Public Enemy Law and Legal Definition

Public enemy is a term used to describe a nation at war with the United States. The government of a foreign country, rather than a group of individuals within a country, must be at war with the U.S. for the nation to be consdiered a public enemy.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice made use of the term "public enemy" in the 1930s, an era in which the term was synonymous with "fugitive" or "notorious gangster." It was used in speeches, books, press releases, and internal memoranda. The origin of the name "public enemy" has been traced to the Chicago Crime Commission, which invented the term around 1930. "Public Enemy" caught national attention, and the Commission maintained lists of its "public enemies" which were released through the news media. In addition, the term was popularized by a 1931 movie, "The Public Enemy," in which James Cagney portrayed a gangster. Common usage of the name, "public enemy," died out during the World War II period.