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Reflections on a Concocted Conversation

One of the first books of fiction published in the post-World War II era to reference the wartime removal of Japanese Americans was John Franklin Carter’s novel, The Catoctin Conversation. Carter’s novel, published in 1947 under the pen name Jay Franklin, revolves around an imaginary meeting in mid-1943 between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the Nazi defector Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, as well as Bernard Baruch and Harry Hopkins. The author inserts himself as a character as well. There is an odd inconsistency in the novel’s discussion of Japanese Americans that puzzled me when I encountered it some twenty-five years ago, and that required some detective work on my part to elucidate.

To give a little background, John Franklin Carter was a Yale-educated journalist, writer, and political theorist who became well known in the 1930s for his syndicated daily column “We the People” (written under the name Jay Franklin, the same pseudonym that Carter would later use for his novel), and his articles for the New York Post. Carter became acquainted with President Roosevelt during the 1930s and served him as an informal presidential advisor and speechwriter, as well as working briefly for the Department of Agriculture.

In early 1941, as a reward for his endorsement of FDR’s election to an unprecedented third term, Carter was offered a job as a confidential intelligence agent. Working out of the White House basement and paid out of secret State Department and White House funds, Carter reported directly to Roosevelt, whom he saw almost every day. He and his team studied such subjects as foreign financial support for the Isolationist movement and Nazi penetration of South Africa. Carter’s chief agent, Curtis Munson, visited Martinique, a colony of Vichy France, to report on political conditions there.

Most notably, FDR asked Carter in mid-1941 to report to him on Japanese communities and their loyalty in case of war. In response, Carter sent Munson to the West Coast and Hawaii in fall 1941 to gather information. He and Carter reported to the White House that Japanese Americans, especially Nisei, were overwhelmingly loyal to the United States, and in some cases pathetically eager to prove it. After Pearl Harbor, they tried without success to forestall mass removal by refuting charges that Japanese Americas posed a danger to national security and encouraging the President to put community affairs under the direction of Nisei of undoubted loyalty (i.e. the JACL).

During the war, Carter was also assigned to direct the “S-Project” which involved Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, a onetime Nazi party member and Hitler confidant who defected from Germany. After being interned by the British at the outbreak of World War II, he was confined in Canada, then turned over to the United States. Carter was assigned to meet with Hanfstaengl and obtain information about Hitler and his circle. Carter and his team continued to work briefly for President Harry Truman following Franklin Roosevelt’s death, then left the White House in late 1945.

Carter wrote The Catoctin Conversation as a metahistory, to recount what might have happened if Roosevelt and Churchill had actually met Hanfstaengl, something each refused to do in reality, and more broadly as a platform to expose his sense of their thoughts about the issues that the world was facing at the end of the war—including decolonization, the building of the United Nations, relations with the Soviet Union, and European reconstruction. Although Carter invented all the dialogue, he claimed that he was following the example of Thucydides and other classical historians in putting into his characters’ mouths speeches that reflected their actual sentiments, and when possible using their actual language.

Given Carter’s daily contact with Roosevelt during the war years, the words given to the character of “Roosevelt” in the book clearly reflect an informed knowledge of FDR’s actual views. In particular, since Carter reported to Roosevelt on the loyalty of Japanese Americans and engaged with him at length over the question of mass removal, it is revealing to explore what Carter has the character “Roosevelt” say on the subject. In one chapter (pp. 194-5), “Roosevelt” explains that Executive Order 9066 was entirely “a matter of martial law”:

“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.”

Carter’s fictional alter ego proceeds to press “Roosevelt” to admit his responsibility as Commander-in-Chief for allowing the Army, for its own reasons, to commit a wholesale violation of the rights of citizens of Japanese origin, even though he knew from Carter’s survey that the Japanese-Americans were loyal. “Roosevelt” agrees that the action was wrong but maintains that “the Army said it was necessary”—the Navy disagreed, he admits, but they lacked jurisdiction. When “Carter” asks him whether he thought it necessary, “Roosevelt” tersely replies, "I accepted the Army’s judgment.”

Carter and Baruch agree that Japanese Americans would benefit from resettling outside the West Coast, but that it was a “shameful transaction” to remove decent American families from their homes on the basis of their racial origin. “Roosevelt” (with what can only imagine is a casual shrug of the shoulders) responds, ”When the war’s over, they’ll go back. It’s a small matter compared to the war itself.”

One peculiar point is that in the course of the discussion, “Baruch” asks “Roosevelt” to imagine the feelings of Japanese-Americans, who were deported, he says, “because they had slant eyes and yellow skins.” In the published text of The Catoctin Conversation, “Roosevelt” remarks that the Japanese Americans “have showed superb patriotism.” Not only is this response ungrammatical (“shown,” not “showed”) , but it clearly makes no sense logically—if the Japanese Americans’ patriotism was “superb,” why approve mass removal? My confusion on reading these lines was matched by frustration over the seemingly contradictory nature of the attitudes expressed.

Providentially, not long after I first read The Catoctin Conversation, I learned that Carter’s original manuscript was on sale at the Argosy Book Store in New York, which was located down the street from my workplace. (I forget now how I learned this—most likely either from an advertisement or my own inquiry). I was told that, in part because of the beauty of the bindings, the manuscript was priced at $750, which was well beyond my resources. Still, when I explained my plight, the staffers generously allowed me to examine the manuscript, though they told me that I could not make any copies.

I was invited to sit with the manuscript at a table at the bookstore. I handled it as delicately as possible. I found the passage that had confused me, and was fascinated to discover that the original line uttered by “Roosevelt” about the Japanese Americans read, “Their patriotism was suspect.” I was relieved to see this, as it was a more logical statement in context, and corresponded better to what I inferred was the point of view of the real Franklin Roosevelt.

But how could such a change have been made in the final text? Here I did some rapid textual analysis and exegesis.

I saw that in Carter’s handwriting, the letters “ect” were hard to make out, even for me (I often boast that, as a man with singularly awful handwriting, I am uniquely talented in deciphering that of others!). Indeed, I happened to note that only a few paragraphs above the passage in question, the manuscript contained the word “expect,” which was then incorrectly rendered in the published book as “except.” I deduced that an editor or typesetter must have misread “suspect” as “superb,” an easy mistake for someone reading Carter’s handwriting to make, and then altered the verb tense accordingly. The virtual absence of corrections by Carter in the manuscript, or of other glaring differences between the manuscript and published text, lent extra credence to the supposition that the alteration was simply the fruit of an editorial error, one that the author failed to pick up on.

I don’t know what became of the manuscript of The Catoctin Conversation. I hope that it was sold to a book lover who was able to appreciate its content as well as its bindings. It was a lucky chance for me that I was able to review it before it was sold, and thereby gain extra insight into John Franklin Carter’s insightful characterization of the reasons behind Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066.


© 2023 Greg Robinson

Franklin D. Roosevelt Jay Franklin John Franklin Carter novels The Catoctin Conversation World War II