In Memoriam: Roger Daniels, the dean of incarceration camp history

We mourn the loss of the dean of Japanese American camp history. Roger Daniels passed away peacefully in Bellevue, Washington, on December 9, surrounded by family, a week after celebrating his 95th birthday.

Roger Daniels with Barbara Takei (photo by Frank Abe)
Roger Daniels with Barbara Takei at the UCLA Suyama Project panel on Tule Lake, held in Seattle, March 12, 2016. (photo by Frank Abe)

Before Roger published Concentration Camps USA in 1972, a critical study of the incarceration didn’t really exist. His book appeared just as I came of age, and for me it set the standard for Japanese American history as a field of study. The title alone asserted the power of words, as he would do throughout his career, and his book was the first to reveal the existence of principled resistance at Heart Mountain.

Roger was a scholar but he never hid behind academia, never hesitated to speak truth to power. He honored us with his interview for Conscience and the Constitution. His deep knowledge and keen insight helped anchor our film and verify our story of JACL collaboration in measured but uncompromising terms.

In the years since, I came to value Roger’s friendship as a colleague, someone who always available as a lifeline to check some obscure fact of incarceration history.

Frank Abe and Roger Daniels (photo by Frank Abe)
With Roger Daniels at the Hit It Here Cafe watching an interleague game against his Cincinnati Reds, September 10, 2019. (photo by Frank Abe)

In the last decade, Roger and Judith moved from Cincinnati to Seattle’s Eastside to be close to their grandchildren. This enabled me to take him to Mariners games at T-Mobile Park, where he enjoyed sitting in the Hit It Here Café, ordering burgers and beers, and providing caustic commentary on the game before us.

Roger Daniels at the release of the first volume of his FDR biography, “Franklin D. Roosevelt: Road to the New Deal, 1882-1939.” at the University Book Store in Bellevue, WA, January 9, 2016. (photo by Frank Abe)

While living here he published his two-volume biography of FDR — Franklin D. Roosevelt: Road to the New Deal, 1882-1939 in 2015 and Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945 a year later. In answer to my question at the launch of the first volume, he said if FDR were sitting here today, he’d probably admit he knew the Japanese American incarceration was not constitutional, but he was presented with a demand for eviction signed by every Congressman on the West Coast, and he was already looking ahead at how to assure peace after the war and needed the support of Congress for creation of the United Nations.

Roger Daniels with Art Hansen (photo by Shawn Brinsfield)
Roger Daniels greeting Art Hansen at the book launch for Art’s Barbed Voices anthology, Elliott Bay Book Company, April 2, 2019. (photo by Shawn Brinsfield)

Roger made it a point to come see fellow historian Art Hansen at the Seattle book launch of Nisei Naysayer, the memoir of resistance journalist James Omura. Their reunion was a warm one.

In my last visit with Roger, he favored me with a critique of the final draft of my script for We Hereby Refuse. By then his eyesight was so poor that he had me read the dialogue to him aloud so he could pick out and challenge problematic lines in the Tule Lake scenes as if I were sitting for a doctoral oral exam. Then we went to the Chick-fil-A next door for a sandwich and waffle fries.

Roger will be missed, but he leaves a defining body of work that will stand forever as his legacy. My deepest condolences to Judith and the family. No public service is planned.

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