Edward Ennis

Name Edward Ennis
Born December 4 1907
Died January 7 1990
Birth Location New York

Edward Ennis, director of the Justice Department's Alien Enemy Control Unit during World War II, supervised the wartime internment of enemy aliens. Although he opposed Executive Order 9066 within government circles, he played a major role in defending the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans. In the postwar years he served as general counsel to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and as a director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Early Life

Edward J. Ennis grew up in New York City. He graduated with a B.S. from Seton Hall College in 1929. He earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1932, and thereafter served as legal secretary to Judge Martin T. Manton of the civil court. In 1934 he was selected as an assistant by U.S. Attorney Martin Conboy, and assigned to the civil division. As Assistant United States Attorney he defended President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs. In 1937 he became an assistant in the Solicitor General's Office. In 1940 Ennis returned to the office of the U.S. Attorney in New York, then headed by John T. Cahill (he also defended in court the banning of the Hedy Lamarr film Ecstasy as obscene). In July 1941 he was named general counsel to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. As part of his work, he formed part of the legal team that attempted unsuccessfully to deport Australian-born labor leader Harry Bridges on political grounds. During this period, he also briefly taught law at the Catholic University of America.

Enemy Alien Detention

On December 7, 1941 , in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, Ennis drafted a presidential proclamation providing for summary internment of Japanese aliens. Two weeks later, Ennis was appointed by Attorney General Francis Biddle to lead the Justice Department's Alien Enemy Control Unit, which was then absorbed into the Justice Department's War Division in May 1942. The Alien Enemy Control unit worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to take into custody enemy aliens (i.e. German and Japanese citizens, as well as Italian citizens until October 1942) considered potentially subversive. As director, Ennis was charged with receiving recommendations from the six Enemy Alien Hearing Boards that provided hearings for those detained, and interning those considered potentially dangerous. The Justice Department arrested approximately 3,000 enemy aliens in the days after December 7, 1941, and by September 1, 1942 the total number of aliens arrested was approximately 6,800.

Meanwhile, Ennis was charged with accepting the ethnic Germans and Japanese who were brought to the United States under an agreement between the U.S. State Department and a dozen Latin American nations. Ennis later stated that "in March or April 1942" the State Department asked the attorney general to take temporary custody of Latin American "alien enemies" pending their repatriation to German, Italy and Japan. The Justice Department placed them in internment, first in Camp Livingston, Louisiana, later in the "family internment center" at Crystal City , Texas, operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. As Ennis later put it, many of those taken "were not security problems but the police authorities of our good neighbor nations took the opportunity to get rid of them for their own reasons." [1]

Opposing and Defending Executive Order 9066

Ennis remained as director of the Alien Enemy Control Unit until 1946. He applied what he believed were reasonable policies to control enemy aliens and intern suspect individuals without excessive infringement on civil rights. However, he opposed the army's call for mass removal of American citizens of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coast as "nonsense" (in his later words), and he joined his colleague James Rowe in trying to block it over the first weeks of 1942. On January 30, 1942, Ennis and Rowe met with members of the Pacific Coast congressional delegation to explain that the Justice Department opposed summary removal, and rebutted War Department attorney Karl Bendetsen's advocacy of "evacuation." In response, West Coast congressional delegation members began calling Ennis daily to lobby for mass removal. Ennis and Rowe pushed Biddle to resist pressure War Department pressure—Ennis campaigned without success to have Biddle report to President Roosevelt that such a policy would be unconstitutional. Finally, on February 17, 1942, after President Roosevelt communicated his decision to sign an Executive Order approving mass removal, Biddle ordered Rowe and Ennis (over their angry protests) to help work out the text. Ennis considered resigning over the matter, but Rowe dissuaded him. Ennis later expressed his fear at the time that if he resigned, his place would be taken by Justice Department lawyers "gung-ho for the Army's position." [2]

Ironically, once Executive Order 9066 was issued, Ennis took the position of public defender of official policy. In late March 1942, he testified before a congressional committee regarding a bill to place Japanese Americans in "concentration camps" for the duration of the war. Ennis seized on the order he had drafted under protest to oppose the law. He made clear that Executive Order 9066 included confinement for the duration of the war, and added a tortured explanation why this did not violate habeas corpus:

We are not subjecting a citizen of the Japanese race to incarceration under guard. By our proclamation we have removed him from any dangerous areas, and we have required him to go, and so far he has done it entirely on a voluntary basis, to the encampments that we have set up for him where, of course, there will be guards, but the purpose of the guards will be to police the camp for them, without putting any citizen of the Japanese race behind bars. [3]

Ennis was subsequently charged with helping draft briefs and present the government's case in the Hirabayashi and Korematsu cases as they went through the courts. His actions dramatized the irreconcilable conflict between his private opposition to the policy and his duties as an advocate. In oral argument before the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Hirabayashi in February 1943, Ennis conceded that there was no evidence of subversive activity among West Coast Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, but argued that the internal threat of even a little bit of such activity had to be considered in the context of the enormous external threat the coast was facing. Ennis urged the court to appreciate the "incalculable damage" that "even . . . only a few hundred" American citizens of Japanese ancestry could do if they supported a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. Conversely, in preparing the government's brief for the Supreme Court, Ennis pressed Solicitor General Charles Fahy to take note of the fact that the army's justification for wholesale removal was belied by internal intelligence reports. Similarly, Ennis and his assistant John Burling struggled unsuccessfully with their colleagues to include a footnote in the government brief in Korematsu exposing the duplicity of the War Department and the fraudulent nature of DeWitt's Final Report . Yet both signed the final government brief, even stripped of the note, as an expression of institutional loyalty. Ennis likewise met privately with ACLU Director Roger Baldwin to plot strategy regarding Supreme Court appeals over indefinite detention of Japanese Americans. In March 1945 Ennis served as co-counsel in the federal court Ochikubo case, involving a constitutional challenge to the army's individual exclusion orders.

Ennis was twice sent to Hawai'i to deal with habeas corpus cases under Hawai'i's martial law regime, and took an extreme position in support of the military's suspension of constitutional rights. In the 1943 case of Erwin Seifert and Walter Glockner, whose petition had sparked a confrontation between military governor General Robert Richardson and federal Judge Delbert Metzger, Ennis and Solicitor General Charles Fahy arranged for the two prisoners to be brought to the mainland and freed—thus mooting their case. Ennis publicly announced on October 22 that, despite the dismissal of action against Seifert and Glockner, habeas corpus remained suspended in Hawai'i. Ennis was sent back to Hawai'i by Attorney General Biddle in April 1944 to defend Richardson and the Army against Lloyd Duncan's petition for habeas corpus. Given the impossible task of demonstrating a state of peril to the war effort sufficient to justify military tribunals even after Japan's Pacific fleet had been largely destroyed, Ennis responded by asserting the threat to security caused by the presence of Japanese Americans in Hawai'i as the government's chief justification: that is, that the loyalties of Japanese Americans could not be relied on or determined on racial grounds. Ennis focused on the alleged dual nationality of the Nisei —an old nativist canard—as a factor placing Hawai'i in direct peril.

Another important aspect of Ennis's actions regarding official treatment of Japanese Americans was his role in the evolution of the renunciants. After the confrontation at Tule Lake segregation center in late 1944, Ennis strongly supported the enacting of a law enabling Americans of Japanese ancestry to renounce their U.S. citizenship. Ennis was convinced that if the courts declared indefinite confinement of Japanese Americans unconstitutional, it would be impossible to maintain custody of "disloyals," whereas if they could be induced to surrender their citizenship rights, they could be held until the end of the war and then deported to Japan. The Nationality Law, enacted in 1944, ultimately had tragic consequences for thousands of Japanese Americans at Tule Lake who were induced or pressured into giving up their citizenship.

ACLU President and Redress Supporter

During his time in the Justice Department Ennis retained his ties with New York's Tammany Hall Democratic political machine. In June 1945 Tammany leaders voted to withdraw support from Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan, and Ennis received their nomination. However, Brooklyn District Attorney William O'Dwyer, Tammany's mayoral candidate, supported Hogan and forced Tammany leaders to rescind their nomination of Ennis. In 1946 Ennis joined the American Civil Liberties Union as counsel. He remained affiliated with the ACLU for 43 years, serving as general counsel from 1955 to 1969 and ACLU president from 1967 to 1977. As ACLU President Ennis attracted publicity by campaigning for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon over the Watergate affair, and maintaining his call even after Nixon resigned from office. Ennis publicly criticized President Gerald Ford for his pardon of Nixon.

Meanwhile, Ennis worked to assist the Japanese American Citizens League . His actions were clearly motivated, at least in part, by regret over the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans and by his own role in the policy. In 1948, Ennis was selected as national counsel for the JACL, replacing A.L. Wirin . He helped draft the legislation that became the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act and toured the country, explaining to people how to make their claims. During this period, Ennis's outstanding achievement was the short brief he prepared for the JACL in the McLaurin v. Oklahoma case, supporting the NAACP's case against racially segregated schools.

In the 1970s and 1980s Ennis became a prominent supporter of redress for Japanese Americans. 1981 Ennis testified before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians , criticized the removal of Japanese Americans and announced his support for an official apology to those affected. In 1985 Ennis likewise testified in the coram nobis hearing of Gordon Hirabayashi as the star witness for the petitioners.

Edward Ennis died of complications from diabetes in New York City in January 1990.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases . New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Muller, Eric L. " Hirabayashi and the Invasion Evasion." North Carolina Law Review 88 (2010): 1333–89.

Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America . New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.


  1. Edward Ennis, "Memorandum for Mr. James H. Rowe," January 26, 1943. Edward Ennis file, James Rowe papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
  2. Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 351.
  3. Statement of Edward J. Ennis, Testimony before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Immigration on "Supervision, detention and Incarceration of deportable Aliens, S. 1232, S.2293 and S. 1720," U.S. Senate, March 23-24, 1942, pp. 45, 50-51, in Edward Ennis Files, James H. Rowe papers, FDRL.

Last updated July 15, 2020, 3:16 p.m..