Carey McWilliams

Name Carey McWilliams
Born 1905
Died 1980
Birth Location Steamboat Springs, CO

A cult hero today, Carey McWilliams (1905–80) was a remarkably productive author, journalist, and editor of The Nation from 1955 to 1975. Between 1939 and 1950 alone, McWilliams wrote nine first-rate books as well as hundreds of articles for The Nation , Harper's , The New Republic , and other leading periodicals. He also headed California's Division of Immigration and Housing (DIH), chaired the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, helped soothe Los Angeles during and after the Zoot Suit Riots, and drafted an amicus brief for the Hollywood Ten's Supreme Court appeal. But the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans offers a prime example of both his extraordinary skills and the opposition he faced from mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike.

Born in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, McWilliams moved to Los Angeles after his father, a businessman and state legislator, lost his fortune and entered a mental hospital. McWilliams worked for the Los Angeles Times credit department while attending the University of Southern California, where he studied law and wrote for the student newspaper and literary magazine. After graduation, he joined a downtown law firm and continued to write. In the 1920s, McWilliams took his literary and political cues from his hero, H.L. Mencken, but as the Depression wore on, he began working with left-wing political and legal organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild. He also wrote about legal and political topics for progressive magazines, represented workers in and around Los Angeles, helped organize unions and guilds, and served as a trial examiner for the newly formed National Labor Relations Board.

Government Servant

In December 1941, McWilliams was serving in state government and working on the farm-labor issues he explored in his first major book, Factories in the Fields (1939), essentially the nonfiction version of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath . But his official efforts on those issues were derailed by the U.S. entry into the Second World War. Almost immediately after the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, political pressure began to build for the mass removal of Japanese residents, aliens and citizens alike, from the Pacific Coast. By that time, McWilliams was well acquainted with anti-Japanese sentiment in California. His 1935 essay in The Nation , "Once Again the 'Yellow Peril'," claimed that Japanese-bashing "has been part of the stock in trade of every California politician for the last two decades." Linking that "older chauvinism" to Senator Hiram Johnson, the Hearst press, and the McClatchy family, which owned The Sacramento Bee , McWilliams left no doubt about his views on the matter. "Anti-Japanese propaganda," he wrote, "has always been characterized by its offensive stupidity."

After Pearl Harbor, however, McWilliams found himself in the middle of what he later described as "a tragic mistake, shameful and unnecessary" and "certainly the most serious violation of civil liberties in this century." He instinctively doubted both the necessity and the wisdom of a mass removal. In January 1942, he noted privately, "This local Japanese situation seems to be getting completely out of hand. Proposals multiplying to evacuate all Japanese, citizens and aliens alike, from the coast." McWilliams induced the Tolan Committee , the House committee named after Oakland Congressman John P. Tolan, to hold hearings in California on the issue, but not before Roosevelt signed his executive order. When the hearings finally came off, they did nothing to impede the mass removal itself. "Tolan Committee hearings opened today," McWilliams wrote in his diary. "The mess that is being made of this Japanese situation simply beggars description."

McWilliams realized that opposing the mass removal and incarceration openly was futile. In his memoir, he described the powers in favor of those measures.

These elements were vociferous, well organized, and numerous, and their presentations were strongly backed by the press. Most state and local officials, including Governor Culbert Olson and Mayor Fletcher Bowron of Los Angeles, testified in favor of removing the Japanese. Ill-informed and biased, Earl Warren 's testimony received wide media coverage and was quite influential. So, too, was the testimony of Tom Clark , chief spokesman for the Roosevelt Administration on the issue. Years later, both Warren, then Chief Justice, and Clark, then an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, expressed regret for the position they had taken at the hearings.

McWilliams never challenged the mass removal and incarceration while in office. "From the outset," he wrote in his memoir, "I was drawn into the controversy that raged around the issue; in fact, I became an active participant. It was not a matter of choice; I was co-opted."

In his testimony before the Tolan Committee, however, McWilliams's position on Japanese loyalty differed from that of other officials. In a radio address in February 1942, Governor Olson said it was much easier to determine the loyalty of Italian and German aliens than that of Japanese and Japanese Americans. Attorney General Warren, who privately had misgivings about the mass removal of Japanese citizens, concurred with Olson on this point. In McWilliams's view, that assumption impugned the efficacy and values of American institutions, and his testimony before the Tolan Committee took exception to it.

Although many people doubt whether there are any loyal Japanese, a doubt to which I do not subscribe, I am confident that large numbers of citizens of Japanese descent are loyal to the United States, despite the fact that it might be difficult and perhaps even impossible to differentiate between the loyal and the disloyal. I believe that they, and certainly the citizens among them, are entitled to full protection until such time as there appears a reasonable doubt about their individual loyalty.

With Roosevelt and Olson behind the mass removal, however, McWilliams began to focus more on postwar resettlement planning.


In November 1942, Earl Warren dashed Olson's reelection bid and became California's new governor. During the campaign, Warren pledged that his first act as governor would be to fire McWilliams as chief of Immigration and Housing. Almost immediately after leaving office, McWilliams turned to a new book project, and in 1944, his publisher released Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbol of Racial Intolerance . No longer bound by official duty or party loyalty, McWilliams was free to assess the mistreatment of citizens based solely on their ancestry.

Prejudice refutes every argument for incarceration and shows that prejudice inflected by hysteria and self-interest, not military necessity, prompted the federal action. Perhaps the spookiest passages describe the efforts to prevent the return of Japanese Americans to California. One such effort was aided by the Committee on Un-American Activities in California, whose 1943 report, McWilliams comments, "is chiefly remarkable for the illiteracies that are embalmed in its turgid pages." Prejudice also includes an unnerving exchange between Assemblyman Chester Gannon and Mrs. Maynard Thayer of the Committee on American Principles and Fair Play. When Mrs. Thayer remarked, "It is of the greatest importance that in time of war we do not get off into race hatred," Gannon replied, "Are you a Communist? That sounds like Communist doctrine." Later, Gannon asked rhetorically, "Do you want to champion the rights of a people where different sexes do nude bathing together? You don't know anything about the habits and morals of Japs in California. Mrs. Thayer, have you smelled the odor of a Jap home?"

But Prejudice was more than a defense of Japanese Americans or an act of atonement. It was also a call to action. McWilliams proposed federal action to forbid discrimination based on race, color, creed, or national origin as well as a federal agency that would eliminate racist statutes and policies and manage race relations. He also called for a more serious orientation to the Pacific Rim, noting that language and cultural barriers were hindering the pursuit of significant economic opportunities. Finally, he called for a speedy end to the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

The notices for Prejudice were excellent, and McWilliams's arguments resonated immediately with Justice Frank Murphy of the U.S. Supreme Court. A New Deal Democrat who joined the court in 1940, Justice Murphy disagreed with the court's 1944 decision to uphold the constitutionality of Korematsu v. United States , the landmark case prompted by a San Leandro resident's refusal to evacuate in May 1942. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Murphy cited Prejudice on four separate points.

Not content to let his book alone make his case, McWilliams entered the hurly burly of the public arena, where he blended statistics, logic, and emotional appeals to carry his arguments. In radio broadcasts, he debated the possibility of Japanese assimilation and whether or not the mass removal should continue for the duration of the war. One member of the California Joint Immigration Committee asked whether McWilliams and his family were willing to marry a Japanese. McWilliams did not take the bait. Rather, he argued, "Race as a clue to character, capacity, or conduct is a myth-one of Hitler's vital lies."

After the Incarceration

The ban on Japanese Americans returning to the West Coast officially ended on January 2, 1945. "There endeth another chapter," McWilliams wrote in his diary. He later noted that Governor Warren opposed the termination of the program but deserved credit for helping Japanese Americans resume their lives in California with few incidents.

Over the next several years, McWilliams continued his extraordinary literary production. Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946) and California: The Great Exception (1949) established his reputation as what Kevin Starr called "the single finest nonfiction writer on California—ever." McWilliams also wrote about anti-Semitism in A Mask for Privilege (1948), the Latino experience in North from Mexico (1949), and the advent of McCarthyism in Witch Hunt (1950).

In 1951, McWilliams moved to New York to work for The Nation . In 1955, he took over as editor and remained there until 1975. He spent a good deal of his energy resisting McCarthyism, and his stands on civil rights and Vietnam eventually earned him a reputation for being right on the big issues. He was also known for reactivating the American tradition of muckraking, converting what had been known as a journal of opinion into a forum for investigative reporting. But for all of his good work at The Nation , McWilliams's achievements in California, including his opposition to the Japanese incarceration, are the crown jewels of his remarkable career.

Authored by Peter Richardson , San Francisco State University

For More Information

Davis, Mike. "Optimism of the Will." The Nation , Sept. 19, 2005. .

McWilliams, Carey. The Education of Carey McWilliams . Simon and Schuster, 1979.

———. Honorable in All Things: Carey McWilliams . Interviewed by Joel Gardner. Oral History Program, UCLA, 1982. .

———. Prejudice: Japanese-Americans: Symbols of Racial Intolerance . Boston: Little Brown, 1944.

Richardson, Peter. American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams . Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Stewart, Dean, and Jeannine Gendar. Fool's Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader . Santa Clara: Santa Clara University and Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001.

Last updated Oct. 8, 2020, 4:42 p.m..