World War II

Author:Melvin I. Urofsky

Page 2929

The inherent conflict between the organizational needs of a nation at war and individual rights raised several constitutional questions during World War II. Although the Roosevelt administration showed far greater sensitivity to the protection of CIVIL LIBERTIES than did the administration of WOODROW WILSON, restrictions on individual rights did take place, most notably the incarceration of thousands of Japanese American citizens.

As the nation prepared for war even before Pearl Harbor, FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT adopted the view that the Constitution allowed the President great flexibility in meeting his obligations as COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF. With Congress reluctant to act, Roosevelt expanded his foreign policy prerogatives by negotiating secret EXECUTIVE AGREEMENTS. In October 1939 the United States and nineteen Latin American states established a "neutrality belt" through the Declaration of Panama. In August 1941, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill defined the war aims of the free world in the Atlantic Charter. The most famous executive agreement involved a swap of fifty overage American destroyers in exchange for British naval bases in the Caribbean. Although conservatives attacked the President's alleged dictatorial behavior, a majority in Congress and of the American people supported the agreements.

In May 1941 the President proclaimed an "unlimited" emergency to justify various defensive measures for the western hemisphere. What this meant, and on what constitutional authority it relied, remained uncertain. Attorney General FRANK MURPHY declared that "the constitutional duties of the Executive carry with them the constitutional powers necessary for their proper performance." Like ABRAHAM LINCOLN and Woodrow Wilson before him, Roosevelt believed in "the adequacy of the Constitution"?that whether or not specific powers were spelled out, the Constitution granted the President and Congress sufficient authority to meet any crisis.

Roosevelt's use of executive agreements and EXECUTIVE ORDERS, revolutionary in themselves, masked the fact that more often than not he sought?and received?legislative authorization. The Neutrality Act of 1939, the Draft Act of 1940, the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 all gave the President broad discretion; following Pearl Harbor, Congress passed a series of measures giving the chief executive extensive powers over the economy and the government. Roosevelt not only fully utilized these powers but told the nation that he would exercise whatever authority he thought necessary for the successful prosecution of the war. At one point, Roosevelt warned that if Congress failed to repeal a portion of the 1942 Price Control Act, "I shall accept the responsibility and I will act.?The President has the power, under the Constitution, and under Congressional acts, to take measures necessary to avert a disaster." But, he assured the people, he would always act with due regard to the Constitution, and "when the war is won, the powers under which I act automatically revert to the people?where they belong."

Although wartime measures are often challenged in the courts, unless there is an egregious violation of a specific constitutional prohibition the courts will affirm the law or delay a decision until the end of hostilities. The Supreme Court heard several challenges to the sweeping price-fixing provisions in the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942. Although Congress had set few limitations on presidential discretion and although these delegations of authority far exceeded the scope...

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