Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
$5 bill issued in Hawaii during WWII
Sand Island Internment Camp

Martial Law

History of Martial Law in the United States

Martial Law is the rule by military authority in times of emergency and the temporary suspension of civil authority. The imposition of martial law is likened to the exercise of self-defense by an individual, with necessity justifying the action in both instances. Just as killing or injuring another person may be justified under the extraordinary circumstance of a threat to one’s life, the suspension of civil authority (including judicial procedures) may be justified in times of war or insurrection. In societies placing a high premium on the rule of law and the rights of individuals, martial law is seen as an undesirable necessity.

History has shown that the question of when martial law should be lifted is at least as important as when it should be invoked. The lifting of martial law has been crucial to the political development of many nations throughout the twentieth century. Many regimes have been accused of extending the period of martial law until all political opposition has been crushed.

Questions concerning when martial law should be invoked, when it should be lifted and who should make such determinations are crucial to the study of martial law in any nation. Martial law is not mentioned in the United States Constitution, nor is it defined by state or federal statutes. Acceptance of martial law, therefore, lies in its role in the pursuance of other constitutional and statutory provisions. These include constitutional provisions empowering Congress to call out the militia for suppressing insurrections and repelling invasions, and acts of Congress authorizing the president to employ the army, navy, and militia to put down insurrections against federal or state authority.

Historically, martial law has been invoked in times of emergencies by the president, state, and territorial governors, and military commanders. The validity of proclaiming martial law, maintaining it or actions taken in pursuance of it has been challenged. In instances, civil courts have been called on to determine the legality of the measures taken.

painting of the Battle of New Orleans painting of Whiskey Rebellion

Martial Law in Early America

In America, the use of troops in emergencies does not of itself bring about a state of martial law. When, for example, President George Washington sent federal troops to Pennsylvania in 1794 to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, he explicitly ordered the military commander to adhere to existing laws and to deliver the rebels to regular civil courts for trial. A federal judge and a district attorney accompanied the troops to ensure this.

Such care for civil authority was not taken when the City of New Orleans was in danger of attack during the War of 1812. General Andrew Jackson, fearing that its legislature might capitulate to the British, placed the city “under strict martial law.” Jackson forbade the legislature to convene and ordered the governor of Louisiana to take field command of the militia. Martial law was not withdrawn after the American victory in the Battle of New Orleans (January 8, 1815), which eliminated the threat to the city, nor was it lifted after news of the peace treaty arrived.

When a legislator publicly criticized Jackson’s policies, Jackson had him tried as a spy by a military tribunal. When a federal judge granted the legislator a writ of habeas corpus (to have his case heard before a civil court), Jackson put the judge under house arrest and later expelled him from the city. After martial law was lifted, the judge returned to his bench and fined Jackson $1,000 for contempt of court.

photograph of Lincoln during the Civil War

Martial Law During the Civil War

During the Civil War Congress passed several laws to deal with acts of treason and rebellion against the federal government. With several million people taking part in the “rebellion” and no federal judicial authority to deal with them, such acts were not enforceable in the South. In areas under federal control, a policy of having the military deal with persons suspected of treason and rebellion was adopted. At first, the policy applied only to particular localities, mostly in the embattled border states.

In September of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a sweeping proclamation declaring that all persons obstructing enlistments, resisting the draft or giving aid and comfort to rebels “shall be subject to martial law, and liable to trial and punishment by court-martials or military commissions.” Habeas corpus privileges were suspended for all persons arrested or already imprisoned on such charges. Approximately 18,000 civilian suspects were rounded up and held until their potential threat to the Union cause could be assessed. Most were released within a few days after taking an oath to refrain from secessionist activities.

Suspension of such a fundamental civil liberty as habeas corpus roused sharp protests. The habeas corpus right developed in Anglo-American law to prevent the government from arbitrarily arresting and holding individuals without charging them with a crime (an ideal way of suppressing political opposition). The right was compromised during the Civil War, however, because suspects could escape to rebel areas if they were not held by military authorities.

This issue resulted in a confrontation between the President and the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. On circuit in Baltimore, Chief Justice Roger Taney issued a writ of habeas corpus for a Maryland secessionist charged with destroying railroad bridges. When union officers ignored the writ, Taney issued an opinion in Ex parte Merryman (1861) denying the president the power to suspend the writ because the section on habeas corpus and its suspension was in Article I, section 9 of the United States Constitution, which dealt with the legislative power of Congress. Lincoln's reply to Congress stated that breaking the law “to a very limited extent” was preferable to having government handcuffed and unable to suppress the rebellion.

In March 1863, Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Act, which “legitimized” the president’s internal security program without jeopardizing its authority or that of the federal judiciary. The statute authorized the president to suspend the habeas corpus privilege but required the government to provide federal courts with lists of political prisoners being held and to release those whom grand juries failed to indict.

In 1863, a military court in Indiana sentenced Lambden Milligan to death for disloyal activities including an alleged plot to overthrow the state government. In Ex Parte Milligan (1866), however, a divided United States Supreme Court ruled that the president violated the Habeas Corpus Act of 1863 by ignoring the requirement of a grand jury indictment and that Congress lacked the authority to institute military courts to try civilians in areas remote from the actual fighting and where civil courts were open. “The Constitution,” the Court’s majority opinion stated, “is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances.” The majority, therefore, followed that “Martial law cannot arise from a threatened invasion. The necessity must be actual and present; the invasion real, such as effectually closes the courts and deposes the civil administration.”

The court unanimously agreed that Milligan should not have been deprived of his habeas corpus privilege. Four justices, however, disagreed with the majority opinion that Congress did not have the power to authorize military commissions in areas threatened by invasion or insurrection. For them, the threat of war or insurrection was sufficient to warrant martial law, and that it should be left to Congress to decide whether or not to employ it.

homestead strike

Martial Law in Economic Crisis

Crisis arising from America’s phenomenal economic growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries resulted in numerous proclamations of martial law. When strikes by mine workers in Idaho, Colorado and several other states broke into armed conflicts, state governors declared martial law and called on federal troops and state militias to quell the violence. To deal with the economic crisis of the 1930’s depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for broad executive power to wage war against the emergency, as if the country were invaded by a foreign enemy. A cooperative Congress, which among other things passed an emergency banking bill overnight, with most Congressmen not even reading it, made it unnecessary for Roosevelt to assume “emergency power.”

barbed wire at Iolani Palace tanks on Beretania Street

Martial Law in Hawaii

"That the governor shall be responsible for the faithful execution of the laws of the United States and of the Territory of Hawaii within the said Territory, and whenever it becomes necessary he may call upon the commanders of the military and naval forces of the United States in the Territory of Hawaii, or summon the posse comitatus, or call out the militia of the Territory to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion, insurrection, or rebellion in said Territory, and he may, in case of rebellion or invasion, or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it, suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or place the Territory, or any part thereof, under martial law until communication can be had with the President and his decision thereon made known." Hawaiian Organic Act, 1900

The threat to the nation quickly shifted from economic to the military with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Within hours of the attack, the territorial governor declared martial law, relying on the Hawaiian Organic Act of 1900, which authorized him to do so “in case of rebellion or invasion, or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it.” All authority was turned over to the military, which proceeded to remove persons from militarily sensitive areas, set curfews, regulate night driving, censor newspapers and radio broadcasts, and control prices on everything from groceries to prostitutes. Civil courts were closed, and the writ of habeas corpus was suspended.

Martial law was not new to Hawaii. The islands were seized and temporarily ruled by the French and British military forces during the nineteenth century. A sailors’ riot in Honolulu forced the Kingdom’s marshal to declare martial law in 1852. In 1895, martial law was declared when the supporters of Queen Liliuokalani attempted to overthrow the Republic of Hawaii. A military court tried 191 rebels and sentenced five, including Robert Wilcox, to death. Their sentences were later commuted, and all of them were freed by the following year.

Protests against martial law were minimal in 1941 and early 1942. As the threat of invasion diminished, however, clamor to end martial law began to rise from some of the territory’s leading citizens, including its attorney general J. Garner Anthony. Over military objections, President Roosevelt partially restored the independent functions of the civil governor and the regular civil courts in February 1943. Martial law was suspended in October 1944.

The first legal challenge to Hawaii’s martial law came from Dr. Hans Zimmerman, a German-born American citizen who had a successful osteopathic practice in Hawaii. Zimmerman was picked up and held by the military as a security risk shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. Denial of a writ of habeas corpus granted him by the federal district court was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that the military had full authority to declare the state of emergency and to determine when it should be lifted. Another case involved Saffery Brown, who was sentenced to death by a five-man military tribunal for the murder of his wife. Residents of Maui were shocked by the death sentence, which they did not recall ever being rendered on the island. An appeal to President Roosevelt resulted in the sentence being commuted to life imprisonment.

Legally and constitutionally, the most significant case challenging martial law in Hawaii during World War II was Duncan v. Kahanamoku (1946). In the case, the Court avoided reviewing the constitutionality of suspending the writ of habeas corpus on the ground(s) that the appeal was taken by the court after the writ was restored in 1944. It did rule, however, that the establishment of military tribunals in Hawaii to try civilians was illegal. The Court held that Hawaii’s Organic Act did not authorize the declaration of martial law except under conditions of actual invasion or rebellion. In its view, the primary purpose of the Organic Act was to extend to civilians in Hawaii the same constitutional guarantees enjoyed by those living in other parts of the United States.

Sand Island internment camp

Internment of Japanese Americans

One of the biggest concerns of the military during World War II was Hawaii’s large Japanese American population. The 159,000 Hawaii residents of Japanese descent (124,000 American citizens and 35,000 aliens) made up almost half of Hawaii’s population. Mass internment was out of the question. Some thought was given to shipping them to camps in the mainland. Eventually, 1466 residents of Japanese descent were detained on suspicion of disloyalty, while numerous others were “removed” from militarily sensitive areas.

Martial law was not invoked anywhere on the mainland during World War II. The president’s Executive Order No. 9066, however, gave military commanders broad authority for securing the west coast against possible attacks by the Japanese. On March 2, 1942, General J.L. DeWitt, commanding general of the Western Defense Command, established Military Areas No. 1 and No. 2, which covered the west coast from Washington State to Mexico. In these areas, curfews were set for German and Italian nationals and all persons of Japanese Ancestry. A proclamation on March 27th prohibited Japanese-Americans from leaving the coastal area. A May 9th order formally excluded all persons of Japanese origin from the area. The net result of these contradictory laws was to force Japanese-Americans to report to Civil Control Stations, from where 112,000 of them, more than 70,000 of whom were American citizens, were shipped off to “Relocation Centers.” Some remained there for years. Most internees lost all of their property left behind on the west coast.

The government’s actions were challenged in three cases that reached the United States Supreme Court. In Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), a case involving a University of Washington student who was arrested for failing to report to a control center and for violating curfew, the Court evaded the relocation question and ruled that the government was within its authority in ordering curfews in the military areas.

Korematsu v. United States (1944) involved an American citizen who volunteered for military service but was turned down for his ulcers and was later arrested for refusing to leave the war zone. The Court’s majority separated the exclusion issue from that of detention and ruled that the government was justified in its actions because in wartime civilians have to defer to military judgment and bear its hardships. “Hardships,” the Court observed, “are a part of war, and war is an aggregation of hardships.” Three justices dissented, calling it a plain “case of convicting a citizen as punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, solely because of his ancestry,” without considering any evidence relating to his loyalty to the United States.

On the same day, the Court unanimously granted a writ of habeas corpus to Mitsuye Endo, a citizen whose loyalty had been clearly established, thus freeing her from the Tule Lake War Relocation Camp. In Ex parte Endo (1944), the Court ruled that the government had no right to confine persons of unquestioned loyalty. By making this ruling, the Court avoided the question of the constitutionality of the actions of the president and technically attributed the violation to the abuse of the presidential order by war relocation authorities.

The internment of Japanese-Americans has haunted the nation’s conscience. In 1948, Congress took the first step to undo some of the damage by passing the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act. The statute sought to recover property loss incurred by the relocation, but because compensation was limited to claims that could be verified by written records, less that $37 million of the estimated $400 million of property loss was recovered. In 1983, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (established by Congress in 1980) published its report “Personal Justice Denied.” The report condemned the internment as a “grave injustice,” resulting from decisions “conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan,” and that Executive Order No. 9066 was not justified by military necessity, but was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Subsequently, a federal district court vacated Korematsu’s conviction in 1984, and Congress passed a law in 1988 awarding $20,000 to each person interned in a relocation camp.


Throughout American history, there has been a willingness to accept military authority in times of emergency. Because of the irony of having to suspend the very constitutional system martial law ultimately attempts to protect, Americans have not been willing to allow those who invoke it to determine its validity or its parameters. This has been left to the courts. American courts have not created any permanent doctrines on martial law but have established some guidelines for its imposition. The bottom line, however, remains a necessity, because without it there is no real justification for martial law.




Martial law is a still-timely but little-researched topic. A justice of the United States Supreme Court predicted that the imposition of martial law would come to be regarded as one of the two most notorious acts of the U.S. government during the war, along with the mass internment of Japanese Americans. His prediction about the internment was born out, but not his prediction about martial law. On the contrary, martial law has been all but forgotten.

The limited discussion of martial law usually revolves around the blackout and rationing. The huge issues of constitutional law and human rights are largely forgotten, but a core question persists: In a climate of fear, what happens when people's constitutional rights are suspended and unlimited power is placed in the hands of the Army?

Martial law becomes a pointedly relevant topic in the post-9/11 political and social environment. Military tribunals, selective suspension of habeas corpus and imprisonment without charges are central to the history of martial law just as they are to the questions of 9/11.

What was martial law? Was it justifiable? Did it go on too long? Once the Army gained power, how did they use it? How determinedly did they resist giving it up? In the end, was it legal or illegal? Was it a net benefit to the people of Hawaii? Or did it do damage to the values and practices of Hawaii?

Original research from varied primary sources can be readily accomplished at the University of Hawaii Hamilton Research Library and less directly through the National Archives. Comparatively small but impressive amounts of material are in the Hawaii State Archives and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

University of Hawaii Hamilton Research Library

Hamilton Research Library is a largely untapped mine of material on Martial Law. For an online overview, search the web for University of Hawaii Archives and Manuscripts + Collections + Hawaii War Records Depository (HWRD)

HWRD - Established by the Hawai'i Territorial Legislature in 1943, HWRD contains a unique record of Hawaii at war. To make an appointment in the HWRD reading room e-mail archives@hawaii.edu or call (808) 956-6047. If you know from the finding aid what you want to study, the archivist may have your material waiting for you. The archivist can also help you consult the original card file. Index cards will lead you to rich files on martial law.

With the on-line Digital Collection, you can view 1,800 U.S. Signal Corps and newspaper photos. You can also find a wealth of unexplored topics in either the uncatalogued subject files or the wartime scrapbook series.

Within the archives, the Romanzo Adams Social Research Libary (RASRL) can take you into parallel and sometimes deeper material. On-line, see University Archives Collections + Schools, Colleges and Institutes + Romanzo Adams Social Research Laboratory HWRD Uncatalogued RASRL (Online) Finding Aid. From 1924 to the early 1960s this institute studied race relations in Hawaii. During the 1941-1946 period, it broadened its scope to a wide-ranging examination of a society living under the stress of world war. Under RASRL War Records Laboratory, you will find the files of civilian groups dedicated to dealing with wartime conditions, including most famously the Japanese American Emergency Service Committee. Also see Student Papers including notably Subsection J, primarily the papers and diary entries of students during wartime; also Reactions to the Bombing, which includes hundreds of entries by students.

U.S. National Archives

The search engine within the vast National Archives site is ARC (Archival Research Catalog). If you want to research the name of one of Hawaii's nearly 1500 internees under martial law, just enter the name in the ARC search window. You then can email the archivist desk with the name and locator information. If the file is less than 20 pages long, the archivist will send you the photocopies free. For each additional page, there is a charge.

After that work gets more complicated. Archives are organized by Record Group (RG), which is then broken out by ARC identifier numbers. Home base is RG 494.3, "Records of the Military Government of Hawaii 1941-46." An even broader category is "Records of U.S. Army Forces in the Middle Pacific (World War II), 1940 - 1959, ARC Identifier #559460. It "consists of case files, containing front and profile photographs (mug shots) of the internees, forms, fingerprints, Alien Hearing Board transcripts, reports, lists of items, and index cards. The records contain personal background information about internees such as date of birth, address, marital status, religion, occupation, medical condition, and history. Also, the records pertain to the loyalty of internees, clothing issued to internees, items confiscated from internees, suspected subversive activity, reasons for internment, and information on relocation to either the United States mainland or the country of Japan." All of this is unrestricted.

ARC Identifier 1079759 consists of "copies of general orders pertaining to a variety of matters including: blackouts, censorship, liquor control, citizen and alien registration, structure of the military government, appointments of unit directors, the judicial system, cargo and passenger control, labor control, food control, land control, travel restrictions, internment of aliens and Japanese-Americans, restricted areas, air raids, internal security, property control, finance and personnel."

Hawaii State Archives

A comparatively small but interesting amount of material is available in the Hawaii State Archives, located between Iolani Palace and the State Capitol. Again, consult the archivist. Ask for a Finding Aid on Ingram Stainback, the nearly powerless civilian governor during martial law. See files on martial law that include Stainback's letters to the U.S. Interior Department complaining about the military's hanging on to power. A second file of includes the lists of names of the many workers who were jailed and/or fined for missing work or attempting to change jobs. It is a perspective on the arbitrary power of martial law General Orders.

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i (JCCH)

JCCH has played a significant role in reviving interest in internment in Hawaii. Compared to the western United States, where all people of Japanese ancestry were relocated, and most were interned, about 1500 people, or less than one percent of the Japanese-ancestry population, were interned in Hawaii. Quite naturally internment isolated people physically, psychologically and socially but to what extent did Martial Law also do that? To what extent was Martial Law a substitute for internment?


Support for this portion of our website was provided by a grant from the Hawaii Council for the Humanities.

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