How will President George W. Bush’s administration be remembered historically? After five years in office, and with another three years to go, some answers are already apparent. Others are emerging gradually. The latter category includes an increasing assault on civil liberties within the United States that now compares to that of Richard Nixon’s administration more than thirty years ago.
Of course, civil liberties were bound to suffer in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Throughout American history, threats to national security, whether real or imagined, have led to clampdowns on the rights of citizens and, to a far greater extent, on the rights of immigrants and others suspected of acting in the interests of alien forces.
In the twentieth century, abuses of civil liberties were particularly severe during four periods. In the years 1917 to 1919, US participation in World War I and anarchist bombings after the war led to almost two thousand federal prosecutions, mass roundups of aliens, and summary deportations. During World War II, Japan’s attack on the US was followed by the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans because of their race, including many who were born in the US.
In the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, the Cold War and fears that the Red Menace would sap American resolve from within led to myriad anti-subversive programs, with tens of thousands of Americans losing their livelihoods as a result. Finally, during the Nixon years, the president’s paranoia about opposition to the Vietnam War and to his policies fuelled a pattern of abuses that eventually brought about his resignation in disgrace.