such commissions were to have congressional support, they would have to include all the procedures of the UCMJ and the Geneva Convention. Stevens firmly rejected the administration’s policy of denying the detainees the protections of the Geneva Convention based on the claim that they were not lawful combatants fighting in uniform for a foreign country. Stevens argued that all detainees were entitled to the convention’s full protections until a court would decided they were not prisoners of war. From the Bush administration’s perspective, the only good thing about the Hamdan decision was that it did not actually require the release of any of the detainees.

Further Reading
  • Baker, Thomas, and John Stack, ed. At War with Civil Rights and Liberties. New York: Rowland & Littlefield, 2005.
  • Cole, David. Terror and the Constitution: Sacrificing Constitutional Freedom in the Name of National Security. New York: New Press, 2006.
  • Irons, Peter. Justice at War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • Neely, Mark E. The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Rehnquist, William H. All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
  • Stone, Geoffrey. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.
  • Wilson, Richard A. Human Rights in the “War on Terror.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Yoo, John. The Powers of War and Peace: The Constitution and Foreign Affairs after 9/11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Bill of attainder

Civil War

Cold War

Espionage acts

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

Japanese American relocation

Military and the Court

National security

Speech and press, freedom of

Vietnam War

War powers

World War II

Categories: History