THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The censorship of Japanese American history


The story of Executive Order 9066 and the mass removal and confinement of Japanese Americans during World War II is a difficult one for many people to wrestle with, even today. The inability of Americans to deal fully with the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans can be demonstrated by looking at two different incidents of censorship during the early postwar years, involving books on the subject by Anne Reeploeg Fisher and Morton Grodzins.

Anne Reeploeg Fisher (1900-1994) was a Socialist and a member of the Interracial Church of the People in Seattle. When Gordon Hirabayashi went to trial in mid-1942 for breaking curfew regulations and refusing to register for “evacuation,” Fisher attended his trial and took stenographic notes of the proceedings. She also wrote to members of Congress during 1942 and 1943 in order to secure better treatment for camp inmates.

Still, her interest remained minor until April 1945, when she went to San Francisco to report on the inaugural United Nations conference for the Socialist newspaper The Call. According to Fisher’s account, while in California she attended a meeting of a vanguard of Japanese Americans recently returned from camp. She was surprised to learn of the mounting antagonism against the returnees and all the difficulties they were having securing housing. She also visited the Manzanar camp during this time, where she found the inmates apprehensive about leaving the relative security of the camps and returning to the larger society.

Once Fisher returned to Seattle, she began writing an article on the Japanese American question, in order to educate public opinion about the returnees. However, once she started, she found more and more to say. After 6 months of typing 12 hours a day, 6 days per week, she had an enormous book manuscript, entitled “Exile of a Race.” Once this manuscript was cut in half to save on printing costs, Fisher began seeking publishers. In early 1946, she submitted it for the Scribner Prize in History, a $10,000 award which also brought with it a guaranteed publication by the prestigious Scribner publishing company. The judges expressed approval of Fisher’s research and writing. However, she received information that a prize-winning historian had objected to the book on political grounds. “I did not like reading it — it is a humiliating book.” Because he felt that facing such recent injustices hurt one’s pride in country, he opposed giving a prize to the book. The negative assessment not only helped cost Fisher the Scribner prize, she later claimed, but it was fatal to her chances of publication.

Although she received inquiries from the Doubleday Company, nothing solidified, and in the end she waited another 20 years, until 1965, before she undertook production of “Exile of a Race.” By that time, no works on the camps had been produced for over a decade, and the nation had settled into a comfortable silence over what had occurred. Using the Peninsula Printing Company, a small British Columbia firm, she produced 2,000 copies to be sold to libraries and schools in Canada. In order to extend copyright, she then produced 1,000 more via Seattle’s F&T Publishers for sale in the United States. The book was sufficiently popular that she produced a new printing in 1970, and later a new edition with a supplement in 1987.

While “Exile of a Race” heralded by its appearance a slew of major studies of Executive Order 9066 in the later 1960s and early 1970s, it never achieved the prominence and influence it would have had it been chosen for publication by a major mainstream press in the first years after the war.

Another Example of Censorship

A second example is the affair of Morton Grodzins. Grodzins (1917-1964) was a graduate student at University of California when he was hired as a researcher by the Japanese Evacuation Research Survey (JERS), a giant social science study of mass confinement headed by University of California Sociologist Dorothy Swaine Thomas.

Grodzins went through multiple sources and compiled vital information for the project. In 1943, for example, he made a research trip to Washington and interviewed Justice Department officials. The following year, he submitted his thesis, “Political Aspects of the Japanese Evacuation,” which was accepted in 1945. The next year he was listed as a co-author on Thomas and Richard Nishimoto’s study of “disloyals” at Tule Lake “The Spoilage,” published by University of California Press. The preface to that volume noted that the editors intended publishing as part of their series a monograph on “political and administrative aspects of evacuation and resettlement” (thus presumably some version of Grodzins’s work). Meanwhile, Grodzins was hired as a professor in the Political Science Department at University of Chicago.

Following disagreements with Thomas, Grodzins decided to seek publication elsewhere, and in 1948 William T. Couch, the director of University of Chicago Press, agreed to publish his work. In the book “Views From Within,” anthropologist Peter Suzuki details at length the attempts of Thomas, University of California chancellor Robert Sproul and others to influence the University of Chicago Press not to publish the book. Although the pretext for denying publication was that Grodzins’s manuscript was composed of confidential material belonging exclusively to the JERS project, Suzuki argues with some justice that UC officials in fact objected to its portrait of elite California farmer and commercial groups and racist West Coast political leaders as chiefly responsible for mass removal.

When Thomas was unable to provide any evidence of any written agreement by Grodzins not to seek outside publication, Couch decided to publish the book as a contribution to public knowledge. Still, the UC officials raised such strong protest that University of Chicago chancellor Robert Hutchins moved to suppress the manuscript. University President Ernest C. Colwell summoned Couch and ordered him to desist from publication, insisting that “interuniversity comity” was more important than freedom of the press.

Ordinarily that would have killed the project, but the University of Chicago officials had not reckoned with their man — for Couch it was history repeating itself. William Terry Couch (1901-1988), the son of a Virginia-based Episcopal minister, had become an editor at University of North Carolina Press while still an undergraduate, and had become its director in 1932. As a liberal white Southerner, he was concerned about race relations and encouraging interracial dialogue. Thus, in 1936 he approached the distinguished African American educator Rayford Logan about producing an anthology of “Negro’ opinion on the race question. Over the following years, Logan commissioned essays from a galaxy of distinguished black figures. The result was the manuscript called “What the Negro Wants.” Although the contributors espoused different strategies for ending racial discrimination, they all agreed on one fundamental issue: racial segregation was harmful and should be abolished.

Although he had commissioned the book, Couch was shocked by the results. He firmly believed that the contributors were courting danger by attacking segregation instead of trying to develop all-black institutions. He asked Logan to alter the manuscript but Logan refused. Out of personal principle (plus the threat of a lawsuit), Couch gave in and agreed to publish the manuscript as it stood, though he added an editor’s introduction expressing his firm disagreement with the contributors.

“What the Negro Wants” appeared in 1944. It swiftly became a classic of African American thought, and it remains in print and much cited. Nevertheless, even in North Carolina, considered the most “liberal” state in the South, in 1944 any book decrying segregation was regarded as scandalous. Despite Couch’s expressed dissent with its ideas, he was forced to resign from the press, which prompted his hiring by Chicago shortly after.

In the end, thanks to Couch’s insistence on informing the public on issues of importance, in 1949 University of Chicago press published Grodzins’s book under the title “Americans Betrayed.” It was the first full-scale scholarly treatment of the decisions and events behind Executive Order 9066, and it underlined the primary role of California “pressure groups” in bringing about mass removal. It was well-reviewed and remains studied by historians.

However, William T. Couch suffered once more for his defiant reliance on principle. In 1950 he was summarily dismissed from his post by Hutchins, despite protests by 16 distinguished Chicago faculty members and the resignation of the Press’s Humanities editor Fred Wieck. A year later, in a shocking shift, Morton Grodzins himself was selected as a university of Chicago press editor, taking over from Couch.

The examples of Fisher and Grodzins demonstrate the various feelings of shame and defensiveness that elite Americans felt regarding the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans, both by the West Coast interests that had clamored for removal and the government which had arbitrarily denied their rights. Thus, even well-regarded studies by non-Japanese were subjected to censorship.

It would not be until the 1970s, when Japanese Americans themselves rose to tell their stories and lobby for reparations, that some of the widespread urge by the nation’s citizens to forget the wartime events would be overcome.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@

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