Civil liberties during times of war

Alan Cai

March 8, 2024

Imagine this: you’re an American citizen living during the Civil War and you are unexpectedly thrown in jail without trial. The nation is at war so desperate measures must be taken, but has the government gone too far?

During nearly every war in American history, certain civil liberties have been curtailed in the name of supporting the war effort. During the Civil War, Lincoln temporarily suspended the right to the “Great Writ” of habeas corpus(duty of law enforcement to provide reasoning for detention); for the First World War, workers’ collective bargaining powers were significantly diminished; in the midst of the Second World War, over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans were interned in camps up and down the West Coast. No country is immune from committing certain questionable actions during times of war. Nevertheless, it is exceedingly important to evaluate the limits to which government authority can be expanded at the expense of individual freedom.

Before individual liberties can be addressed, we must first explore the proper justifications of going to war in the first place. In a letter to English naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, Benjamin Franklin observed that “there is no good war or bad peace.” Notwithstanding, there are certain legitimate reasons for countries to join a war. Even though war itself is inherently regrettable, joining a war for the right reasons can be justified. In Federalist Paper No. 3, John Jay observes, “The just causes of war, for the most part, arise either from violation of treaties or from direct violence.” Not only does this philosophy ensure that were it to be universally accepted, there would be no war, it also maintains international order by deterring countries from violating agreements they had previously acceded to. The inviolability of treaties, as long as they are negotiated and agreed upon by governments possessing acceptable social contracts with their people, is a crucial cornerstone in promoting stability around the globe.

Civilian morale is extremely important during wartime and can determine the success and failure of the nation. For example, happy citizens continue to power the wartime machinery, buy generous amounts of war bonds, and enlist. On the other hand, dissidents hinder war production, impede technological advancement, and are overall a risk to the entire nation’s safety. Nevertheless, the ends of continuing a war do not necessarily justify the means restricting the freedom of speech. In fact, it can be argued that the freedom of speech is necessary especially during times of war to expose and hopefully prevent atrocities from taking place. Furthermore, the freedom from unfair arrest is also important because it ensures that citizens are given a fair chance to defend themselves against government accusations. Technically the right to habeas corpus can be suspended as provisioned in Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution, which states, “the Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Nevertheless, it should be used sparingly to mitigate autocracy.

Civil liberties ought to be preserved in times of war due to their intrinsic connection to the survival of democracy itself. However, governments occasionally must suspend them for their continuation.