Civil Rights during War and Peace
In 21st century America, a great number of civil liberties are taken for granted. History shows, however, that these rights can be at risk suddenly, especially in times of war. Drastic restrictions in individual rights have been tolerated by the public during wartime.
Governmental efforts to restrict civil liberties have also been attempted in peacetime. Typically, but not always, resistance to these restrictions has been much more fierce. Still, governments find subtle ways to restrict liberty with little public fanfare.
War and Peace
Wartime is a unique political environment for a democratic nation. In such a prosperous and free nation, the public feels threats keenly. It gives a great deal of power to the government, expecting it to defend the nation while preserving it’s quality of life. People feeling threatened will often cede rights to the government, especially when they feel that doing so will not affect them as individuals.
The Civil War was the greatest threat the United States ever faced. President Abraham Lincoln took unprecedented steps, including the suspension of habeas corpus, to preserve the Union (Wilson, 1998). People under government suspicion could be jailed for indeterminate amounts of time without charges being filed. This was a direct contradiction of the United States Constitution.
During World War Two, Japanese-Americans were collected en masse and assigned to internment camps. These restrictions were a direct reflection of the racial discrimination of the time. While the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy, citizens of these ancestries did not suffer the same fate.
This event shows how the advent of war can trigger deep-seated cultural biases. The result has often been severe discrimination against certain groups of people. The McCarran Act of 1950 is known as the “anti-communist” act (Barson, 1992). In the post WWII era, politicians stoked the fear of communism in a play for political power. As a result, the government was granted wide powers to investigate, require loyalty oaths and otherwise harass ordinary citizens they suspected as being communists. This Act was formulated in peacetime, but it was a result of the fear instilled during WWII.
In the current war on terror, similar tactics have been accepted as a necessary evil for preventing attacks. The farther the U.S. moves away from a mainland attack, the more questions arise about governmental tactics. The potential exists for a movement to emerge that swings the pendulum back toward liberalized civil rights.
Peacetime restrictions on civil rights often emerge from either violent actions or cultural discrimination although African-Americans were technically made citizens in 1865, dozens of restrictions were enacted in the decades after as the result of lingering racial prejudice. It took a massive civil rights movement in the 1960 before true citizenship began to be realized.
That same civil rights movement, however, led to the inception of laws that highly regulate protest. Demonstrators are required to have permits and remain within narrowly defined zones. Town officials have a wide latitude to deny permits altogether.
One of the most notorious peacetime attempts to restrict civil rights came in 1798. The Sedition Act was an overt attempt to squelch dissension. Among other things, the act outlawed the “writing, printing, uttering or publishing...writings against the government of the United States (Wilson, 1998).
At times, the judicial system has served as a hedge against infringement upon civil rights. In the “Pentagon Papers” case, the Supreme Court in the N.Y. Times v. The United States (1971) denied the effort of the government to censor documents which described the actions and effects of the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
Erosions in civil rights can start small and grow larger with time. During wartime, Americans are most vulnerable to this process. Once civil rights are lost, they are very difficult to regain. The government has a vested interest and the power to protect the status quo. The longer these erosions are entrenched, the larger social movement it will take to reverse them.
Wilson, James Q &Dilulio, John J. (1998). American Government. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Barson, Michael. (1992). Better Red than Dead: A Nostalgic Look at the Golden Years of RussiPhobia, Red Baiting and Other Commie Madness. New York: Hyperion.