Korematsu V. United States

Korematsu v. U.S.: Balancing Civil Liberties & War-time Security

Korematsu V. United States: To what extent is it acceptable for the government to limit civil liberties in time of war?


At the crossroads of American history, where national security and individual rights meet, lies the poignant case of Korematsu v. United States. Arising during the tumultuous times of World War II, the case serves as a lens through which we can scrutinize the balance—or imbalance—of power that the government can exert in the face of perceived threats. As the United States grappled with the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fear and paranoia led to actions that have since been debated for their constitutionality and morality. The decision to intern thousands of Japanese Americans, based largely on their ethnicity, raised questions about the extent to which the government can, and should, limit individual rights during times of crisis.

The dilemma between ensuring national security and preserving individual freedoms is a recurring theme throughout American history. This essay delves deep into the intricate layers of the Korematsu case, drawing out its implications and setting the stage for a broader examination of the ever-present tension between collective safety and individual liberty.

Historical Context

The early 1940s saw the world entrenched in the second of the two World Wars. Nations grappled with ideological differences, and the globe became a theater of intense military confrontations. The United States, initially reluctant to enter the fray, found itself inexorably pulled into the conflict following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. This sudden and unexpected assault ignited a fervor of patriotic zeal and, regrettably, a surge of anti-Japanese sentiment.

Within this climate of heightened anxiety and suspicion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. This order granted the U.S. military the authority to exclude any individuals from designated areas for national security purposes. While the order did not explicitly name Japanese Americans, in practice, it targeted them almost exclusively. Under its provisions, over 120,000 Japanese Americans—two-thirds of whom were native-born citizens—were forcibly relocated to internment camps scattered across the nation’s interior.

These drastic measures, while explained by the government as a necessary step for national security, were deeply rooted in years of racial prejudice. The Asian immigrant experience in America had always been punctuated by discrimination, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to various discriminatory state laws and practices. The wartime atmosphere merely exacerbated these pre-existing biases. As a result, Japanese Americans, regardless of their loyalty or long-standing ties to America, found themselves classified as potential threats based solely on their ethnicity.

The government’s decision wasn’t met without dissent. Civil rights activists and a few politicians voiced concerns about the constitutional validity of such a vast and blanket action against a specific racial group. However, the overpowering currents of wartime exigency and public opinion drowned out many of these dissenting voices, setting the stage for legal challenges that would culminate in the landmark Korematsu v. United States case.

The Legal Case

At the heart of the internment controversy was a young man named Fred Korematsu. A son of Japanese immigrants, Korematsu chose to defy the military order that demanded all persons of Japanese ancestry report for internment. Instead, he underwent minor cosmetic surgery in an attempt to pass as a non-Japanese, found a job in a different location, and went by a false name. However, his act of defiance was eventually discovered, and he was arrested in May 1942.

Korematsu’s arrest became the impetus for a monumental legal battle. With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and particularly attorney Ernest Besig, Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of the internment order, arguing that it violated the Fifth Amendment’s protection against the deprivation of liberty without due process of law.

Government’s Justification: The government’s primary defense rested on the premise of “military necessity.” They argued that in the context of wartime, particularly given the perceived threat of espionage or sabotage by individuals of Japanese descent, the internment was a justifiable precautionary measure. This stance was bolstered by a now-infamous report by General John L. DeWitt, which asserted that the Japanese race was predisposed to disloyalty and espionage.

Korematsu’s Argument: In stark contrast, Korematsu and his legal team contended that the executive order and subsequent internment was an act of racial discrimination. They maintained that the government’s actions were not based on valid military concerns but rather on unfounded fears and racial prejudices. The case underscored the tension between individual rights and the government’s claims of national security, questioning the extent to which civil liberties could be suspended in the name of wartime exigencies.

The legal battle weaved its way through the courts, with Korematsu facing both setbacks and victories. But the true test came when the case reached the highest judicial authority in the land—the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

When Korematsu v. United States was presented before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944, it tested the very essence of the Constitution amidst the pressures of war. The central question revolved around whether the government’s need to protect against espionage outweighed Korematsu’s individual rights as a U.S. citizen.

Overview of the Majority Opinion: In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the internment order. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black argued that while normally, legal restrictions based on race would be unconstitutional, the conditions of “pressing public necessity” could justify them. The majority believed that the government’s concerns about espionage and sabotage justified the broad and racially-targeted actions taken against Japanese Americans. They held that it was not within the Court’s purview to question the military’s judgment, especially during wartime.

This decision was heavily informed by the aforementioned report by General DeWitt, which was accepted by the Court as evidence, even though later investigations would reveal that much of its content was based on racist beliefs and misinformation.

Overview of the Dissenting Opinions: Three Justices—Roberts, Murphy, and Jackson—dissented from the majority. Justice Murphy, in particular, labeled the order as the “legalization of racism.” He pointed out that the exclusion order was based on “fallacious assumptions” about the loyalty of Japanese Americans. Justice Jackson voiced concerns about the precedent this case would set, noting that the Court’s decision would lie around “like a loaded weapon” for future generations. The dissenting opinions echoed a profound unease about the implications for civil liberties when faced with broad governmental powers during wartime.

In retrospect, the Supreme Court’s decision in Korematsu remains one of its most controversial. While it reflected the sentiments and fears of a nation at war, it also exposed the vulnerabilities of civil liberties in the face of perceived threats and the potential for the judicial system to falter under external pressures.

Modern Perspectives

In the years following World War II, as the dust settled and the scars of war began to heal, the decision in Korematsu v. United States came under increasing scrutiny. With the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, many began to view the internment of Japanese Americans and the subsequent Supreme Court decision as one of the darkest chapters in American history.

Lessons Learned from the Korematsu Decision: The treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of sacrificing civil liberties in the name of national security. In 1988, the U.S. government formally apologized for the internment with the Civil Liberties Act, which acknowledged that the internment was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” This Act provided reparations to surviving Japanese American internees, marking a significant step towards atonement.

The Korematsu Decision in the Context of Post-9/11 America: The echoes of Korematsu were felt deeply in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The fears of another attack led to increased surveillance, the controversial USA PATRIOT Act, and the detention of many, often based on their religion or ethnicity. The parallels between the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and Muslims post-9/11 are striking, highlighting the need for constant vigilance to protect civil liberties, especially during times of national distress.

The Balance between Civil Liberties and National Security in Modern Times: Today’s world, defined by the rapid pace of technological advancement and the ever-present threat of global terrorism, presents unique challenges to the balance between civil liberties and national security. Issues like data privacy, surveillance, and the rights of detainees in places like Guantanamo Bay underscore the continuing tension between these two foundational principles. Yet, the lessons of Korematsu serve as a potent reminder of the costs of sacrificing individual rights at the altar of perceived security.

As we reflect on the legacy of Korematsu in today’s context, it becomes evident that the preservation of civil liberties amidst pressing security concerns remains one of the most complex and pressing challenges for modern democracies.


The legacy of Korematsu v. United States extends far beyond the confines of a legal case or a historical event. It serves as a powerful testament to the enduring tension between the pursuit of national security and the preservation of individual liberties—a tension that is as relevant today as it was during World War II.

While the U.S. government’s decision to intern Japanese Americans was informed by the exigencies of war, the Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold this action casts a shadow on the very institution meant to safeguard the rights of all Americans. The majority’s deference to military judgment over individual rights, while perhaps understandable given the atmosphere of the time, underscores the vulnerabilities of our democratic institutions in the face of fear and perceived threats.

As we navigate the challenges of the 21st century, from cyber threats to global terrorism, the lessons from Korematsu serve as a guiding beacon. They remind us of the ease with which fear can overshadow reason, and the importance of vigilance in the face of potential governmental overreach. True national security, it can be argued, does not lie in the curbing of rights, but in the robust defense of those very rights that define the essence of a democratic society.

The journey of Fred Korematsu, from a defiant young man to a symbol of resistance against governmental injustice, epitomizes the relentless pursuit of justice. His story, and that of thousands of Japanese Americans, is a poignant reminder that while the arc of the moral universe may be long, it bends, inexorably, towards justice.

Class Outline and Notes: To what extent is it acceptable for the government to limit civil liberties in time of war?

During WWII many Americans felt that the Japanese might attack the West Coast of the United States. While today we realize that that was unlikely, it was a reasonable fear. As a result of that fear the United States excluded all those of Japanese ancestry from living on the west coast over a hundred thousand people were included. Over seventy thousand were imprisoned in concentration camps. Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American forced to move to one of these camps, challenged the government. Did the government have the right and the power to do away with due process in time of war? We shall see.

I. World War II – The Internment of Japanese Americans

A. How were Japanese Americans treated during World War II?

1. Considered a threat to national security.

2. Excluded from West Coast.

3. 120,000 placed in Camps – 70,000 were US citizens.

4. The government was not aware of any of the imprisoned actually being spies.

In accordance with executive order issued by the President of the United States and passed by Congress and in order to maintain national security the
government of the United States hereby issues the following:

1) Any Japanese Nationals (citizens) are hereby excluded (not allowed) from the following states: California, Oregon, Washington.

2) Japanese Americans shall be excluded from the same states.

3) The aforementioned shall be transported to Interment Camps where they shall remain for the duration of the conflict.

This action has been taken to protect the West Coast of the United States from attack and acts of sabotage perpetrated by any agents of the Empire of Japan.

B. What was the result of the challenge – Korematsu v United States

1. Court upheld law, ruled there was a legitimate danger to national security (clear and present danger).

2. 20 years later Japanese Americans win a partial compensation as Congress officially apologizes.