Civil Liberties in War Emergencies

October 15, 1940

Report Outline
Subversive Activity and the Defense Program
Civil Liberties in the World War Period
Civil Liberties in the Defense Emergency

Subversive Activity and the Defense Program

Fears engendered by disclosures of fifth-column operations in other countries, a general tenseness resulting from the war in Europe, and a determination to safeguard the effective prosecution of the national-defense program have led Congress, in the current session, to strengthen existing laws against espionage and sabotage and to enact new legislation to curb and penalize various forms of subversive activity. Similar proposals, repeatedly urged upon Congress in recent years, had hitherto been resisted on the ground that they might provide weapons for oppression of minority groups or for encroachment upon the civil liberties of individuals. Such scruples were swept aside in the war atmosphere surrounding initiation of the present national-defense effort. New laws for suppression of subversive activities were, in fact, deemed a necessary part of that effort.

Threat to Civil Liberties in Present Emergency

America's entry into the World War was followed by enactment of espionage and sedition legislation and by application of increasingly strict measures for control of aliens. Under this legislation and in an atmosphere of violent public hostility to all pacifist or radical propaganda or activities, many persons were prosecuted and sentenced to long prison terms for expressions of opinion which in normal times would have passed unnoticed. In addition, there was a wave of mob violence against persons who had voiced unpopular views or who were suspected of being unsympathetic toward the war.

During recent months signs have not been lacking that the United States may be heading into another period in which fear may overcome reason to such an extent that the public will be disposed to overlook incursions upon civil liberties, or at least will be less vigilant in guarding against such incursions. President Roosevelt foresaw this danger when the defense program was launched. In a fireside talk, May 26, while speaking of the fifth column as a threat to national security, he warned against “calamity howlers” and said he did not share the fears of some who whispered that “only by abandoning our freedom, our ideals, our way of life, can we build our defenses adequately, can we match the strength of the aggressors.” During the political campaign Wendell Willkie has added his voice to those stressing the necessity of preserving civil liberties.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Civil Liberties in Wartime
Oct. 24, 2003  Civil Liberties Debates
Dec. 14, 2001  Civil Liberties in Wartime
Oct. 15, 1940  Civil Liberties in War Emergencies
Civil Rights and Civil Liberty Issues
Global Issues
U.S. at War: World War II
War and Conflict
World War II