COLORADO GOV. RALPH CARR TOOK BOLD STANCE DURING WWII
“He is one of our unknown heroes. In American history, we have many of them: many individuals who do what’s right but who are often overlooked.”
At the height of the nation’s hysteria about Japanese-Americans after the Pearl Harbor attack, Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr stood up to those threatening violence against people interned at the state’s concentration camp on the Eastern Plains.
“If you harm them,” the Republican said in 1942, “you must first harm me.”
Carr is a shining light in the painful Coloradan and American saga of Japanese internment, who effectively went it alone in taking a moral stand that would ultimately cost him a bright political future. Historians say his actions are one of the pre-eminent examples of a figure winding up on the right side of the past, and something the state should be proud of.
Even today, Carr’s legacy lives on in Colorado as an example of why doing what’s
right is so important, observers say, providing what Gov. John Hickenlooper likens to a road map on how to lead.
“He was guided by the ideals that America stands for,” said William Wei, a history professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder who is an authority on Carr’s legacy. “He is one of our unknown heroes. In American history, we have many of them: many individuals who do what’s right but who are often overlooked.”
Carr was born in 1887 as the son of a miner and was raised in the state’s highcountry mining camps. He later earned his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Colorado before moving to the San Luis Valley to practice law and oversee newspapers.
While in southern Colorado, Carr came to know the Japanese and JapaneseAmerican communities there, which were based around agriculture. He gained prominence while working on water rights, honing his beliefs as a strong fiscal conservative who was more left-leaning when it came to social issues.
By 1938, he was solicited to run as governor on the Republican ticket and won his first two-year term, garnering praise for balancing the state’s budget. He handily won re-election in 1940.
During his second term, and following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, clearing the way for the removal of JapaneseAmericans from the West Coast. There were unfounded fears across the nation that some might engage in espionage and aid an invasion of the U.S. mainland, so the federal government opted to send them to secure inland camps in the West.
“When the War Department asked Western governors about this plan to bring Japanese people to their states from the West Coast, Ralph Carr was the only one who said yes,” said Jason Hanson, director of interpretation and research for History Colorado. “There was already a Japanese population in Colorado, both in Denver and a smaller one in the San Luis Valley.”
Hanson said Carr wasn’t in favor of the Japanese internment camps but felt it was his patriotic duty to help the nation in its time of need. His stance was that if Japanese-Americans were going to be interned, they should be treated fairly — and he felt Colorado could do just that. Historians say the Japanese knew they had a friend in Colorado, which helped draw many of them to the state.
“He doesn’t stop what they call at the time concentration camps,” Hanson said. “He doesn’t take some moral stand where he says this is wrong and we will not allow this to happen. He says, ‘As a good American, if this is what the war effort requires, Colorado will do its duty.’ ”
Carr’s acceptance of the Granada War Relocation Center, also known as Camp Amache, prompted hate mail and threats. He ultimately had to travel across the state to explain why it was wrong to imprison Japanese-Americans without due process, saying at one point he felt it was his duty to guide public opinion.
“America is made up of men and women from the four corners of the earth, of every racial origin and nationality,” Carr wrote in an editorial published in the Japanese-American Citizens League newspaper. “It is truly the melting pot of the world. There is no place here for the man who thinks that his people or those who speak his language are in turn entitled to preference over any others.”
Ultimately, historians say his position probably cost Carr his political career. He lost his bid for Senate in 1942 to Democrat “Big” Ed Johnson, who criticized Carr’s welcoming of Japanese-Americans in Colorado. The defeat came in a year when Colorado Republicans virtually swept the ticket, quashing the political musings that Carr might one day by a vice presidential candidate or more.
“At the end of the day, he paid for it,” said Wei, who is author of the book “Asians in Colorado.” “When we talk about a political leader like Ralph Carr, I think it’s important to identify him with the larger issues, rather than just focusing on what he did. I would like to believe that if another group had been in similar circumstances, he would have done the same thing because of his belief in the Constitution. He really did believe in equality and justice for all.”
Carr’s actions have stood the test of time, making him a hero for Japanese-Americans. In 1994, Japan’s Emperor Akihito honored Carr during a visit to Colorado, and in 1999, Carr was named Colorado’s “Person of the Century” by The Denver Post.
For Gov. Hickenlooper, Carr’s defiance is worth remembering. Historians say Carr was the only person in the United States with the political capital to oppose Japanese internment and call it out for the travesty that it was.
Hickenlooper says back in 1987 when he was struggling to raise money for his Wynkoop Brewery, he came upon Carr’s story one day after being rejected by yet another investor. Hickenlooper found the bust of Carr in Lower Downtown Denver’s Sakura Square and read about Carr’s legacy.
“That day I went to the library, the Denver Public Library, and looked him up,” Hickenlooper said. “I probably spent 2½ hours learning about him. I just kind of got inspired.”
Hickenlooper says Carr’s legacy helped keep him going and seeking out funds for the Wynkoop, adding that “to a certain extent, I owe Ralph Carr a lot.” When Hickenlooper became mayor of Denver, he helped get the state’s judicial center building named after Carr, who died in 1950.
“That’s something I’ve never forgotten and always tried to emulate,” Hickenlooper said of Carr’s legacy. “If something really matters, you do it. It doesn’t matter if there is going to be political fallout.”
Ralph Carr in 1939 after being sworn in.
In 1938, Ralph Carr was solicited to run as governor on the Republican ticket and won his first two-year term, garnering praise for balancing the state’s budget. He handily won re-election in 1940.