By: Ellen Glover, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2018, Journalism, Bloomington
This blog is comprised of excerpts from the Outcasts: Pearl Harbor’s Effect on Japanese Hoosiers podcast. All information was obtained from the Indiana University Library Archives.
In December 1941, all of America listened in horror as broadcasts reported the catastrophic Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The news rocked the nation. Not only did it tell us that more than 2,000 people died that day, but it also affirmed that the United States would become active participants in World War II, which would result in more than 400,000 American deaths.
After that fateful December day in 1941, anti-Japanese sentiment coursed through the United States. A loud faction of America wanted all people of Japanese lineage gone, even if they were legal American citizens.
Eventually, the fear and anger reached a boiling point. In January 1942, just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, California Congressman Leland Ford called for all people of Japanese descent on the west coast to be placed in internment camps. Shortly after, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066, which sanctioned the internment of Japanese descendants.
Thousands of people of Japanese ancestry throughout the west, including people who had been in America all their lives, were displaced from their homes and evacuated, many of them were put behind barbed wire in concentration camps. Homes were lost and businesses were ruined. Also, Japanese-Americans who were attending west coast universities were essentially kicked out.
Over the next several months, people in the camps were released but still restricted from California. This meant Japanese students going to California colleges couldn’t go back. As a result, some university officials and the YMCA-YWCA joined forces and created the National Japanese Student Relocation Council under the supervision of the War Relocation Authority. This organization was meant to help those Japanese-American college students who had to leave their west-coast schools, apply to inland schools like Indiana University.
Indiana University first wrote about this council when W.C. Coffey , the president of University of Minnesota at the time, sent them a letter in March of 1942. He asked what IU’s president, Herman B Wells, thought about accruing displaced Japanese-American students.
“Thus far, this has not be an important problem in our institution,” read IU’s response about a week later. “We have no Japanese students and have not been approached with the view of our taking students who are to be evacuated from the coast region.” And that was that.
Apparently, Coffey had asked his same question to several other midwestern schools in March of 1942. And, according to a letter Coffey wrote to the Office of Education Wartime Commission in D.C. a month later, these schools were overwhelmingly against accepting the exiled Japanese-American students.
“Here at the University of Minnesota,” read his letter, “I have taken the position that we will not admit the students until some plan has been formulated governing their distribution.” Coffey expresses some empathy for the haphazard way these students were being compelled to leave the west, but makes it clear that Japanese students are not welcome on the University of Minnesota campus.
Coffey sent a copy of this letter to not only Washington, but also all of the schools he originally reached out to in March. This included Indiana University.
Within weeks of receiving this letter, IU got requests for admission from Japanese-American students. The decisions they made regarding these students, would color IU admissions for some years to come.
The first applicants that we know of were two graduate students who had originally been attending the University of California, Berkeley. They applied to IU’s Department of Botany and Bacteriology in May of 1942. Two more applications came in soon after.
IU hadn’t come up with a solution for when this situation arose, so Wells and the Board of Trustees held a meeting to discuss whether IU would accept these students or not.
In the meeting, Wells read off some solutions other similar universities had come up with from a letter he had received from the Dean of the Medical Center of the University of California.
“Some have no policy at all, and others do have,” read Wells. “Chicago admits them but not to areas where there is government research work going on. Wisconsin and Michigan were of the opinion they would admit them if proper military authority on the west coast gave them clearance.”
According to the Board of Trustees minutes, almost immediately three of the Board members voiced that the university should not admit any Japanese-American students.
One of the loudest proponents of this was board member Judge Ora L. Wildermuth. “As I see it,” said Wildermuth in the meeting, “there is a difference in Japanese and Germans or Italians—they are Aryans and can be assimilated but the Japanese can’t–they are different racially. I can’t believe that any Japanese, no matter where he was born, is anything but Japanese.”
Several men at the meeting agreed.
“There is this to be said about the situation,” responded Wells, “When the casualty lists begin to come in, even though they might be loyal Americans as anybody, feelings are going to mount very high and you might have disturbances on campus.”
The Board decided not to grant the four students admission. A month later, the Office of Admissions, based on the “uncertain military status of Southern Indiana, Japanese students would not be admitted to Indiana University at this time.”
Shortly after their decision, the National Japanese Student Relocation Council sent a letter to IU, imploring that they accept a few of the displaced students.
“These young people are not ‘aliens’ but American by birthright,” the letter said. These men and women were taught in American schools and raised on American ideals. They just wanted to continue the education they had already started.
In their letter back to the council, IU Officials argued that the university was overcrowded with Indiana natives. Also, “important laboratory research on war problems,” and proximity to the Naval Depot for the Atlantic fleet, meant it would be dangerous to have people of Japanese descent on campus. Never mind if they were born and raised in America, like Judge Wildermuth said, a Japanese, no matter where he or she was born, will always just be Japanese.
IU didn’t accept any of these displaced students for the 1942 fall semester. This didn’t go unnoticed by the student body, though. By October, a town-hall meeting was held for IU students in order to debate the topic of admitting Japanese students.
Several people took the same stance as IU’s Board of Trustees and Office of Admission.
“This is war,” an attendee said. He went on to argue that Japanese behavior in the states in the past indicates that they are not to be trusted now.
However, other people in attendance did not agree with the university’s ban on them.
“I have no prejudice against the Japanese,” said a respondent. “They are as good as we are. It isn’t their fault we are at war.”
Several responses were in the middle, too. Some said only students whose backgrounds have been rigorously checked and cleared by the FBI should be admitted. Others said they didn’t care as long as they didn’t have to live with them.
In the end, the town-hall ruled 8 to 2 in favor of allowing Japanese students in to the university. This didn’t sway IU’s decision to ban the students though. The Office of Admission received several letters from Japanese-American college students. Many of their letters spoke of the good work they were doing before the war, their undying loyalty to the U.S., their lost future if they didn’t continue their education. And still, all the letters were rejected.
These rejections went on for years. It wasn’t until December of 1944, when the university faced a unique set of applications, that things began to change. These three Japanese-American applicants were similar to the others. They had good references and well written letters. Except this time. These three men were honorably discharged United States veterans of World War II.
IU’s Board of Trustees and Office of Admissions couldn’t just ignore these applications. These men had sacrificed their lives to protect their country. It didn’t matter where their ancestors came from or what they looked like, these men were heroes.
The Board of Trustees approved the applications of the three men. This set the precedent that the university would now consider honorably discharged veterans of Japanese ancestry just as they would a veteran of any other race. They also approved the acceptance of any qualified Japanese-American person from the state of Indiana. There weren’t very many of those, but still, it was a start.
And then, that summer that followed, the world was rocked again.
The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. About a week later, American victory was declared in Japan. The whole nation celebrated. We were finally safe.
That following autumn, the Board of Trustees lifted its ban on Japanese students fully. Any Japanese student that wanted to, could be accepted to IU just like everyone else.
This must have been a huge relief to the Japanese-American students. They finally had that target off their back. But they also probably felt a bit of resentment. They had spent their entire lives in this country. America was their home and they were essentially outsiders in that home for four years.
The fact that this ban happened in the first place says something about not only IU but the rest of the nation. The restrictions were set for good reason: to keep the country safe. However, there is a line between being cautious and being bigoted. Between maintaining the rights of some and restricting the rights of others. There is a line between cautious regard and racism.
Did Indiana University cross that line?
Listen to more podcasts here:
Music in “Outcasts: Pearl Harbor’s Effect on Japanese Hoosiers” podcast via freemusicarchive.org:
“Difference” by Kai Engel: Kai Engel, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kai_Engel/Better_Way/Kai_Engel_-_Better_Way_-_04_Difference
“June” by Kai Engel: Kai Engel, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kai_Engel/Chapter_Three__Warm/Kai_Engel_-_Chapter_Three_-_Warm_-_02_June
“Birds Walk Away” by Sergey Cheremisinov: Sergey Cheremisinov, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Sergey_Cheremisinov/Forgotten_Stars/Sergey_Cheremisinov_-_Forgotten_Stars_-_05_Birds_Walk_Away
“Dropped Ticket” by Blue Dot Sessions: Blue Dot Sessions, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Blue_Dot_Sessions/Crab_Shack/Dropped_Ticket
“Crying Earth” by Kai Engel: Kai Engel, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kai_Engel/Better_Way/Kai_Engel_-_Better_Way_-_09_Crying_Earth
“One Way Life” by The Shining Men: The Shining Men, Attribution-Noncommercial License, http://freemusicarchive.org/music/The_Shining_Men/17_Sons_Records_-_Vol_1/09_-_One_way_life
Sound Effects in “Outcasts: Pearl Harbor’s Effect on Japanese Hoosiers” podcast via archive.org:
“First Bulletin on Pearl Harbor” by NBCB on December 7, 1941
“BBC Hiroshima News Bulletin” by BBC on August 6, 1945