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Farms of the Future: The Work of Laurence I. Hewes, Jr. - Part 1

The incarceration of Japanese Americans, in addition to being a product of years of racial hatred against Asian immigrants and economic profiteering by West Coast interest groups, represents an uncomfortable legacy of New Deal governance. Following Executive Order 9066, dozens of New Deal bureaucrats took up work as staffers for the War Relocation Authority and other agencies, assuming responsibility for organizing and managing the camps with the goal of transforming the sites housing them into agricultural oases in the deserts of the United States. Because of the importance of Japanese Americans to West Coast agriculture, numerous officials from the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) took part in the incarceration process, most notably the leasing of Japanese American farms to non-Japanese farmers. One individual who attempted to mitigate the damage of the incarceration and protect Japanese American farms was Laurence I. Hewes, Jr., the regional director of the Farm Security Administration and agricultural advisor to the Wartime Civil Control Administration.

From his memoir Boxcar in the Sand.

Laurence Isley Hewes, Jr. was born on April 17, 1902 in Rhode Island, the son of Laurence Isley Hewes Sr., an engineer and former professor at Yale University, and Agnes Danforth Hewes, a writer. Hewes spent his early years living on the family’s farm. After high school, Hewes went to Dartmouth College on a football scholarship, graduating in 1924.

Undecided as to what he would do for a career after college, Hewes moved to California on a whim and found work there as a longshoreman, working for 35 cents an hour. Hewes found little support from his fellow longshoremen; his college background generated resentment from his fellow workers, and after one of his supervisors attacked him with a hatchet, he decided to search for other work. He then went into the stock market, and continued to sell stocks through the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and thereafter.

In 1933, Hewes quit stockbroking to take a temporary job with the Federal Land Bank of Berkeley, California, and soon rose to the position of junior executive of the bank. Much of his work dealt with struggling agricultural families. During his spare time and vacations, Hewes frequently drove through the farm country of California, where he was visibly disturbed by the living conditions of migrant farmworkers. After two years, Hewes quit his job and, using a family connection, secured a job as assistant to Rexford Tugwell, the Undersecretary of Agriculture and organizer of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration.

While working for Agriculture, Hewes masterminded the creation of the Resettlement Administration, headed by Tugwell, which was designed to offer relief to struggling rural families impacted by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The Resettlement Administration soon took the name of the Farm Security Administration, or FSA. During its existence, the FSA helped support agricultural workers and document the lives of rural Americans, employing a slew of famed photographers such as Dorothea Lange. Many FSA photographers, such as Lange and Russell Lee, would later photograph the forced removal of Japanese Americans in 1942.

In December 1939, Hewes was appointed West Coast regional director of the Farm Security Administration by President Roosevelt. As previously, Hewes focused on supporting desperate farmers, helping negotiate bank loans for farmers and establishing housing projects for migrant farmworkers. In the years leading up to World War II, Hewes was tasked with arbitrating labor disputes between farm workers and landowners throughout the California coast. On September 24, 1940, Hewes testified before the House Select Committee on Internal Migration, or Tolan Committee, in San Francisco. The Tolan Committee was formed in 1940, under the leadership of California Democratic congressman John Tolan, to address the increasing movement of people throughout the United States during the Great Depression.

Hewes took the stand to defend both the Farm Security Administration and their work to support migrant families by providing jobs on farming communes. In addition to describing the efforts of the FSA to provide adequate housing for the vast numbers of migrant farmworkers arriving to the West Coast, Hewes humanized the farmworkers as individuals victimized by the Crash and in search of better jobs. Hewes’s encounter with the Tolan Committee would not be his last.

Following Pearl Harbor, Hewes found himself embroiled in the question of incarcerating Japanese Americans. In his 1957 memoir, Boxcar in the Sand, Hewes recalled that the months leading up to the incarceration were marked by racial hatred and mass hysteria. He described the struggle between pro-incarceration advocates, like the Army’s General John DeWitt, and opponents such as Attorney General Francis Biddle, as a battle between “New Deal vs. Anti New Deal” forces, with the Anti-New Dealers supported by “race baiters and lynchers” hiding behind the veil of military necessity.

As West Coast regional director of the FSA, Hewes was tasked with organizing agricultural projects for the war effort, such as the Farm for Victory program. During early 1942, Hewes extolled the role of Japanese Americans in West Coast agriculture, even as his colleagues in other agencies supported incarceration. At one meeting of Federal and State agricultural officials in Berkeley, Hewes was the only official to publicly defend Japanese Americans, and was unanimously condemned by his colleagues at the meeting. When Hewes learned the news that mass removal had been approved, he was stunned.

In March 1942, Hewes’s colleague Milton Eisenhower (soon to be named director of the War Relocation Authority), requested that Hewes work with the Army’s Wartime Civilian Control Administration (WCCA) to handle the transfer of Japanese American farms during the period of forced removal. Although Hewes stated upfront to the military that he disagreed with the principle of incarceration, he worked with the WCCA to ensure that Japanese Americans (and their crops) would be protected as much as possible from unnecessary losses at the hands of opportunistic white landowners.

Shortly after receiving his appointment, Hewes again lent his expertise on migration to the Tolan Committee. In testimony before the Committee in Los Angeles on March 6, 1942, Hewes stated that, if called upon, the FSA would lend its expertise in the movement of people for the Army. Hewes argued that the Army should rely upon the FSA to provide proper care for families because of the Army’s inexperience with dealing with mass populations, and warned that forced removal, if done improperly, would create additional crises such as the mass outbreak of diseases.

Hewes also asserted that Japanese American farms needed to be protected and leased under government supervision. Not only would leasing the farms protect the property rights of Japanese American farm owners, but handing over operations to experienced farm workers would help save existing crops and reduce potential losses in needed vegetables that Japanese American farmers produced. Lastly, Hewes advised that the camps should not be envisioned as long-term projects:

“Permanent relocation projects are not, in my opinion, in order for consideration at this time. Such permanent projects would involve large capital investments for land and other productive equipment and installations as a basis for long-term support of a transplanted population at a time when almost nothing is known about what the desires of the evacuated families are or will be toward permanent resettlement in a new locality. It is to be assumed, I think, that most of them will desire to return to their former homes if possible or at least to the community in which they have formerly lived and worked and which they know.”

Hewes’s statement was reprinted in the March 8 issue of the Rafu Shimpo, and provided guidance for readers of what to expect from the government in the coming months. Emphasis was placed by the editors on his remarks that the property of Japanese Americans needed to be protected, and that the government should expect the return of the excluded people to the West Coast by war’s end.

Over the weeks that followed, Hewes served as chief agricultural advisor to the WCCA, providing guidance on the transfer of Japanese American farms to temporary owners and care of unharvested crops for the 1942 season. His later descriptions of his work with Army men like Col. Karl Bendetsen further underscored his own animosity towards the military and their “anti New Deal” mentality, all of which further motivated him to provide effective protection for Japanese American property.

While Hewes made attempts to ensure that Japanese American farms were properly transferred to government-employed farmers, he could not prevent cases of fraudulent transactions and pressure by whites that occurred throughout the West Coast. To protect farms that were under government sponsorship and their crops, Hewes issued warnings to prosecute farmers that destroyed existing crops with the charge of sabotage – ironically the same charge levelled against Japanese Americans to rationalize the incarceration. Newspapers across the U.S. and Canada reported on Hewes’s work on the transfers.

In neighboring British Columbia, the Vancouver Daily Province quoted Hewes in May 1942 describing mass incarceration as simply “bad – very bad.” In an unpublished reflection collected by activist and journalist Frank Abe, Hewes later recalled his time working for the WCCA as a “wretched experience” and “Kafkaesque.” Even as he made attempts to protect Japanese American-owned farms, West Coast racists continued to slander him as a “Jap-lover.”

Read Part 2 >>


© 2021 Jonathan van Harmelen

farmers Farm Security Administration FSA incarcerations japanese americans jr Laurence I. Hewes World War II