After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics

After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics

by Greg Robinson

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After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics by Greg Robinson

This book illuminates various aspects of a central but unexplored area of American history: the midcentury Japanese American experience. A vast and ever-growing literature exists, first on the entry and settlement of Japanese immigrants in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, then on the experience of the immigrants and their American-born children during World War II. Yet the essential question, "What happened afterwards?" remains all but unanswered in historical literature. Excluded from the wartime economic boom and scarred psychologically by their wartime ordeal, the former camp inmates struggled to remake their lives in the years that followed. This volume consists of a series of case studies that shed light on various developments relating to Japanese Americans in the aftermath of their wartime confinement, including resettlement nationwide, the mental and physical readjustment of the former inmates, and their political engagement, most notably in concert with other racialized and ethnic minority groups.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520952270
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/07/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Greg Robinson is Associate Professor of History at l'Universite du Quebec A Montreal and the author of A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia).

Read an Excerpt

After Camp

Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics

By Greg Robinson


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95227-0


Political Science?

FDR, Japanese Americans, and the Postwar Dispersion of Minorities

The term political science usually refers to all the ways—polls, models, and statistics—that academics have used to bring scientific principles to the study of political behavior. Yet my use of these two words comes from a completely opposite direction and refers to the use of science for political purposes—an unexamined aspect of the domestic and foreign policy of President Franklin Roosevelt during the years of World War II. FDR and his advisors, believing that concentration of minority groups, especially urban-based, within established nations bred poverty and intergroup tensions, sought to alleviate conflict by scientifically planning the mass migration and absorption of unwanted groups into rural and underpopulated areas. Through the mass dispersion and assimilation of ethnic and racial minority populations, the United States would promote peace and economic growth.

My focus is divided into two distinct, though interrelated, dispersion initiatives. The first one took place within the United States. Here, during 1943–44, Roosevelt formulated plans to "distribute" incarcerated Japanese Americans in small groups throughout the country to solve the "Japanese problem." He meanwhile considered various proposals for the scattering of Jews and other immigrants. On the international side, FDR commissioned the M Project (the M standing for migration), a top-secret anthropological study by a team of scholars that eventually encompassed some six hundred reports, essays, and translations of articles on human migration and settlement. The goal of this project was to provide the president with expert advice on the possibilities for large-scale postwar relocation of millions of European refugees and members of unwanted populations to Latin America in accordance with Darwinian racial principles. The study of these interconnected programs reveals both the complexities of Franklin Roosevelt's views of race and society and the paradoxical nature of social engineering for Issei and Nisei.

Franklin Roosevelt's interest in demographics and migration developed early. As a child he noted the tensions stirred by the presence of a French Canadian minority in his grandfather's hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. When he grew to manhood and moved to New York City, he was regularly exposed to nativist fears of immigrants and to the countervailing efforts of settlement workers (including his future wife, Eleanor) and other progressives to "Americanize" the newcomers. In 1920, during his unsuccessful campaign as Democratic candidate for vice president, the young FDR expressed his ideas on the subject in an interview with the daily newspaper Brooklyn Eagle:

Our main trouble in the past has been that we have permitted the foreign elements to segregate in colonies. They have crowded into one district and they have brought congestion and racial prejudices to our large cities. The result is that they do not easily conform to the manners and the customs and the requirements of their new home. Now, the remedy for this should be greater distribution of aliens in various parts of the country. If we had the greater part of the foreign population of the City of New York distributed to different localities upstate we should have a far better condition. Of course, this could not be done by legislative enactment. It could only be done by inducement—if better financial conditions and better living conditions could be offered to the alien dwellers in the cities.

During the mid-1920s, when he was a private citizen, Roosevelt expressed his admiration for the Canadian government's policy of assisted settlement of European immigrants in agricultural regions: "When the individual or family in the European country applies to the Canadian agent for permission to come over he must agree to go to one of the sections of Canada which is not already too full of foreigners. If, twenty-five years ago, the United States had adopted a policy of this kind we would not have the huge foreign sections which exist in so many of our cities."

Even as Roosevelt expressed interest in resettling existing urban immigrants, he articulated support for official restrictions on immigration, in ways that followed popular racist prejudices. In 1925, one year after Congress passed a restrictive immigration act that effectively banned immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Roosevelt affirmed that European immigrants should be barred "for a good many years to come" so that the United States could "digest" (i.e., assimilate and Americanize) those who had been admitted already, and he added that the government should concentrate henceforth on admitting only the most readily "assimilable" so that quick "digestion" could proceed. While Roosevelt did not specify which immigrants would meet such a standard, his language of assimilation and especially his call for "European blood of the right sort" left little doubt that he meant primarily western Europeans. Already, in 1923, , he had stated unequivocally that Japanese, like other Asians, should be excluded from both immigration and citizenship rights in order to protect America's "racial purity." In a second article in 1925, he further warned of the dangers of racial mixing:

Anyone who has travelled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results.... In this question then of Japanese exclusion from the United States, it is necessary only to advance the true reason—the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples.

The immediate roots of both the M Project and the plan for resettlement of Japanese Americans lie in Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to handle the question of Jewish refugees. As early as 1938, FDR commissioned Johns Hopkins University president Isaiah Bowman, who had previously advised President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles peace conference on redrawing European frontiers, to come up with a plan for resettling Jews outside Europe without bringing them to the United States, and thus resolving the Old World's "Jewish problem" there. Bowman's idea was to disperse the Jews in small numbers—the smaller the better—in rural areas throughout the globe, so that they could live off the land and give up the commercial and banking professions that had aroused such opposition to them. During the following years, Bowman and his team researched various possibilities for resettlement of Jews in Latin America and advised on the political prospects for negotiating the admission of refugees with different governments. The various plans remained generally unimplemented for a number of reasons, not the least of which was Bowman's own opposition to organizing the mass transportation of "a large foreign immigrant group" to Latin America, since it would embroil the United States in European quarrels. "Why not keep the European elements within the framework of the Old World?" he asked FDR. "Even if we do not favor migration to Latin America, but allow it, difficulties will arise."

Roosevelt evidently agreed, for he took no further action along such lines during the prewar years. (His doubts could only have been confirmed by the results of the July 1938 Evian conference on refugees, which he took the initiative of organizing. Not only did the Latin American countries in attendance refuse to increase their own quotas for admission of Jewish refugees, but some actually further restricted entry.) Roosevelt nonetheless kept Bowman's initial plan in mind for later use. In particular, he began to return to the subject after December 1941, when the United States entered World War II. As the president learned of atrocities committed against the Jews and other European minorities, he began to think about the larger problem of displaced persons (DPs) and turned back to the broad lines of the Bowman plan. His concern was not simply what to do with the Jews but how to handle the several million other people throughout Europe and Asia whom the war had forced to flee their homes and who would be left stranded when the conflict ended. Roosevelt realized that this was a worldwide problem, and he firmly believed it was the responsibility of the United States, as part of its claim to world leadership, to take the lead in organizing nations around the globe to help them find new homes. Undaunted by the failure of international conferences to open doors for Jews threatened by Nazism, Roosevelt planned to negotiate agreements with Latin American states to admit displaced persons. (He rejected as politically unworkable and socially undesirable the admission of large numbers of refugees to the United States, which he did not consider an "underdeveloped country.") As Robert Strausz-Hupé, who was to help direct the M Project, later explained, "Neither strictly military nor even of immediate political importance, the [refugee] problem engaged the president's generous humanitarianism; moreover, it was likely to bear upon the future peace."

In fact, FDR's interest in refugees was connected to a fundamental concern about overpopulation. In Roosevelt's view, which was shared by many social scientists of the period, the chief long-term causes of the war were population growth and overcrowding. These led to shortages and competition for scarce resources, which in turn bred the tensions that led to war. If the surplus population from densely populated regions could be resettled in sparsely populated areas, Roosevelt reasoned, these tensions would diminish. As Ladislas Farago, who was long associated with the M Project, noted:

Roosevelt's conception of the D.P. appears unorthodox and revolutionary. He regarded the victims of the war as representing but one of ... three groups. In the second group were the surplus populations of certain European and Asiatic countries, while the third group was made up of so-called "geopolitical problem children" whose presence in certain countries is traditionally exploited for power-political purposes. Roosevelt believed that the postwar necessity of a large-scale resettlement of refugees would enable him to solve the interdependent problems of all three groups simultaneously.

FDR's goal was to discover areas where large-scale resettlement might take place, and he sought expert help. He told his advisors that he was not interested in counsel on the political and economic questions inherent in arranging resettlement: he considered himself the supreme expert on dealing in politics. Instead, he turned to scientists who could, he believed, provide practical, nonideological, professional advice on ways to organize resettlement and to minimize the impact and friction such refugees were likely to provoke in their new homes.

The president soon found a potential leader for his project. During early spring 1942, as Roosevelt began turning over in his mind the DP question, he came into contact with Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, chief anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution. Hrdlicka was a specialist on skull measurement, which was then a common and respected aspect of anthropology. Although himself a Czech immigrant and an opponent of nativism, Hrdlicka had strong prejudices against African Americans and other racial minority groups. In a 1928 article on measuring blacks' skulls, Hrdlicka referred to the black population of Washington, D.C., as "the semi-civilized, suspicious, scattered free laborers and servants of a big city." He also had a history of racial hostility toward Japanese people, which he expressed at various points throughout the 1930s.

In early 1942, Hrdlicka wrote the president to warn of his fears about the Japanese. In his letter, he informed FDR that the members of the Japanese race were innately warlike and hostile by reason of their less developed skulls, which placed them lower in evolutionary development than other "races." Roosevelt was intrigued, and he inquired about solving the "Japanese problem" through mass interbreeding. It is not entirely clear from the president's answer to Hrdlicka whether he wished to force the Japanese to interbreed with other Asian groups in order to dilute their alleged innate aggressiveness or wanted to ensure that other Asian groups interbred with superior European racial stock in order to give them a leg up against the Japanese.

Impressed with Hrdlicka's ideas on the question of reshaping the Asian Pacific population through efficient programs of racial mixing, FDR invited Hrdlicka to meet with him in late May 1942 to discuss the general problem of postwar migration. Some idea of Roosevelt's interest in planning to overcome intergroup hostility can be inferred from a letter he wrote at the time to Canadian prime minister W. L. Mackenzie King about the endemic conflicts between English Canadians and French Canadians. Canada was undergoing a crisis over conscription, which was heavily opposed by French Canadians unenthusiastic about fighting for England and empire. Roosevelt confided to Mackenzie King that joint efforts might be necessary to remove the opposition:

All of this leads me to wonder whether by some sort of planning Canada and the United States, working toward the same end, cannot do some planning—perhaps some unwritten planning which need not even be a public policy—by which we can hasten the objective of assimilating the New England French Canadians and Canada's French Canadians into the whole of our respective bodies politic. There are, of course, many methods for doing this which depend upon local circumstances. Wider opportunities can perhaps be given to them in other parts of Canada and the U.S.; and at the same time, certain opportunities can probably be given to non–French Canadian stock to mingle more greatly with them in their own centers.

In other words, after nearly two hundred years with you and after seventy-five years with us, there would seem to be no good reason for great differentials between the French population elements and the rest of the racial stocks.

It is on the same basis that I am trying to work out post-war plans for the encouragement of the distribution of certain other nationalities on our large congested centers. There ought not to be such a concentration of Italians and Jews, and even of Germans as we have today in New York City. I have started my National Resources Planning Commission to work on a survey of this kind.

In May 1942, FDR met with Ales Hrdlicka at the White House. The anthropologist swiftly pronounced himself willing to organize a concerted initiative to arrange postwar migration and contact according to "scientific principles of demographic movements and race mixtures." Hrdlicka suggested holding a "Pan-American Congress on Post-War Immigration," to be followed by the creation of an international migration center to coordinate policy. He no doubt recognized that this might sound unrealistic, for he then suggested as an alternative the formation of a body of experts to plan population shifts. "This body should chart the problem from the anthropological, medical, and economical points of view. It would determine the countries that will have to discharge their surplus peoples, and those that might receive them; learn by direct observation, through brief field trips, the conditions of the prospective receiving regions; and lay foundations for rational selection and direction of the migrants." Hrdlicka offered to set up such a body at the Smithsonian if private foundation money could be secured. "Such a body could begin to function without delay, and begin to furnish or publish its reports within a few months."

Realizing the foreign policy implications of such an action, Roosevelt immediately sent Hrdlicka's proposal to Secretary of State Cordell Hull and asked Hull to speak to him about it. At the same time, Roosevelt discussed his postwar migration plans with Vice President Henry Wallace, who expressed great interest. After receiving these endorsements, Roosevelt decided to proceed with the formation of what he called an "Institute of Population," and he called again on Isaiah Bowman for assistance in directing the project. Bowman explained that he was too busy to take on any more activity but agreed to lend his name to the project.


Excerpted from After Camp by Greg Robinson. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction, 1,
1. Political Science? FDR, Japanese Americans, and the Postwar Dispersion of Minorities, 15,
2. Forrest LaViolette: Race, Internationalism, and Assimilation, 31,
3. Japantown Born and Reborn: Comparing the Resettlement Experience of Issei and Nisei in Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles, 43,
4. Birth of a Citizen: Miné Okubo and the Politics of Symbolism, 69,
5. The "New Nisei" and Identity Politics, 85,
6. Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans: The Limits of Interracial Collaboration, 105,
7. From Kuichi to Comrades: Japanese American Views of Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, 139,
8. African American Responses to the Wartime Confinement of Japanese Americans, 157,
9. The Los Angeles Defender: Hugh E. Macbeth and Japanese Americans, 171,
10. Crusaders in Gotham: The JACD and Interracial Activism, 183,
11. From Korematsu to Brown: Nisei and the Postwar Struggle for Civil Rights, 195,
12. An Uneasy Alliance: Blacks and Japanese Americans, 1954–1965, 217,
Epilogue, 241,
Notes, 249,
Index, 303,

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