John Franklin Carter

Name John Franklin Carter
Born April 27 1897
Died November 28 1967
Birth Location Fall River, Massachusetts

John Franklin Carter, a newspaper columnist, novelist, political writer, and government official, was the director of the secret White House Intelligence team that investigated Japanese American communities before Pearl Harbor.

Early Life

John Franklin Carter, Jr., was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, one of seven children of the Rev. John Franklin Carter, and attended Yale University. During the 1920s Carter was employed in the American Embassy in Rome, and served as a correspondent for the London Daily Chronicle and the New York Times . From 1928-32 Carter was employed as an economic adviser by the State Department, and wrote articles and detective novels under various pseudonyms on the side. After leaving government service in 1932, he turned to political journalism. Under the pseudonym, "The Unofficial Observer," Carter wrote a set of articles on the Roosevelt administration for Liberty magazine that he turned into a bestselling book, The New Dealer s (1934). He followed with another study, American Messiahs , the following year. In 1936, he began a syndicated daily newspaper column, "We the People," under the pen name "Jay Franklin." The column generally reflected Carter's pro-New Deal and liberal internationalist views. It would run for 12 years, and along with radio broadcasts on the NBC network would provide him a nationwide forum.

White House Spy

Throughout the 1930s Carter remained friendly with President Franklin D. Roosevelt , for whom he acted at various times as unofficial adviser and speechwriter. In early 1940 he supported the President's nomination for an unprecedented third term in office, and used his column to call for FDR's re-election as indispensable to national security. After Roosevelt won the election in November, Carter was emboldened to ask for a reward. Knowing that Roosevelt enjoyed making use of confidential agents to supplement the official intelligence reports he received from the FBI, he offered his services, explaining that he had both the contacts and the cover identity to gather political intelligence.

Roosevelt agreed, and in February 1941 named Carter to create and coordinate a secret White House intelligence and "fact finding" operation. Using State Department and White House funds, Carter set up shop in the White House basement. He selected a Midwestern businessman, Curtis B. Munson, as lead agent—it is not entirely clear where Carter met Munson or how he was moved to recruit him. Carter reported directly to the President, to whom he sent a stream of memos and whom he met several times per week for instructions. In the months that followed, Roosevelt personally dispatched Carter and his agents to furnish information on such diverse topics as sources of funding for the American First Committee, new weapon and ship designs, and Nazi influence in South Africa. Carter sent Munson to the French Caribbean island of Martinique (before leaving the U.S., Munson commissioned information on conditions in Martinique from the eminent anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, then a wartime refugee in New York), and his reports on political conditions there impressed FDR enough that he issued Munson a presidential commendation. Furthermore, after Pearl Harbor Roosevelt asked Carter and his deputy, anthropologist Henry Field, to set up the so-called "M" project, a massive series of confidential anthropological reports on migration that Roosevelt planned to use for guidance in planning postwar resettlement of European refugees in South America. Carter also attempted, without success, to serve as liaison between the White House and Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, a high-ranking Nazi defector.

Perhaps Carter's most significant contribution was his and Munson's investigation of Japanese communities. 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. At the President's request, Carter sent Munson on a fact-finding mission to the West Coast and Hawai'i, and dispatched another agent, Warren Irwin, to check up on ethnic Japanese in the Southwest and on the Mexican border. In October 1941, Munson visited Southern California, where he met with Col. Kenneth Ringle of the ONI, the most knowledgeable intelligence officer on Japanese communities, as well as local FBI agents. Ringle introduced Munson to various Nisei in his circle, including Ken Matsumoto. Munson quickly sent a series of bulletins back to Carter with the message that West Coast Japanese Americans were overwhelmingly loyal to the United States, and would support the country in case of war with Japan. He added that the Nisei in particular were pathetically eager to show their patriotism. In November, he sent Carter a full report , restating and amplifying the message that there was no threat—Munson insisted that where Japanese Americans were concerned, the greatest danger to national security lay in racist mob violence against them in case of war, not in sabotage or subversive acts by them. Munson and Irwin, who arrived independently at similar conclusions, urged the White House to take action to preserve the loyalty of the Nisei through supportive public statements by political leaders, and 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 the President, 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 removal of West Coast Japanese Americans. With help from Munson and Ringle, he lobbied the President to recognize loyal Nisei by placing them in control of community affairs. While FDR initially gave him permission to proceed, Carter was stymied by the opposition of General John DeWitt and of the War Department. He was so frustrated that on February 9, 1942, he wrote in his "We the People" column that while the loyalty of Japanese Americans had been reliably estimated at 98% before the war, as a result of 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%, 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 , before it was dissolved at the end of 1945.

The Catoctin Conversation and Japanese Americans

After leaving the government, Carter wrote a novel under his "Jay Franklin" guise entitled The Catoctin Conversation (1947). The work took the form of an extended platonic dialogue, made up of the conversations at an invented wartime meeting at the presidential retreat (then called 'Shangri-la," today known as Camp David) between Carter, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Ernest Hanfstaengl. Although the event and the words were dramatized, the book's verisimilitude was underlined by an introduction by FDR's ex-adviser Sumner Welles.

The Catoctin Conversation represents one of the very first pieces of mainstream fiction to reference Japanese American removal and confinement. Drawing from his extensive real-life familiarity with President Roosevelt and his views, Carter explores FDR's attitudes in a brief passage by having his fictional alter ego challenge "Roosevelt" over his unjust treatment of Japanese Americans. "Roosevelt" agrees that mass removal was wrong, but insists that he was forced into ordering it. "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 asked about the consequences for the innocent people who were put into camps, "Roosevelt" reveals his hostile indifference to their plight: "When the war is over, they'll go back....It's a small matter compared to the war itself." [1]

Later Years

In 1948, Carter signed on as an adviser and speechwriter for President Harry Truman in his election campaign—he was one of the only nationwide journalists to predict Truman's victory. Carter was abruptly fired after the election for writing popular articles on his work that disturbed the President. Carter then switched sides and joined the Republicans, working for Thomas Dewey, Truman's erstwhile opponent, and later for Nelson Rockefeller. In his last years he emerged as an arch-conservative.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Durand, Mathieu. "L'« observateur » officieux : John Franklin Carter et son réseau du renseignement au service du président Roosevelt de 1941 à 1945." MA thesis, History, Université du Québec À Montréal, 2010.

Franklin, Jay [John Franklin Carter]. [ The Catoctin Conversation . New York: Scribners, 1947.

Persico, Joseph E. Roosevelt's Secret War: F.D.R. and World War II Espionage . New York: Random House, 2001.

Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.


  1. Jay Franklin [John Frankin Carter], The Catoctin Conversation (New York, Scribner’s, 1947), 194-95.

Last updated June 24, 2024, 8:17 p.m..