Founded in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonpartisan organization established, from its mission statement, “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” At first, defense of those rights involved mainly freedom of speech, but that broadened as social movements for group rights arose in opposition to racism and sexism that treated persons as collectives and not as individuals as required by the nation's laws and legal structure.
Roger Baldwin, one of the three founders of the ACLU and its director during World War II, compiled an ambivalent record regarding Japanese Americans. While disturbingly group-specific and not individually based in violation of individual civil liberties, the government's mass removal and detention of Japanese Americans was based upon the doctrine of “military necessity.” Baldwin and the ACLU, accordingly, acceded to that authority and reluctantly supported the action, urging Japanese American compliance. Likewise, when Kiyoshi Okamoto, Heart Mountain's Fair Play Committee leader, asked Baldwin for ACLU's legal representation to defend draft resisters, the ACLU head declined, saying the dissidents had “a strong moral case” but they had “no legal case at all.” Those who advise others to resist military service, he wrote, “are not within their rights and must expect severe treatment” (Daniels, 272). The ACLU failed to support Gordon Hirabayashi when he refused to abide by the military curfew for “enemy aliens.”
At the same time, A. L. Wirin, a southern California ACLU attorney, took on the case of the seven Fair Play Committee leaders, including Okamoto. Wirin lost, but he broke with the ACLU leadership in his stand. However, in the case of Fred Korematsu before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944, the ACLU submitted an amicus curiae or friend of the court brief, which focused on “whether or not a citizen of the United States may, because he is of Japanese ancestry, be confined in barbed-wire stockades … actually concentration camps” (Daniels, 277). The ACLU also joined the U.S. Supreme Court case of Mitsuye Endo by submitting a brief in her support. In it, the ACLU contended the government had no right to hold a citizen against whom no charges had been made, segregation and detention of citizens on
the basis of race or ancestry was unconstitutional, and Endo, held involuntarily and without due process, bore no obligation to obey War Relocation Authority regulations and was thus entitled to release.
Although the Supreme Court agreed that Endo was unjustly detained and thus ordered her release, bringing to an end the forcible detention of loyal citizens, the court failed to condemn the government's curtailment of civil liberties during times of war. In fact, its Hirabayashi, Korematsu, and Endo decisions affirmed the military powers of the state by agreeing that citizens must concede to that authority even at the expense of individual rights and liberties. The ACLU acceded to that ruling by expressing satisfaction with the Supreme Court's Endo ruling.
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.