What happened on this day in history: During World War II, Attorney General Francis Biddle announced that Italian nationals in the U.S.A. would no longer be considered enemy aliens.
That same year, Biddle was involved in a case where eight captured Nazi agents were tried by a military tribunal appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for espionage and planning sabotage in the United States as part of Operation Pistorius. Lt. Col. Kenneth Royall challenged Roosevelt’s decision to prosecute the Germans in military tribunals, citing Ex parte Milligan (1886), a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not establish military tribunals to try civilians in areas where civilian courts were functioning, even during wartimes. Biddle responded that the Germans were not entitled to have access to civilian courts due to their status as unlawful combatants. This decision was upheld in Ex parte Quirin a half-century later, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the military commission created to try the Germans was lawful. On August 3, 1942, all eight were found guilty and sentenced to death. Five days later, six of the eight were executed in the electric chair on the third floor of the District of Columbia jail. The other two were given prison terms as they willingly turned over their comrades to the FBI. In 1948, both men were released from prison and returned to Germany.
Although Biddle opposed Japanese-American internment during the war, he succumbed to “political expediency” and eventually supported the policy, and was haunted by it for years afterward. However, Biddle strengthened his department’s efforts on behalf of African-American civil rights by instructing U.S. attorneys to direct their prosecutions against forced labor in the South away from the usual practice of charging “peonage” which required them to find an element of debt, and toward bringing charges of “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” against employers and local officials.