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Farms of the Future: The Work of Laurence I. Hewes, Jr. - Part 2

Laurence I. Hewes Jr., Cesar Martino, and Manuel Aguilar discuss Mexican farm labor. (Photo: Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.)

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The incarceration experience left a deep impression on Hewes. He later recounted that when he read the first reports of mass removal from Bainbridge Island, with children clinging to dolls and the elderly being ushered to buses by soldiers with bayonets, he stated that the reality of what was unfolding really hit him.

After leaving work as the WCCA’s agricultural advisor in Fall 1942, he returned to his post with the FSA. Hewes then oversaw the development of the Bracero program, an exchange program between the United States and Mexico that involved the recruitment of Mexican guest laborers to work in agricultural fields in the U.S. Southwest in order to meet the shortages of labor (prominently including the mass incarceration of Japanese American agricultural laborers).

As with previous efforts to help migrant workers in the 1930s and his work with the incarceration, Hewes argued his goal in working on the program was to help “obtain maximum protection for Mexican workers.” In the end, the program proved so popular with agricultural interests that it was renewed after the end of the war, and remained in place until 1964.

In 1944, shortly before its dissolution, Hewes left the Farm Security Administration, and was hired by the newly-formed American Council on Race Relations (ACRR), a think-tank on racial issues. Meanwhile, he studied for a Ph.D in economics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., which he received in 1946.

After joining the ACRR, Hewes was named regional director for the West Coast. In this position, he devoted his time to combating discrimination against Japanese Americans.

In February 1945, Hewes and his assistant, Ellen Turner, conducted a survey of anti-Japanese sentiment throughout California during resettlement. The study, which listed counties and individuals that were supportive or antagonistic towards Japanese Americans, was cited in a report published by ACRR’s president, A.A. Liveright.

In December 1945, Hewes helped organize the California Councils for Civic Unity, an advocacy group that sought to resolve racial issues throughout the United States. Later lead by Edward Howden, among its members were Fair Play Committee members (and Japanese American advocates) Ruth Kingman and Galen Fisher, Fred Ross, and JACL Regional Director Joe Grant Masaoka. Hewes also served as part of an advisory council, headed by Joe Grant Masaoka, on the program of the Regional office of the JACL and the future of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.

Saburo Kido cited Hewes’s expertise on anti-Japanese sentiment in California in an article for the JACL Reporter in November 1945. It was Hewes who argued, during the December 17, 1945 meeting, that the JACL should raise funds to challenge California’s “escheat cases,” legal proceedings where Japanese American lands were targeted and seized by the state under the authority of the Alien Land Act. The JACL’s campaign against such escheat suits led to the historic 1948 Supreme Court case Oyama v. California which halted all enforcement of the Alien Land Act.

While working for the ACRR, Hewes authored a number of pro-Japanese American articles. In the ACRR’s June 1945 newsletter, Hewes implored the Federal government to safeguard Japanese Americans returning to the West Coast and their property from white terrorism. Hewes later produced a review of The Spoilage, Dorothy S. Thomas and Richard Nishimoto’s 1946 study of the psychological damage of incarceration, for Far Eastern Survey.

Hewes warmly praised the work, and added a personal reflection, based on his own work with the WCCA, about the guilt borne by Americans for inciting hatred among Japanese Americans. Hewes noted that while the FBI, the War Department, and the War Relocation Authority all forced inmates to answer questions regarding loyalty, the officials involved seemed to forget that they were simply dealing with “frightened, insecure human beings,” and responded inappropriately to those who gave the “wrong” answers. Hewes quipped that the poor handling of the camps proved that Americans “don’t make good concentration camp operators” (Hewes asserted that the creation of concentration camps is “not in our tradition,” a historically incorrect notion).

In addition to studying Japanese American resettlement, Hewes worked on documenting discrimination against African Americans in the wake of riots in postwar Detroit and Los Angeles. In 1946, Hewes worked alongside African American sociologist Bill Bell to investigate segregation and poor living conditions within the city of San Diego for African Americans and Mexican Americans. When word of the release of the ACRR’s report spread among San Diego residents, white property owners threatened legal action on the grounds it would “mongrelize the white race and bring Socialism to America.” Although the report was never officially published, excerpts of it were printed in the San Diego newspapers.

In May 1947, Hewes was invited to take a position as an advisor of Land Reform for the U.S. Army of Occupation in Japan. Although he felt grave doubts about working with the military as a result of his experience with the WCCA, he accepted. Hewes’s work with the Occupation centered on helping end the tenant farming system in Japan by reducing the size of farms to a maximum of 2000 acres. Although Hewes expressed frustration with working with the military and their cold handling of issues of racism, he continued to work abroad with the American government as an agricultural advisor. (Ironically, Hewes later recalled that he learned the phrase “shikata ga nai” not during the war, but in the course of his work with the Occupation).

Hewes published a personal account of his work for the Occupation in his 1956 book Japan – Land and Men: An Account of the Japanese Land Reform Program – 1945 - 1951. A year later in 1957, Hewes published his memoirs Boxcar in the Sand with Knopf, receiving praise from the Washington Post and from Henry Wallace, his one-time boss at the Agriculture Department.

He later served as an advisor to the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID) in India in the 1950s. In the 1960s, Hewes worked as an advisor to the Rural Areas Development Administration, a program developed by the Johnson Administration during the Vietnam War for agricultural advising in South Vietnam, and described his experience as “harrowing.” Hewes formally retired in 1968, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Award the same year by President Johnson.

In fall 1981, Hewes came out of retirement to testify before the CWRIC, the Congressional commission investigating the incarceration of Japanese Americans. As one of the few government officials who had opposed the incarceration at the time, he was effective in detailing its devastating financial effects for Japanese American farmers. When asked by one of the commissioners, Dr. Arthur Flemming, what the cost was of leasing Japanese American farms to white farmers, Hewes responded passionately that a “quarter of a million acres was transferred to Caucasian operators and at the cost of $4 million, and the administrative cost of making that loan was $226,857.53,” and then sarcastically quipped that the final cost was that Karl Bendetsen “became a full colonel.” He later added that when responsibility for the leased farms was turned over to the War Relocation Authority on August 8, 1942, “I wanted to wash my hands of the whole thing.”

Ironically, on November 1, 1981, The Tennessean of Nashville published an eye-catching article on Hewes’s testimony, entitled (with irony) “ ’Jap Lover’ gets the last word,” which recalled the epithet frequently slung at him during his time working with the WCCA. His CWRIC appearance was one of his last acts of public service; five years later, on March 31, 1986, Laurence I. Hewes, Jr. died.

The incarceration of Japanese Americans left a deep impression on Hewes’s life, and arguably shaped his later career working on both agriculture and race relations. Although Hewes argued in his memoirs that the incarceration was the antithesis of the New Deal, and bitterly opposed it, the government administration of the camps, helmed by Department of Agriculture officials like Milton Eisenhower and Dillon Myer, in fact reflected many of his New Deal ideals of bureaucratic management and efficiency. Yet while Hewes’s decision to work with the WCCA arguably helped legitimize the incarceration, his perseverance in the face of intense scrutiny by West Coasts racists stands as one of few acts of courage within the government.

Hewes represents one of the few government officials who not only were consciously disturbed by the failure of the U.S. government to protect the rights of Japanese Americans, but saw it as part of a larger pattern of racism, which he recognized as one of the core issues plaguing American society. As such, Hewes’s career was motivated by the need to support those victimized by inequality, whether it was caused by racism or income inequality. Although the extent to which his work with the incarceration helped mitigate its damaging effects on Japanese Americans are debatable, Hewes’s lifelong career as an advocate for marginalized communities is commendable.


© 2021 Jonathan van Harmelen

ACRR American Council on Race Relations farmers Farm Security Administration FSA incarcerations Japanese Americans Jr Laurence I. Hewes World War II