THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: John Franklin Carter’s investigation of Japanese American loyalty

In a series of popular novels published during the 1940s and 1950s, such as “The Presidential Agent,” author Upton Sinclair told the story of Lanny Budd. Budd was an undercover agent for democracy against fascism, who used his guise as a playboy and an art dealer to infiltrate Nazi circles and perform special missions for the U.S. government. In order to guard his secret, Budd reported directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appeared as a character in the novels (Budd also receives spirit messages from the ghost of banker-impresario Otto H. Kahn).

Sinclair’s works were celebrated in their time as rousing thrillers, but not taken as anything but fantasy. And indeed, the author himself may have been unaware of anything more. Yet Roosevelt made use of a number of confidential agents. Confined to a wheelchair by polio and limited by the demands of his office, he could not easily circulate to investigate conditions outside, although Eleanor Roosevelt served her husband as a roving investigator. Thus, he called on old friends such as Vincent Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt II to collect intelligence on domestic and international affairs and provide reports.

However, by far the most important of Roosevelt’s confidential agents was John Franklin Carter Jr., a novelist, political theorist, newspaper columnist and government worker. Most notably, it was Carter and his team that were called on to study Japanese American communities before Pearl Harbor and to offer secret guidance to the White House.

John Franklin Carter Jr. was born in Fall River, Mass. in 1897, one of seven children of the Rev. John Franklin Carter. He attended Yale University, where he was a classmate and pal of Thornton Wilder and Stephen Vincent Benet.

During the 1920s Carter was employed in the American Embassy in Rome, and was a correspondent for the London Daily Chronicle and the New York Times. From 1928-1932 Carter served in Washington as a State Department official. During this time, he adopted a series of aliases, most notably “Jay Franklin,” under which he wrote a series of popular newspaper and magazine articles on political topics to supplement his income.

His books “What this Country Needs” (1931) and “What We are About to Receive” (1932) explored methods of relieving the Great Depression through non-socialist economic cooperation. (He also wrote a series of mystery novels under the pen name “Diplomat”).

After Carter’s identity was discovered and he was forced to resign from the government in 1932, “Jay Franklin” started a nationally syndicated daily newspaper column, “We the People.” In the late 1930s he also made regular appearances on NBC as a radio commentator. Meanwhile, under the pseudonym “The Unofficial Observer,” Carter wrote a series of portraits for Liberty magazine of staffers from the new Roosevelt administration. These pieces were collected into a pioneering study, “The New Dealers” (1934).

An enthusiastic New Dealer himself, Carter was hired by the Department of Agriculture, for whom he wrote speeches and articles championing the conservation efforts of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Throughout the 1930s Carter acted sporadically as unofficial idea man and speechwriter for Roosevelt. In early 1940 he pressed for Roosevelt to be nominated for an unprecedented third term in office, and used his column to call for his re-election as indispensable to national security.

After FDR won the election in November, Carter was emboldened to ask for a reward. Beyond owing Carter favors, Roosevelt was also displeased by the quality of official intelligence reports. Thus, in January 1941 he hired Carter to create and coordinate a secret White House information-gathering operation, making him a real-life precursor of Lanny Budd.

Carter set up a secret spy team in the White House basement, using State Department and White House funds. Carter’s agents were dispatched to investigate such diverse topics as new weapon and ship designs, Nazi influence in South Africa, and political conditions in the French Caribbean island Martinique. Carter saw Roosevelt several times a week, and kept FDR personally informed of his agents’ findings. He also attempted to serve as liaison between the White House and Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, a high-ranking Nazi defector.

Furthermore, at Roosevelt’s orders, Carter oversaw the so-called “M” project, a massive series of confidential anthropological reports on migration, which FDR planned to use as a basis for postwar resettlement of refugees.

 

Investigating Japanese American Loyalty

Perhaps Carter’s most significant contribution was his investigation of Japanese American loyalty. In fall of 1941, Roosevelt asked Carter to mobilize his team to report on Japanese Americans. Although various government agencies, including the FBI and the Office of Naval Intelligence, had been keeping tabs on Issei and Nisei for the past several years, Roosevelt wanted a clear understanding of their loyalties.

Carter sent his top agent, Curtis Munson, to the West Coast and Hawai‘i, while another agent, Warren Irwin, checked up on ethnic Japanese in the Southwest and on the Mexican border. In October of 1941, Munson visited Southern California, where he met with Col. Kenneth Ringle of the ONI, the most knowledgeable intelligence officer on Japanese communities, plus local FBI agents. He also interviewed various Japanese Americans.

Munson quickly sent a series of bulletins back to Carter with the message that West Coast Japanese Americans were overwhelmingly loyal and would support the United States in case of war with Japan. He added that the Nisei in particular were pathetically eager to show their patriotism. In November, he sent a full report, which amplified the message that there was no threat — he insisted that the greatest danger to security in case of war did not lie in the threat of sabotage or subversive acts by Japanese Americans, but in racist mob violence against them.

Munson and Irwin, who shared his views, each urged the White House to take action to preserve the loyalty of the Nisei through supportive public statements by political leaders. He added prophetically that the best way to ensure such loyalty was to promise Issei and Nisei that they would not be rounded up and put into concentration camps in the event of war. Carter not only passed along Munson’s findings to Roosevelt, but with FDR’s approval he began designing plans to protect loyal Japanese Americans from violence in case of war.

Although the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor threw new suspicion on Japanese Americans, Carter remained convinced of their Americanism, and he opposed the growing pressure for mass evacuation of West Coast Japanese Americans. With help from Munson and Ringle, he lobbied Roosevelt to recognize loyal Nisei by placing them in control of community affairs. While FDR initially gave him permission to proceed, the opposition of General John L. DeWitt and the War Department stymied Carter. He was so frustrated that on Feb. 9, 1942 he wrote in his “We the People” column that while the loyalty of Japanese Americans had been reliably estimated at 98 percent before the war, the official harassment they had suffered and the failure of the government to understand them, either as individuals or as a group, that figure had fallen to 90 percent, and the support of the entire community was menaced.

Carter continued to head his service throughout the war years. After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Carter maintained his intelligence unit in operation for a few months under his successor, President Harry Truman. It was dissolved at the end of 1945. After leaving the government, he wrote a fascinating novel, “The Catoctin Conversation” (1947), in which Roosevelt was a central character. Carter’s FDR, whose words and ideas drew from Carter’s extensive real-life familiarity with Roosevelt, agrees that mass removal of Japanese Americans was wrong, but that he had no choice but to order mass removal. “The Army asked for special status on the Pacific Coast. After Pearl Harbor, they were entitled to get what they said they needed. Once they had this status, they decided that the Japanese Americans must move east of the Rockies. I had no choice but to back them or discredit them.” On the other hand, when challenged, he says, “When the war is over, they’ll go back….It’s a small matter compared to the war itself.”

Carter’s dramatization of Roosevelt’s pragmatic and uncaring attitude rings true.

In 1948, Carter signed on as an advisor and speechwriter for Truman in his re-election campaign. Sadly, Carter was fired after the election for writing popular articles on his work that disturbed Truman. Carter then switched sides and joined the Republicans, working for Thomas Dewey, Truman’s erstwhile opponent, later for Nelson Rockefeller. In his later years he emerged as an arch-conservative.

Although Carter was largely forgotten by his death in 1967, he deserves to be rediscovered. He made important contributions to the Allied victory during his wartime stint as confidential agent, while his writings continue to bear study as an incisive example of American political theory and analysis.

 

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

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