John Nason

Name John W. Nason
Born 1905
Died 2001
Birth Location St. Paul, MN

John W. Nason (1905–2001), Quaker activist, served as chairman of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC) for three years during World War II. Under his leadership, the Council provided pivotal support in helping more than 4,000 students resettle to pursue their higher education at more than 600 institutions.

Prewar Biography

Born in 1905 in St. Paul, Minnesota, John Nason attended high school in his hometown before attending Phillips Exeter Academy. He went on to graduate from Carleton College in 1926 before studying at the Yale Divinity School with the support of a fellowship from the Council on Religion in Higher Education. After earning an M.A. from Harvard in philosophy, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oriel College at Oxford between 1928 and 1931. He then returned to the U.S. and became a philosophy instructor at Swarthmore College. Promoted to assistant professor in 1934, Nason later worked to assist President Frank Aydelotte. Nason became president of Swarthmore in 1940, guiding the college through the tumultuous wartime era and the postwar period that brought booming enrollments and demands to integrate the student body.

Wartime Activism

After the U.S. entered WWII and the government began its program of mass incarceration, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) turned logically to individual Quakers like Nason and members of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to take charge of coordinating student resettlement from its camps. Nason, Aydelotte (now at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton) and Haverford College's Felix Morely already had begun to explore ways to help Japanese American college students whose lives and educations had been interrupted by the government's policy of removal and confinement. In addition, the AFSC had workers on the West Coast to monitor the situation and to help Japanese Americans as best they could. At the WRA's request, the AFSC eventually agreed to lead and coordinate the NJASRC's program, always stressing an ecumenical approach to its work, and Nason became the Council's chairman.

As chairman, Nason faced a number of recurring challenges as he tried to balance a pragmatic concern for producing results with a sense of the injustice of removal and confinement that argued for faster progress. Internally, this debate often centered in the demands of more outspoken NJASRC West Coast staffers for immediate action. More cautiously inclined than many on the West Coast, Nason worked to reign in the more radical ideas of the westerners while also pressing the government as hard as he thought productive. Nason often served as a moderating influence on internal debates, providing advice as the Council tried to keep up with constantly changing conditions in and out of the camps as well as guiding the constantly cash-strapped organization to balance its means and ends, frequently reminding members of the need to act in ways that adjusted "time and money spent to the results produced." [1]

In addition to managing internal tensions, Nason also had to lead the NJASRC through complex negotiations with a variety of outside organizations. For example, although the AFSC took the lead in student resettlement, it worked closely with a variety of national church organizations and took great pains to present its efforts as ecumenical. More pressing were conflicts with the government and military in expediting the release of students from the concentration camps. In attempting to overcome such obstacles, Nason often advised caution, believing (as did key WRA personnel) early on that the army had the preponderance of power but "could be worked with, even if tediously, if it is 'gentled.'" [2] Despite his inclination for compromise, Nason could push harder when he felt justified, as he did for example in contesting the navy's long list of proscribed colleges. Nason's even-handed and realistic approach, in combination with the occasional harder push from more strident Council members, ultimately produced a process for student resettlement that proved quite successful.

Postwar Biography

Nason continued to serve as president of Swarthmore until 1953, when he resigned. He moved on to serve as president of the Foreign Policy Association, which promoted public debate about foreign policy through its "Great Decisions" discussion programs, before assuming the presidency of Carleton from 1962 to 1970. In addition to a number of publications, Nason also worked with numerous organizations, serving in various capacities with the Hazen Foundation, the Danforth Foundation, the United Negro College Fund, and Phillips Exeter Academy.

Authored by Allan W. Austin , Misericordia University

For More Information

AFSC Oral History Interviews. Philadelphia: AFSC, 1991.

American Friends Service Committee Archives, Philadelphia.

Austin, Allan W. From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

John Nason Papers. Hoover Institution. Stanford University.

James, Thomas. Exile Within: The Schooling of Japanese Americans, 1942-1945 . Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987.

———. "Life Begins with Freedom: The College Nisei, 1942-1945." History of Education Quarterly 25 (1985): 155-174.

National Japanese American Student Relocation Council Papers. Hoover Institution. Stanford University.

Okihiro, Gary Y. Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.


  1. Allan W. Austin, From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 73.
  2. Austin, From Concentration Camp to Campus , 51.

Last updated June 24, 2020, 4:39 p.m..