Articles of War: The Nazi Saboteurs.

In 1942 eight youths, seven Germans and one an American, all of whom had received training in sabotage in Berlin, were brought to this country aboard two German submarines and put ashore, one group on the Florida coast, the other on Long Island, with the idea that they would proceed forthwith to practice their art on American factories, military equipment, and installations. Making their way inland, the saboteurs were soon picked up by the FBI, some in New York, others in Chicago, and turned over to the Provost Marshal of the District of Columbia. On July 2, the President appointed a military commission to try them for violation of the laws of war, to wit: for not wearing fixed emblems to indicate their combatant status. In the midst of the trial, the accused petitioned the Supreme Court and the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for leave to bring habeas corpus proceedings. Their argument embraced the contentions: (1) that the offense charged against them was not known to the laws of the United States; (2) that it was not one arising in the land and naval forces; and (3) that the tribunal trying them had not been constituted in accordance with the requirements of the Articles of War.

The first argument the Court met as follows: The act of Congress in providing for the trial before military tribunals of offenses against the law of war is sufficiently definite, although Congress has not undertaken to codify or mark the precise boundaries of the law of war, or to enumerate or define by statute all the acts which that law condemns. “. . . [T]hose who during time of war pass surreptitiously from enemy territory into . . . [that of the United States], discarding their uniforms upon entry, for the commission of hostile acts involving destruction of life or property, have the status of unlawful combatants punishable as such by military commission.”240 The second argument it disposed of by showing that petitioners’ case was of a kind that was never deemed to be within the terms of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, citing in confirmation of this position the trial of Major Andre.241 The third contention the Court overruled by declining to draw the line between the powers of Congress and the President in the premises,242 thereby, in effect, attributing to the President the right to amend the Articles of War in a case of the kind before the Court ad libitum.

The decision might well have rested on the ground that the Constitution is without restrictive force in wartime in a situation of this sort. The saboteurs were invaders; their penetration of the boundary of the country, projected from units of a hostile fleet, was essentially a military operation, their capture was a continuation of that operation. Punishment of the saboteurs was therefore within the President’s purely martial powers as Commander in Chief. Moreover, seven of the petitioners were enemy aliens, and so, strictly speaking, without constitutional status. Even had they been civilians properly domiciled in the United States at the outbreak of the war, they would have been subject under the statutes to restraint and other disciplinary action by the President without appeals to the courts. In any event, the Court rejected the jurisdictional challenge by one of the saboteurs on the basis of his claim to U.S. citizenship, finding U.S. citizenship wholly irrelevant to the determination of whether a wartime captive is an “enemy belligerent” within the meaning of the law of war.243


Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, 29–30, 35 (1942). back
317 U.S. at 41–42. back
317 U.S. at 28–29. back
Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, 37–38 (1942) (“Citizens who associate themselves with the military arm of the enemy government, and with its aid, guidance and direction enter this country bent on hostile acts, are enemy belligerents within the meaning of the Hague Convention and the law of war.”). See also Colepaugh v. Looney, 235 F.2d 429, 432 (10th Cir. 1956), cert. denied, 352 U.S. 1014 (1957) (“[T]he petitioner’s citizenship in the United States does not . . . confer upon him any constitutional rights not accorded any other belligerent under the laws of war.”). back