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The governor who didn't give in to fear ... and paid a price for it

Gov. Ralph Carr of Colorado welcomed Japanese Americans while his peers shunned them. It cost him his political career.

Popperfoto/Getty Images for US National Archives

A conflict is brewing over Syrian refugees. The White House has pledged to take in some 10,000 refugees over the next year. However, since the ISIS attacks in Paris last week, at least 22 Republican governors have announced they will resist the resettlement of these refugees in their states, and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire has urged a delay. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declared, "The State of Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris." Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has called for his state government to prevent resettlement in his state by "all lawful means."

While the parallel isn't perfect, this is reminiscent of many Western governors' reactions to Executive Order 9066 in 1942, which essentially created martial law along the West Coast and empowered the military to remove Japanese Americans from their homes and relocate them to interior states.

Many governors actively resisted the relocation of Japanese Americans to their states. Kansas Gov. Payne Ratner (R) declared, "Japs are not wanted and not welcome in Kansas." He promised to call up the Kansas National Guard to enforce his will. Gov. Nels Smith (R) of Wyoming threatened that any Japanese that came to his state would be found "hanging from every pine tree."

The one Western governor who stood out among this crowd was Republican Ralph Carr of Colorado. To Carr, Order 9066 was blatantly unconstitutional, as it deprived US citizens of their rights based solely on their racial background. (This is, of course, the dominant view today, but Carr's was definitely a minority opinion in 1942.) Carr publicly declared that Japanese Americans would be welcome in Colorado.

But beyond that, he gave a series of public speeches advocating for the rights of Japanese Americans and inveighing against their internment. To one hostile crowd of white farmers, Carr declared:

The Japanese are protected by the same Constitution that protects us. An American citizen of Japanese descent has the same rights as any other citizen... 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 to despise it because it threatened [pointing to various audience members] the happiness of you and you and you.

For his efforts, Carr found his political career was cut short. The Colorado Republican Party would not nominate him for another term as governor in 1942. He instead ran for Senate, but lost narrowly to incumbent Democrat Edwin Johnson.

Carr's reputation was rehabilitated somewhat after his death in 1950. There's a memorial to him in Sakura Square in downtown Denver, and reporter Adam Schrager wrote a flattering biography about him a few years ago. But for the remainder of Carr's life, his political career was over.

Obviously, the relocation of American citizens of Japanese ancestry is not the same as accepting refugees from another country. But there are clear parallels, particularly in the political incentives governors are confronting. It's not just that it's easy to demagogue against foreign invaders; it's that it's sometimes politically risky not to. The governors refusing to take in Syrian refugees today may or may not know Ralph Carr's name, but they have surely imagined his fate, and they don't want the same for themselves.

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