Oral History Interview with Robert W. O'Brien

Oral History Interview with Robert W. O'Brien, April 24, 1975. Acc. 2420. UW Libraries Special Collections.

Oral history interview with Robert W. O'Brien, April 24, 1975. Interviewer: Howard Droker

Side A

DROKER: OK. The first question I'd like to ask you about is the Japanese relocation. I know that you were involved in part of that. Maybe we should just begin with what you can tell us about that in Seattle.

O'BRIEN My involvement was--when I came to the University of Washington I became advisor to the Japanese Student Club at the University of Washington. There were 452 members, some of them from Japan, a few from Canada, some from Hawaii, but most were American-born Japanese from the west coast. When Pearl Harbor happened, it was kind of exciting and kind of a tragic thing for the young people. We were working in a very interesting situation. I think that Lee Paul Sieg, the president of the University of Washington, was one of the most important persons in being of help to our students. Several things should be said about President Sieg. One, he opposed the evacuation, but when it happened he felt that the University of Washington was under obligation to protect their students, and he wrote letters to college presidents all over the United States indicating his faith in the American qualities of Japanese Americans, and urging these people to take our former students who were to go to the relocation assembly centers. Second thing that impressed me about Dr. Sieg was the flexibility he had in relation to grades and terms. Many Nisei were about to graduate but they were in the last quarter, not allowed to attend the University because they were sent to Puyallup and other relocation centers. President Sieg felt that the better service would be done if they were given degrees. Some of these deans--I try not to remember who they are--felt that this was outrageous, that the degree could not be given to a person who had had eleven twelfths of their education. But President Sieg knew what he thought was right, and the University awarded students who came within--completed 11 quarters, and one of the most encouraging things for those behind barbed wire was when President Sieg and some of his deans went to the relocation centers and gave these young people their degrees. I may be prejudiced for the University of Washington because it's my alma mater but I don't think there was anything like this going on other places. We also carried our extension courses to some of the relocation centers as a service to people whose parents were still taxpayers even though they weren't living with us. p.1-2

Out of this interest, some of us founded what we called the Japanese American Student Relocation Council. The impetus from this came from many places on the coast, but largely the University of Washington and the University of California at Berkeley. This organization was founded so that we could make it possible for the Nisei could get out of the camps and into the main stream of American life. I participated in these early conferences and was impressed that not only the good people from religious organizations and the "Y", but also many of the academic leaders on the Pacific coast were concerned with the opportunities for the Nisei. p.2

In 1942 the director of student relocation had to resign, and I was asked by the president of Swarthmore College to become the national executive. At this time I was assistant to Dean Laurer in the College of Arts and Sciences. President Sieg again showed both his interest in the Nisei and his political savvy. I asked to be relieved of my job to serve the Japanese Americans. It seemed to me that this was the way to serve my country. I'm a Quaker and a pacifist and I couldn't go into military service, and I felt that I wanted to do something beyond just administrating. Mr. Sieg said that he wouldn't let me go unless I could get a war leave. I explained to him that this would be rather difficult, but he insisted that I be appointed an official of the War Relocation Authority. This was the group that had charge of the relocation camps. I took this job without pay and was somewhat surprised the next Sunday to read in the two Seattle newspapers, or to see my name in the two Seattle newspapers as one of the faculty and administration on war leave. Most of the other people were in the Army, the Navy, the Air Corps, and I was listed as on war leave from the University to work with the War Relocation Authority. p. 3

One of the things that probably doesn't get recorded is that sometimes people who work in quiet ways can be very effective in making democracy function, and one of these was Calvin Schmid who was asked by the military to draw the maps and the plans for the evacuation of Japanese and Japanese Americans. Calvin was looking at a map of Californa, and he drew the line straight north so that the eastern parts of Oregon and Washington would be still available for Japanese and Japanese Americans, and these people did not have to be evacuated. I doubt if many people know this about Professor Schmid because he's a quiet person about this sort of commitment, but he had this commitment. The result was, of course, that we could relocate students in Pullman and Whitman College and others in the eastern part of the state. p.3

About a month after I took my leave from the University, a group of patriots who didn't quite understand all the issues went to President Sieg and asked that I be fired. It's generally known that people in administration have no tenure. They asked that I be fired because there were Japanese coming in to Spokane and Walla Walla and Pullman, and they felt this was an unAmerican thing to have happen. p. 4

DROKER Do you know if there was any pressure from regents of the University from eastern Washington? p. 4

O'BRIEN The pressure was put on President Sieg, and President Sieg, of course, did what I naively hadn't anticipated. He pointed out that I was on leave, on a military leave, with the War Relocation Authority. This may have looked ridiculous to my Quaker Meeting but it made it possible for me to do the things that I wanted to do... p. 4

DROKER Where were you when you were working for the War Relocation Authority? p. 5

O'BRIEN My office was in Philadelphia. Most of the time I traveled; I went to all of the camps. In the beginning the students wanted to come out to college, but at that time we had difficulty clearing colleges with the Army and Navy security. In the very beginning we were told that no Japanese Americans could attend schools within 25 miles of a railroad. This meant that we wouldn't have any work, but obviously that was just a temporary thing, and eventually we placed 6,000 Japanese Americans in some 585--I don't remember the exact number but nearly 600 colleges in various sections of the United States. p. 6

I happened to be in an interesting position as the faculy advisor to the black students, who numbered about 45, and to the Japanese students at the University. So Japanese students came to me and said, "Our fathers are losing their jobs, and we think that probably the people who should have these jobs are negro students at the University of Washington so that they can complete their education, financially." I went to the Negro Student Association and talked to them, and they said, "No, we don't want to take jobs away from Japanese because they've had a hard time." Eventually, of course, the Japanese remembered this. Eventually, of course, somebody had to hustle the bags, and many of our black students and other people in the negro community took the jobs. But when the war was over, some of the Japanese who returned to Seattle remembered what had been done, the reaction of solidarity that black people felt. And whereas before Pearl Harbor Japanese were pretty well isolated from the negro community, there were individuals after the war, many of them University of Washington graduates who were Nisei, who served on the Phyllis Wheatley "Y" board, the East Madison "Y" board, the Jackson Street Community Council, the Seattle Urban League. This is one of the very, very few communities in which Japanese have identified themselves in working for some of the aspirations of other minorities. p. 7

...When the war was over and the Japanese returned to Seattle, the first big reception at the University of Washington was a party to which Caucasians and other people were invited but a party given by the Chinese students at the University of Washington to the Japanese students who had returned. p. 9

...At the time of the evacuation of the Japanese I went to certain people, whose names I prefer not to use, who were colleagues of mine at the University of Washington--let me just say parenthetically that I was brought up a socialist, and it was my business to know who were Stalinists and who weren't--and I went to one of my colleagues who had much higher status than I, who always was asking me to sign petitions, so I went to him with a petition against evacuation of the Japanese.... But the key people at the University who, I believe, were taking orders from the Party were people who would never sign my petition. They gave various reasons for not signing it. I had no trouble getting many liberals to sign it. p. 12

...You know, Seattle is an interesting community, aside from Civic Unity. Del Miller made a study of many American communities and the power structure. One of the things that was surprising in Seattle was that among the top four or five people was the president of the University of Washington and the Bishop of the Episcopal church. In many, many cities no one in the field of religion or in the academic field would be in the top of the power structure. They would just be second- and third-ranked people. Perhaps it's because it was a new community. p. 18