Government and International Relations Honors Papers

The Restriction of Civil Liberties during Times of Crisis: The Evolution of America's Response to National Military Threats

Matthew D. Fairman, Connecticut College

Document Type Honors Paper


This treatise explores the nature and significance of the threat posed to civil liberties during times of major national military crisis and evaluates changes in the nature of wartime repression over the course of American history. It tests the thesis that the evolution in Americans’ response to such crises has not been a simple progression toward increasing restraint on the part of federal, state, and local policymakers, as is sometimes assumed. Rather, major twentieth and twenty-first century developments related to the nature of threats to American national security and government capabilities to covertly repress dissent have interacted with evolutionary changes in the nature of wartime repression in reinforcing and conflicting ways. Because of those changes, modern crises will last longer, the restriction of civil liberties during wartime will increasingly be accomplished through covert forms of repression, and, therefore, the durability of wartime restrictions will be greater. In sum, during future crises, Americans’ civil liberties will be restricted for longer periods, with the return to normalcy after those crises becoming increasingly difficult. To test this thesis, this treatise uses the past major national military crises in American history as case studies. They include the Quasi-War with France at the end of the 18th century, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. The concluding chapter connects the “War on Terror” to these arguments. Overall, the case study analysis in Chapters I through V combined with the overarching assessment of historical changes in the nature of wartime repression and the durability of wartime restrictions in Chapter VI prove the validity of this thesis.


The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.