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National Security

Presidential Power

Over the next 80 years, lawmakers and presidents jostled over national security. Immediately following the Civil War, Congress reasserted itself by refusing to ratify treaties. World War I saw President Woodrow Wilson claim broad presidential powers to regulate food and fuel prices, which, though highly controversial, became law in 1917. Wilson's agenda during the crisis also led Congress to prohibit alcohol, while conferring on the president sweeping authority over industry, national transportation, and exports. In the name of national security, civil liberties were sharply curtailed, as the Wilson administration pushed through passage of the Espionage Act of 1917. The administration then used this law, along with the much older Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, to prosecute over two thousand cases against war protesters and dissenters. But presidential power did not outlast this period. After the war, a resurgent Congress rejected many of the president's national security proposals.

The government clampdown on civil liberties was met with approval by federal courts. No cases reached the Supreme Court until shortly after the war, but then it refrained from interfering. One case, Schenck v. United States (1919), held that government limits on freedom of speech could be acceptable during wartime, and thus rejected the appeal of a man convicted for distributing pamphlets attacking the military draft. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes set forth the so-called test for "clear and present danger," defining the suppression of free speech as permissible when words "will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent." The Court upheld other convictions for publishing articles criticizing the war, hindering military enlistment, calling for labor strikes, and other offenses deemed unpatriotic. Not for several decades would this judicial outlook change.

Greater assertions of presidential power came about in the World War II. Even before the formal declaration of war in December of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt exercised emergency powers. He began a naval war against Germany, seized defense factories, and created the Office of Price Administration (OPA), an administrative body for setting consumer prices that Congress only subsequently empowered with legislation in 1942. During the war, the president mobilized virtually every aspect of the national economy, utilizing industries for defense production and rationing fuel to consumers.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesNational Security - Of Highest Concern, Responsibility, Presidential Power, National Security During War, A Need For Balance