A president's wartime powers

In 1942, more than 110,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were moved from their homes into detention camps and placed under strict curfew. The internment order was authorized by President Roosevelt. His advisers had told him that many in this group could be spies and a threat to the war effort. Although later probes failed to substantiate this concern, federal action had made violation of the presidential order a federal crime.

The Japanese internment is a leading example of the considerable power that United States Presidents have exercised in wartime. In the name of defense and national security, Congress and public opinion - sometimes with reservations - have usually deferred to executive authority.

Peter Irons, a political science professor and director of the law and society program at the University of California at San Diego, has written extensively on the events surrounding this now controversial occurrence in US history.

Professor Irons points out that the internment of Japanese-Americans was a major assault on the US Constitution.

``For an average of 900 days each, [they] were imprisoned, held without charge, without counsel, and without trial,'' he says.

The curfew and internment were unsuccessfully challenged in the US Supreme Court in 1943 and 1944 by some of those convicted of violating the law. Only recently has public outcry led to judicial reversal of a few of these verdicts. Some litigation is still in progress.

Irons warns that ``it could happen again'' to citizens of foreign origin or resident aliens. He says, for example, that a possible future conflict with a Latin-speaking nation could rouse hostile feelings against hundreds of thousands of Hispanic-Americans in California and the Southwest.

``There needs to be a domestic equivalent of the War Powers Act to limit action against civilians,'' Irons suggests. ``If the Constitution cannot restrain the excesses of wartime passions, we cannot protect any group of citizens from hostility and racial prejudice.''

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