The Home-Front War: World War II and American Society

By Kenneth Paul O'Brien; Lynn Hudson Parsons | Go to book overview

2
World War II and the Bill of Rights

Richard Polenberg


THE TWO FACES OF WAR

In December 1941, just a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States celebrated the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Marking the occasion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said "We will not, under any threat, or in the face of any danger, surrender the guarantees of liberty our forefathers framed for us in our Bill of Rights."1 But a day earlier Roosevelt had declared just as firmly that "some degree of censorship is essential in war time, and we are at war."2 The president's remarks foreshadowed the disparate way in which World War II affected the rights added to the Constitution in 1791. During the years 1941-1945, certain fundamental liberties received unprecedented protection, and were, in fact, dramatically expanded. Others were abridged in frightening, unpredictable ways. How this came about, and why, is the subject of this chapter.

The course of civil liberties during the war was shaped largely by the nature of the conflict and the absence of opposition to it. Since virtually all Americans believed the war was both just and necessary, fought for honorable purposes against a radically evil enemy, there was very little dissent. What criticism there was, moreover, came not from the political Left, as in World War I, but rather from a minuscule number of right-wing extremists. Consequently, there was little or no public hysteria about internal threats to the nation's safety. The key decisions concerning civil liberties, moreover, were made by President Roosevelt and members of his administration, most of whom considered themselves liberals, all of whom were haunted by the specter of the suppression that had occurred during World War I, but few of whom had qualms about curbing criticism if it could be done quietly and deftly. Many of those decisions were reviewed by the Supreme Court, a bitterly divided body, rarely able to speak in a unified voice.

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