John W. Nason, who helped more than 3,000 Japanese Americans leave World War II internment camps for colleges away from the West Coast when he was president of Swarthmore College in the 1940s, died Nov. 17 in Kennett Square, Pa., of natural causes. He was 96.
Nason was chairman of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, formed in early 1942, a few months after America entered the war.
It was started by the heads of several West Coast colleges who were distressed that the military roundup of people of Japanese descent was disrupting the higher education of thousands of students.
Resisting widespread prejudice, Nason helped convince colleges and universities in the East and Midwest to accept the Japanese American students.
Under his guidance, the council painstakingly matched students and campuses, advised them on majors, arranged transportation and provided chaperons to shepherd them to their new schools, which often were in small towns with few, if any, Japanese faces.
The majority of the students finished college. Many became community leaders.
"It is a fantastic story, and John's role in it was absolutely pivotal," said Gary Okihiro, director of Columbia University's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, who wrote a book about the efforts of the little-known council. "He did a very courageous and magnanimous thing."
Nason was a native of St. Paul, Minn., whose father prospered in real estate and coal mining.
He planned to follow his father into business until a depression hit the coal industry in the 1920s and Nason Sr. lost everything. Nason switched his major to philosophy at Carleton College in Minnesota and graduated in 1926. After postgraduate work at Yale, he earned a master's degree at Harvard and spent three years at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship before returning to the U.S. in 1931 and joining the Swarthmore faculty.
In 1940, when he was 35 and only an assistant professor, he was appointed president of Swarthmore. He would serve for 13 years.
Called Internment 'Outrage' and 'Illegal'
Barely two years into his presidency, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, launching the United States into the war. Seen as threats to national security, more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans on the West Coast were evacuated to 10 internment camps.
Included in the mass removal were more than 2,000 college students.
Their plight concerned the heads of Occidental College, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington, which had large numbers of nisei, or second-generation Japanese American, students. The college chiefs were joined by religious groups, notably the Quakers, in organizing the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council.
Nason, who had become a Quaker during the 1930s, was asked to head the council's board. He accepted the challenge because he believed that the detention of Japanese Americans was "an outrage, unnecessary and illegal," he told Okihiro in "Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II," published in 1999.
It was difficult at first to win federal permission to relocate Japanese students anywhere, Nason said, but the government eventually acquiesced. The next hurdle was to persuade colleges and universities to open their doors--no easy task in a time of rampant anti-Japanese sentiment.
The government placed several restrictions on the types of colleges that could enroll the students, Okihiro said. They had to be well outside the Western exclusion zone of Washington, Oregon, California and southern Arizona. They could not be involved in defense work, which ruled out most research institutions. The schools also could not be close to railroad tracks or in large cities. Community opposition was another disqualifying factor.
The council obtained security clearances for the students. They also had to have a proven academic record. Called ambassadors, they were encouraged to speak before church and civic groups to show that Japanese Americans were good citizens.
One Student Received Top Security Clearance
One such student was Fumio Robert Naka, an engineering student in his second year at UCLA when he and his family were evacuated to the Manzanar Relocation Center in Central California in May 1942.
Through the council, he gained admission to Ohio State University, but the move was squelched by campus opposition. The council helped him enroll at the University of Missouri, where he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1945.
That was followed by a master's degree from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate from Harvard.
Naka, who lives in Massachusetts, never knew Nason but said he is grateful for the life the former college president and the council enabled him to have. He went on to a long career as a scientist in top-secret intelligence programs, including the National Reconnaissance Office, which ran spy satellites.
"I went from a distrusted American to one who was so trusted," Naka said, "that the documentation I signed to the White House was very classified. Only in America could this ever happen."
He now belongs to a group called the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, formed by beneficiaries of the council. It annually awards college scholarships to Southeast Asian refugees in tribute to those who helped their members in their time of need.
The council operated for four years, until June 30, 1946. It had on file the names of 3,613 students it had helped register at 680 institutions, Okihiro said.
Nason resigned from Swarthmore in 1953 to become president of the Foreign Policy Assn., a New York-based group founded in 1918 to educate the public about world affairs.
During the 1950s, it was a prominent voice against McCarthyism.
It also helped establish World Affairs Councils in major cities.
In 1962, Nason delayed his retirement to become president of his alma mater, Carleton.
He led the Midwest college through the end of the decade, retiring in 1970.
He rarely spoke of the role he played during World War II. Yet he acknowledged that, of all his varied accomplishments, the most important was helping the Japanese American students. He believed that continuing their education would strengthen their bonds to society and preserve faith in American democracy.
"I feel a greater sense of satisfaction in what I did for American Japanese than for almost anything else I did," Nason said. "This was good for our society as well as correcting an injustice."
Nason is survived by two sons, Charles and Robert; a stepson, Whitman E. Knapp; two stepdaughters, Caroline K. Hines and Marion Knapp; and 11 grandchildren.