Ralph Lawrence Carr (1887–1950) was governor of Colorado from 1939 to 1943. Carr is remembered for his outspoken criticism of the federal government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, even though a regional concentration camp, Amache, operated inside his state’s borders. His anti-internment positions ultimately cost him his job. A statue of Carr now stands in Denver’s Sakura Square.
Carr’s early life provided him with the moral compass that would guide both his words and actions. The son of a Scotch-Irish miner, Carr was born on December 11, 1887 in Rosita, Colorado. He later credited his time in the mining camps with giving him a compassion for those who came from modest circumstances. Carr worked for several Colorado newspapers early in his career. From 1912 to 1913 he managed the Victor Daily Record; between 1915 and 1917 he edited the Trinidad Evening Picketwire. At the Picketwire he was in competition with rival editor Lowell Thomas, the famous news commentator and world traveler, though the pair later became fast friends.
In his writings Carr often mused about what it meant to be an American. He collected others’ writings on the topic as well, sometimes sending copies of the essays to friends and colleagues. In these writings Carr acknowledged that the term “Americanism” was by nature a vague one—he considered Americanism an “indefinite something” that people could define in any number of specific ways. But ever since the founding of the Republic, he insisted, Americans recognized that they lived in a unique place, fundamentally different from the native countries whence many of them had emigrated. Yet, neither he nor anyone else had articulated a clear, universally accepted philosophy of Americanism to explain the difference. Carr also believed in what political theorist Samuel P. Huntington has since called “American Exceptionalism.” As author Jurgen Gebhardt wrote in his 1993 work Americanism, “The United States has no meaning, no identity, no political culture or even history apart from its ideals of liberty and democracy and the continuing efforts of Americans to realize those ideals.” Carr felt it was these principles that impressed themselves on the consciousness of people regardless of their perspective. It was in defense of these principles that Americans were fighting overseas, and it was because of these principles that they would triumph over their enemies.
After eventually earning both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Colorado, Carr worked as an attorney, specializing in irrigation and interstate river law. Later, he served as an assistant attorney general of Colorado, assigned to water litigation and freight hearings before the Interstate Commerce Commission. Throughout his political career, he opposed federal efforts to usurp state control over water. His most notable achievement as an attorney was successfully representing Colorado in the La Plata water case, which confirmed the right of states to enter into interstate water compacts. He opposed President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, considering them an encroachment on individual rights.
As a westerner, Carr was especially concerned about the federal government’s proposed Arkansas Valley Authority (AVA). That program, he said, would “divest the states of the power to administer and distribute water flows” and place that power into the hands of the so-called “Regional Authorities.” Indeed, as the Pueblo Chieftain reported on January 15, 1941, Carr believed that as a result of the AVA, “the whole system of life within those river basins is to be altered and changed to conform to a theory of government which nullifies constitutional rights and leaves individual states stripped of everything but their names.” As far as Carr was concerned, New Deal proponents were pseudo-liberals who were merely offering “political patent medicines” such as the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Carr stated that, “true liberals were those who consistently follow the proposition that liberty means freedom to exercise individual rights unaffected by external restraint or compulsion.”
Success as an assistant attorney general led to Carr’s appointment as United States Attorney for the District of Colorado. Widely known as one of Colorado’s outstanding attorneys, Carr was drafted as the Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1938. He won the governorship and, after rescuing the state from financial insolvency, was reelected in 1940. He won both contests by sizable margins. On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, Carr had earned a reputation as both a fiscal conservative and social progressive.
Carr spoke fluent Spanish and developed a close bond with the Hispano communities of the San Luis Valley, especially Antonito, where he helped many with their legal problems. He was also familiar with the small Japanese American community at the town of La Jara, about fourteen miles north of Antonito. Carr’s son Robert told the Rocky Mountain News in 1987 that due to his contact with those Japanese Americans, Carr “couldn’t see [them as] being tools of the emperor of Japan.” It is from this interaction with Colorado’s people of color that Carr most likely developed his appreciation of America’s cultural diversity. In a radio address he delivered three days after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Carr observed that “We cannot test the degree of a man’s affection for his fellows or his devotion to his country by the birthplace of his grandfathers. All Americans had their origins beyond the border of the United States.”
World War II and Internment
Carr was acutely aware that the state’s people of color were often victims of racial prejudice. In 1942 the first Japanese Americans arriving at the Amache concentration camp in Colorado were threatened with violence. Carr confronted the mob and told them: “If you harm them, you must first harm me. I was brought up in small towns where I knew the shame and dishonor of race hatred. I grew up to despise it because it threatened the happiness of you, and you, and you.” Carr merely remembered what many others had forgotten: that Japanese Americans were Americans and should be treated as such. He steadfastly refused to condemn the entire ethnic group as others were doing. As early as January 1942—just a month after the Pearl Harbor attack—Carr published a statement in the Pacific Citizen, the official newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League, expressing sympathy for their plight. “We have come to a time that tries men’s souls,” he wrote. “There is no place here for the man who thinks that his people or those who speak his language are in turn entitled to preference over any others.”
Unfortunately for Japanese Americans, President Franklin Roosevelt was one of those who forgot (or, more likely, chose to ignore) that they were Americans. On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced evacuation of tens of thousands of men, women, and children of Japanese descent from the West Coast and depriving them of their fundamental civil liberties. Roosevelt’s order established military zones along the West Coast and allowed Lieutenant General DeWitt to proceed with the mass evacuation of “all persons of Japanese ancestry” for the spurious reason of “military necessity.”
On February 29, Carr publicly declared that Colorado was willing to provide temporary quarters for German, Italian, and Japanese evacuees from the West Coast. Knowing of intense antagonism toward the evacuees, he admonished Coloradans against engaging in “hysterical attacks or assaults” against them. Carr pointed out that “they are as loyal to American institutions as you and I.” Sadly, everywhere the Japanese Americans went they encountered hostility or indifference from government officials who were supposed to protect them from the mob violence of their fellow Americans. Many gave up on the move and returned to the West Coast, only to be forcibly interned in concentration camps a few months later.
On April 7, 1942, in Salt Lake City, the War Relocation Authority held a meeting of governors and other officials from the western states to seek their cooperation in the relocation and resettlement of the Japanese Americans. Carr alone was willing to cooperate. As he wrote to Mrs. Sam Rankin on April 30, he felt that it was “the American thing . . . the patriotic thing . . . the decent thing . . . to do.” His decision engendered a firestorm of protest. Carr tried to put out these fires, crisscrossing Colorado to talk about his decision with anyone willing to listen. He described his efforts in a letter to a friend, Mrs. Byrd R. Fuqua of Nathrop, the same day:
“I am talking the Japanese thing wherever I can and whenever I do, I think they get on my side. Unfortunately, I have other things to do which are more important than this rather trifling matter. If people of Colorado don’t want the brand of governing I’ve been giving them, they are going to have to get somebody else who agrees with them . . . I think it’s my duty to direct public opinion rather than to follow it when it’s wrong, simply to be popular.”
Ultimately, more than 120,000 persons of Japanese descent were incarcerated in concentration camps in some of the most desolate places in the United States. In southeastern Colorado, government officials set up the Granada Relocation Center, known as “Amache.” Jack Cranberry wrote in The Denver Post on February 15, 1943, that Amache was as “bleak a spot as one can find on the western plains . . . rattlesnake country where sage brush finds it difficult to take root, and where the despised Russian thistle withers for lack of moisture.” On August 29, 1942, the first contingent of about 200 Japanese Americans arrived in that forbidding place. Eventually, around 7,500 of them were relocated to Amache. Having committed no crimes, Japanese Americans were imprisoned without the benefit of a trial, found guilty because of their race.
Carr saw the clamor for interning the Japanese Americans for what it was—an act of racial intolerance. Even after Roosevelt had succumbed to public hysteria and signed Executive Order 9066, Carr recognized that Japanese Americans, as well as German and Italian Americans, were entitled to equal protection under the law. “It is not fair,” he argued, “to segregate the people from one or two or three nations and to brand them as unpatriotic or disloyal.”
Ironically, while Carr remained ambivalent about the questionable orders of the president and military authorities, he would follow them for the same reasons that he defended Japanese Americans—patriotism and Americanism. Carr’s political opponents used his stand on behalf of Japanese Americans as an opportunity to denounce him and garner support for themselves. In communities such as Cañon City and Poncha Springs, local Democrats accused him of inviting the Japanese to Colorado in order to gain their votes.
Later Career and Life
In late 1942, much to his supporters’ surprise, Carr lost his electoral bid to replace his archrival, Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson, in the United States Senate. His loss occurred in an election in which Colorado voters favored Republicans overall. It was one of the closest senatorial races in Colorado’s history, with Carr losing by a measly 3,700 votes out of 375,000. From Carr’s perspective, his defeat was a minor event compared to the major electoral victory of the state and national Republican parties. Carr took this victory as a sign that the nation was returning to constitutionalism and Americanism.
In many ways, Carr was the quintessential American, embodying the spirit of individualism and dissent that gave birth to the country. In the name of liberty and justice and to the detriment of his personal ambitions, he stood by the Japanese American community in opposition to a fearful and angry public who wanted nothing to do with them. With that stance, he defended the Constitution and the democratic principles it embodies. Ralph Carr died on September 22, 1950 in Denver.
Adapted from William Wei, “‘Simply a Question of Patriotism’: Governor Ralph L. Carr and the Japanese Americans,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 22, no. 1 (2002).