Archibald MacLeish

Name Archibald MacLeish
Born May 7 1892
Died April 20 1982
Birth Location Glencoe, Illinois

Writer and government official who worked to support Japanese Americans and avert mass removal.

Born in Glencoe, Illinois, the son of a dry goods merchant and a college professor, Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) was a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School. He served as an ambulance driver and field artillery captain during World War I. During the 1920s, after working briefly for a Boston law firm, he moved to France, where he wrote four books of poetry. These established his fame as a Modernist. In 1928, MacLeish returned to the United States and began work on his epic poem Conquistador , for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. During the 1930s he served as editor and contributor for the weekly business magazine Fortune , and continued to write poetry, including the collection America was Promises (1939), plus plays and essays. During this period, he became known as an antifascist liberal and supporter of the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt . He gradually entered the Roosevelt circle as an adviser and speechwriter. In 1939, MacLeish was appointed Librarian of Congress by President Roosevelt. During his term, MacLeish became known for his large-scale administrative reforms and for supporting poetry readings and other public activities at the Library.

In addition to his other duties, in October 1941 MacLeish was appointed director of the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF), an independent government information agency. Shortly afterwards, the United States entered World War II. As director of the new agency, MacLeish's duties included investigating war coverage by newspapers, radio and film, advising on censorship issues, and undertaking radio speeches, articles and other wartime propaganda efforts, especially in connection with enemy aliens. MacLeish recruited famed Japanese American painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi to design propaganda posters, and Kuniyoshi also agreed to make shortwave radio broadcasts to the Japanese people. His office also joined with Japanese American journalists to keep the Japanese-speaking Issei and Kibei populations informed of events.

One of MacLeish's most notable efforts as head of OFF during early 1942 was his campaign within the White House to avert mass removal of Japanese Americans. In January 1942 MacLeish sent his staffers Ulric Bell and Alan Cranston to the West Coast to calm hysterical news coverage, and worked with the Hollywood Writers Committee to secure pro-Japanese American public statements. In February 1942, MacLeish commissioned a public poll that showed that most Americans favored the existing handling of the "Japanese problem," and then sent the findings on to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy , warning him in a cover note not to make such a grave decision on the representations of officials and pressure groups alone. He sent Roosevelt's secretary Grace Tully material for a speech opposing hysteria and violence against Japanese Americans, and remarked that his office was "trying to keep down the pressure on the West Coast." He meanwhile corresponded with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to encourage her to mention the loyalty of Japanese Americans in her radio addresses, and wrote Attorney General Francis Biddle to congratulate him on his opposition to wholesale removal. In late February 1942, after the President issued Executive Order 9066 , MacLeish held a meeting with Mrs. Roosevelt to brainstorm over ways to dissuade FDR from approving mass removal. MacLeish asked his OFF subordinate, Alan Cranston, to assist with the meeting, because Cranston was a native-born Californian. Even after the army undertook mass removal, MacLeish remained interested in aiding Japanese Americans. He endorsed to WRA Director Milton Eisenhower a plan launched by University of California President Robert Sproul for Nisei college students to transfer outside the West Coast, one that was eventually enshrined as the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council .

In June 1942, the Office of Facts and Figures was folded into a new agency, the Office of War Information . MacLeish remained on the staff of the new agency as assistant director, but resigned after several months. In 1944, MacLeish left the Library of Congress and was appointed assistant secretary of state for cultural and public affairs. In 1945, he left the state department and led the U.S delegation at the founding meeting of UNESCO. He returned to private life in 1946 and three years later was appointed professor of rhetoric at Harvard University, where he remained until 1962. He resumed his writing during these years. In 1952 MacLeish was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his volume Collected Poems 1917-52 . Six years later, he won another for his verse play J.B. In later years MacLeish served as writer and narrator of a film, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (1965), which won the Academy Award for best documentary feature. He continued to publish poetry and essays in his last years. A collection of his letters was published in 1983, shortly after his death.

MacLeish had little contact with Japanese Americans during the years after World War II. However, in the script of The Eleanor Roosevelt Story , MacLeish included footage of mass removal and underlined Mrs. Roosevelt's protest against the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans, in which he claimed she was ultimately vindicated by later events. The film, released at a time when public discussion of the wartime events had all but ceased, represented one of the first mainstream discussions of Japanese Americans since the 1940s.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Donaldson, Scott. Archibald MacLeish: An American Life . Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Mizuno, Takeya. "Federal Government Uses of the Japanese-Language Press from Pearl Harbor to Mass Incarceration." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 82.1 (Spring 2005): 148-66.

———. "The Federal Government's Decisions in Suppressing the Japanese-Language Press, 1941-42." Journalism History 33.1 (Spring 2007): 14-23.

Winkler, Allan M. The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942-1945 . New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.

Last updated Oct. 15, 2015, 1:38 a.m..