Wartime and the Bill of Rights

Although 60 percent of those ordered to evacuate were U.S. citizens, none had a hearing or trial before the government locked them up in relocation camps. Once in the camps, the government asked them to sign a loyalty oath to the United States. Four percent refused. The government classified these individuals as disloyal.

The Korematsu Case

Fred Korematsu was a Nisei (a child of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. ) born in California and an American citizen. When General DeWitt ordered everyone of Japanese ancestry in the Western United States to report to assembly centers in 1942, Korematsu refused. He changed his name and underwent eyelid surgery to make him look less Japanese. Government authorities arrested him for remaining in a restricted military area.

A federal judge sentenced Korematsu to five years' probation. The military immediately took him into custody. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) persuaded Korematsu to appeal his case.

Government attorneys referred to the constitutional war powers of Congress and the president, arguing that the military must take all steps necessary to wage war successfully. They claimed that the internment of all Japanese Issei (Japanese immigrants to the U.S.) and Nisei was a military necessity. They further argued that there was not enough time to hold hearings to determine who was loyal. The government attorneys presented a report full of unproven rumors about Issei and Nisei disloyalty.

Attorneys representing Korematsu argued that there was no military necessity or precedent justifying the imprisonment of all persons of Japanese ancestry without a hearing or trial. The government could have simply barred them from specific military and industrial sites. Korematsu's lawyers charged that General DeWitt was a racist, prejudiced against the ethnic Japanese.

The Supreme Court upheld Korematsu's conviction, saying that Korematsu had not been forced from his home because of his race, but because of the military urgency of the situation. Three justices vigorously dissented, claiming that the government could not declare all members of a racial group guilty and imprison them.

Release and Compensation

In another case the Supreme Court justices ruled that President Roosevelt's executive order and the enforcement law passed by Congress only authorized the removal of the Issei and Nisei from military areas, not their imprisonment. The prison camps were closed.

When the Issei and Nisei left the camps, the government granted them $50 per family and train fare home. In 1948, Congress partially compensated them for the loss of their businesses or property.

In 1980, a special commission that investigated the entire internment affair concluded that the decisions to remove ethnic Japanese to prison camps were based on race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. Congress granted $20,000 to each surviving prisoner.

Researchers later discovered that the government had withheld important facts at Korematsu's trial. In 1984, a federal judge set aside his conviction.

A Proper Balance

During wartime, the Bill of Rights is less important to Americans than the need for national security. The challenge in wartime is to achieve a proper balance between civil liberties and protection.

Source: Wartime and the Bill of Rights
© 2017 WWW.CRF-USA • Constitutional Rights Foundation

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