THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The Roosevelt Letter

bioline_Greg RobinsonThis week’s column is a mystery story involving the identity of a secret champion of Japanese Americans, one who helped win them important official support in the months following the end of World War II.

As is well documented, the Issei and Nisei who were confined in the War Relocation Authority camps during World War II, and who then returned to the West Coast at the close of the war, faced difficult conditions.

The returnees were plagued not only by poverty and racial discrimination, but official harassment. State enforcement of alien land laws led dozens of families to lose their property or be forced to pay ransom to keep it. Perhaps most frightening to the returnees were terrorist acts by vigilantes. There were some 37 reported cases of violence, including shots fired into farmers’ homes, or their buildings and farm equipment being torched.

Although state officials in California, led by Gov. Earl Warren and Attorney General Robert Kenny, pledged to protect the rights of Japanese Americans, many local officials turned a blind eye. The WRA sent agents to the West Coast to aid resettlers, but they had no police power. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who had oversight of the WRA, publicly denounced the “hoodlums” and “stormtroopers” responsible, and tried to get the new president,

Harry S. Truman, to intervene, but to no avail.

On Dec. 18, 1945, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Truman, forwarding a letter she had received that described a series of atrocities committed against Japanese American returnees in California. Truman, who had just appointed Mrs. Roosevelt a delegate to the United Nations, lost no time in responding:

***

My dear Mrs. Roosevelt:

I read the letter about the treatment of American-Japanese in the west with a lot of interest and have forwarded the letter to the Attorney General with a memorandum asking him to try to find a solution for it.

This disgraceful conduct almost makes you believe that a lot of our Americans have a streak of Nazi in them.

Sincerely yours,
Harry S. Truman

***
Even as he replied to Mrs. Roosevelt in such frank terms, Truman sent her message and the underlying letter on to Attorney General Tom C. Clark, and asked, “isn’t there some way we can shame these people into doing the right thing by these loyal American-Japanese[?]” On Jan. 10, 1946, Clark replied that the Justice Department was concerned about “the complaints of violence and deliberate discrimination,” but that it had no power to act. Clark advised Truman to issue a directive authorizing the department to investigate all such incidents, and then if its agents could find any federal jurisdiction, they could step in. Meanwhile, the department could share the results of its investigations with state officials and assist them in prosecuting any such incidents — Clark notified the President that he had already ordered an inquiry into the incidents detailed in the letter Mrs. Roosevelt forwarded.

In the weeks following Clark’s orders and the investigations that resulted, the vigilante harassment of returnees subsided. While it is not clear how great a role the Justice Department played in resolving the situation, it certainly represented a turning point in terms of the Truman administration’s visible concern and involvement with protecting Americans’ civil rights. It also suggested the influence that Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed with the President, who mobilized his administration at her suggestion.

I first uncovered President Truman’s letter to Eleanor Roosevelt years ago, when doing research for my 2001 book “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans.” It was in the files of the Harry S. Truman Library, part of a folder of correspondence between the two that was copied from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. However, neither Mrs. Roosevelt’s letter to Truman nor the document she attached were there: presumably both were sent on to the Justice Department and filed somewhere there. This led me to wonder what she had written, and what was in the forwarded letter.

Fortunately, I was able to answer those questions soon after, when I visited the archives of California Attorney General Robert Kenny at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. There I found a copy of a letter that Eleanor Roosevelt had written to Gov. Earl Warren on the same day as her letter to Truman, with an attached document (all of which Warren had passed on to Kenny). There could be no doubt that the notes to Truman and Warren, and the copied letters, were identical. In her note, Mrs. Roosevelt stated:

I am enclosing a copy of a letter that has come to me, on which I have removed the name and address of the writer. He is an employee in close contact with these people and I thought the facts he gives should be brought to your attention.

The letter to Mrs. Roosevelt was a four-page missive from a “War Relocation Officer” in Northern California that listed incidents of discrimination against Japanese Americans: Three county boards of supervisors had passed resolutions denying indigent aid to all persons of Japanese ancestry unless they had volunteered for service in the U.S. Army; stores, restaurants and vendors of essential goods refused to sell to Japanese Americans; the Servicemen’s Honor Rolls in various counties were segregating or excluding the names of Nisei servicemen; public officials were defrauding Japanese Americans; finally, night riders were terrorizing Japanese Americans and firing shots into their homes. Even when arrested, the perpetrators were acquitted in court.

When I first saw the letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, I did not make a copy for myself. In that era, well before the advent of cell phones and scanners, the Bancroft Library limited photocopies and charged significant fees, while it was not worth my time to copy out the text painstakingly by hand. I did not forget its existence, though. Recently, my friend and collaborator Jonathan van Harmelen visited Bancroft, located the letter to Mrs. Roosevelt in the Kenny papers, and kindly let me see his scanned copy. Even so many years later, it was still painful and moving to read of such outrages, narrated so clearly. Mrs. Roosevelt had been a warm supporter of Japanese Americans during the wartime period, but had not intervened on their behalf after leaving the White House. It was not hard to see how such a powerful letter could lead her to take action, and then in turn mobilize the people to whom she forwarded it.

Yet, this discovery launched a further question: who wrote the letter to Mrs. Roosevelt? Because she had removed the author’s name and address, the identity of the person who had succeeded in securing high-level support for Japanese Americans was a mystery. I knew only that it was a War Relocation officer in Northern California.

My suspicions immediately fell on James Edmiston. Actually, he seemed all too perfect a candidate. Edmiston had been director of the WRA resettlement office in San José in 1945, and had so distinguished himself as a supporter of Japanese Americans that he had received death threats from local whites. In June 1945, a .22 caliber rifle bullet was fired through a window of his home. What is more, it was Edmiston who later drew on his resettlement experience to write the 1955 novel “Home Again” (which I will discuss in a future column).

The book, a multigenerational account of a Japanese American clan from San José, ends with a long account of resettlement. Edmiston portrays with high drama the struggle of the returnees to re-establish themselves despite terrorist attacks and expressions of hatred by locals, and dramatizes the help they receive from a heroic WRA official named Sam Morgan (clearly a stand-in for the author). The style of writing in the letter to Eleanor Roosevelt even appeared to match the prose of “Home Again.”

I was all ready to select Edmiston, and to write a column about solving the puzzle of Mrs. Roosevelt’s informant, when I read more carefully the end of the letter. There the author proposed people who could vouch for him in case Mrs. Roosevelt doubted the validity of his descriptions. After mentioning as a reference George W. Frazier, president of Colorado State College of Education (today’s University of North Colorado), the author added that he had himself served as professor of Education and Dean of Men there. In prewar times. I was lucky enough to find a copy online of the C.S.C.E. Bulletin from 1936, Sure enough, in a faculty and staff directory, I found the Dean of Men: Professor Thomas Jefferson Mahan. I then double-checked online to see if Mahan had ever worked with the WRA aiding resettlers. In the Yamashita family archives at UC Santa Cruz, I found a letter from “Thomas J. Mahan” listed as acting District Relation Officer. I still have not found much information on Mahan’s life, except that he was born in Missouri in 1898, he wrote a thesis at Teachers College, Columbia University, “An Analysis of the Characteristics of Citizenship” (1928), and the fact of his prewar teaching. He died in Hayward, Calif., in 1964.

Even if much in his life remains obscure, he deserves thanks from supporters of civil rights in America for his support of Japanese American resettlers and his timely intervention on their behalf.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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 a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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