Famed historian Roger Daniels passed away on the evening of Friday, Dec. 9, 2022 at age 95.

Roger Daniels

Over the course of his 62-year career as a historian, Daniels published dozens of groundbreaking books and hundreds of scholarly articles on the history of immigration to the U.S. His most influential works dealt with the history of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, and boldly challenged government narratives of “military necessity” that were then widely accepted.

Daniels not only challenged the conventional narrative of the government, but also of what it meant to be a patriotic American. He helped to raise awareness of the plight of Japanese American draft resisters who refused to serve the country that had confined them, despite pressure from the Japanese American Citizens League to cooperate.

Roger Daniels was born on Dec. 1, 1927 in New York City, the son of immigrants from England and Hungary (he personally identified as a third-generation American). His young adult years he later described as “itinerant.” He once claimed that he made $50 in every state in the U.S. by working at temporary, working-class jobs – experiences he claimed informed his later work.

At age 17, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a reporter for the New York Journal American (ironically a Hearst Newspaper) and aspired to write a novel. He also worked briefly helping Indonesian seamen seeking asylum to publicize their plight.   

During his time in New York, he met a Japanese American man at a party. When Daniels asked if the man was from Japan, he responded that he was American, just released from an American concentration camp in the west. Dumbfounded, Daniels thought the story too fantastic to believe. He then went to the New York Public Library and, after reading an article in **Harper’s** by Carey McWilliams on Japanese Americans, realized that the story was true. The experience would trouble Daniels and inspire him to set off on a career as a historian.

In the years that followed, Daniels took a circuitous path that eventually led him to academia. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he earned his bachelor’s in history at the University of Houston, then enrolled as a Ph.D. student at UCLA in 1957.

Although Daniels undertook his doctoral studies with the intention of studying the incarceration of Japanese Americans, he found that government documents on the camps were restricted and unavailable. Hard-pressed to find a related topic, he chose to write about anti-Japanese movements in California at the turn of the 20th century, relying principally on the papers of then-Gov. Hiram Johnson. He completed his dissertation by the summer of 1960, then published his findings in 1962 under the title “The Politics of Prejudice.” The book helped establish the field of Asian American studies, and today remains a key text in immigration studies.

In the years that followed, Daniels taught at UCLA. He remained determined to write about the wartime incarceration. On June 3, 1967, Daniels, together with UCLA scholar Harry Kitano, organized a conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. The conference, dubbed  “It Did Happen Here,” featured former California Attorney General Robert Kenny, JACL leader Joe Grant Masaoka, and former Rafu editor Togo Tanaka. It was a landmark event that presaged the commemorations of the incarceration that occurred during the Asian American movement years later.

Daniels would go on to collaborate with Manzanar Committee head Sue Kunitomi Embrey, and contributed an essay to Embrey’s edited volume “The Lost Years: 1942-1946.” Sixteen years after the first conference, Daniels, Kitano, and author Sandra Taylor organized another conference at Salt Lake City that focused on the incarceration. The conference brought together scholars from across the country, and produced a volume of essays published as “Japanese Americans, From Relocation to Redress” in 1986.

After leaving UCLA in 1968, Daniels taught at several institutions, including the University of Wyoming. While at Wyoming, Daniels and his graduate student Douglas Nelson began work on one of the earliest studies of the Heart Mountain draft resisters.  In 1971, Daniels published his first book on wartime incarceration, under the provocative title “Concentration Camps USA.”

Whereas previous scholars had focused on other factors, such as the West Coast farm lobby and the Hearst press, to explain the incarceration, Daniels demonstrated that forced removal was an (avoidable) result of the government’s own racist actions. His was the first comprehensive text to show how the U.S. government failed to protect the rights of Japanese Americans, and it identified the officials who hatched the plan for forced removal.

In later years, he authored several further studies of wartime Japanese American incarceration, including “Prisoners Without Trialin 1993. “Prisoners Without Trial” remains in print and is often used as a textbook for classes on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Beyond Japanese American history, Daniels authored several broader studies on Asian American history, such as “Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850in 1988.

Daniels spent several decades of his career challenging the euphemistic language used in official circles to describe the policy of forced removal, such as “relocation centers” and “evacuation.”  Instead, he argued for the terms “concentration camps” and “incarceration.”

In 2004, Daniels penned the influential essay “Words Do Matter.” In it, he charged that use of the commonly used term “internment” to describe the U.S. government’s wartime policy towards Japanese Americans was misleading. “Internment,” he explained, described a policy of confinement of non-citizens under international law, and erased the fact that the majority of the confined were U.S. citizens.

In addition to his innovative research, Daniels championed public engagement among scholars and encouraged the use of historical research for the public good. His most notable contribution in this regard was his participation in the redress movement, including his role as advisor to the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Daniels offered crucial testimony before Congress that identified government deceit in the cases supporting the forced removal of Japanese Americans.

He also contributed research and commentary to several influential films on the incarceration, including Steven Okazaki’s 1984 PBS documentary “Unfinished Business and Frank Abe’s Emmy-Award winning film “Conscience and the Constitutionfrom 2000.

Roger Daniels speaks at the Day of Remembrance event at the Japanese American National Museum in February 2009. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

In 1976, Daniels was hired as the chair of the History Department at the University of Cincinnati, where he worked for over three decades. In addition to his teaching and his own writing projects, Daniels served as editor for University of Illinois Press and oversaw the publication of dozens of books that explored new topics in Asian American history. Remarkably, he wrote a foreword for each book he edited for the press, testimony to his dedication to supporting each author he worked with.

These books include (but are not limited to): Jasmine Alinder’s “Moving Images,” Allan Austin’s “From Concentration Camps to Campus,” Karen Ishizuka’s “Lost and Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration,” Greg Robinson’s “Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era,” and David Yoo’s “Growing Up Nisei.”

Even in retirement, Daniels remained productive. In 2002, he wrote “Coming to America,” an in-depth survey of the history of immigration to the U.S. Two years later, he published “Guarding the Golden Door,” a text that documented the history of immigration control and the anti-immigrant movement in the U.S. Both texts were among his most successful works.

In 2013, he completed a legal history of the Japanese American Supreme Court cases, and in 2015 and 2019, he published a detailed two-volume biography of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wartime presidency.

He is survived by his wife Judith, his son Rick and daughter Sarah, and several grandchildren. No public service is planned. Donations can be sent to the University of Cincinnati Foundation to support the Roger Daniels Summer Fellowship, which provides a summer research scholarship to an excellent graduate student working in the field of U.S. history.


Arthur Hansen, historian and professor emeritus, CSU Fullerton: Since time out of mind I have been profoundly honored to have had Roger Daniels as a role model, mentor, critic, colleague, and friend. He epitomized for me the true meaning of a scholar and a gentleman. I last saw him in March 2019 at the Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle. His body was then noticeably weakened, but his mind was still razor-sharp.

I was touched that he took the herculean effort to accompany Frank Abe to my book talk. At one point, I told the audience that we had in our midst the person who for over the past half-century had enacted the role of the dean of Japanese American historiography. I then asked Roger to stand and be recognized. He struggled to come to a standing position, but he adamantly refused any assistance to do so. With great effort he at last achieved his objective and was accorded the applause he richly deserved.

This act epitomized Roger’s entire life and career as a teacher and author of countless books and articles and reviews insofar as it showcased his fierce determination, inordinate self-discipline, compassionate collegiality, and steadfast commitment to a cause. His death creates an enormous hole in my heart.

Frank Abe, documentary filmmaker of “Conscience and the Constitution” and co-author of “We Hereby Refuse”: Before Roger Daniels, a critical study of the incarceration just didn’t exist. He published “Concentration Camps USA” just as I came of age, and to me that book 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. Others had the chance but failed to do so. 

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 valued Roger’s friendship as a colleague, someone who always available as a lifeline to check some obscure fact of incarceration history. In my last visit 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 it were 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.

Alice Yang, professor of history, UC Santa Cruz: Roger’s pioneering scholarship undermined the myth of military necessity that was used to justify the mass removal and incarceration and helped inspire many activists, including Edison Uno and Sue Kunitomi Embrey.

Allan W. Austin, professor of history, Misericordia University: I was struck especially by his availability to students, and in particular to me as a student. He was, in this way, the consummate mentor. When grad school seemed about to break me, he always seemed to know, stepping in with sage advice and — even more importantly — offering his time. Amidst his books and presentations and invited lectures and classes and book series and mentoring scores of other scholars, Roger always found time for me. I don’t know where he found it, but he always did. He (and Judith) got to know me and my growing family in real and meaningful ways.

Karen Ishizuka, chief curator, Japanese American National Museum: Roger was critical in what turned out to be JANM’s nationally known effort to keep the title of our exhibition, “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience,” intact when it was threatened with censorship by the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1998. And not just because of his legendary scholarship on the subject. Rather, Roger was hands-on during two critical times in the development and display of the exhibition.

The first was in 1993, when I sent him a draft of the exhibition script in which I had written “in what has become known as ‘America’s concentration camps.’” Roger immediately admonished me with, “Why temper it by attaching a qualifier — just call them what they were: concentration camps!”

The second was in 1998 when we were informed that unless the term “concentration camp” was stricken from the title, the exhibit would not be exhibited at Ellis Island. When I consulted with Roger, he immediately contacted the chief historian of the National Park Service. In his characteristic dry humor, Roger said to me, “Obviously, a Friday is not the best time to move the federal government.” 

Ultimately, with Roger’s and others’ behind-the-scenes assistance, we did manage to move the federal government as we were soon informed by the secretary of the interior that we could proceed as planned.

Max Paul Friedman, professor of history, American University: I loved Roger, but at first, like other young people, I feared him. Meeting Roger can be a terrifying experience, because his critiques of bad scholarship are legendary — “This book deducts from the sum total of our knowledge of the subject,” etc. His political commentary was as cutting and funny and deeply informed as anything one can find nowadays.

But he was warm and generous to those who were starting out, and invested endless amounts of time in lifelong friendships. His mentorship was not only about history, or introducing me to scholars from around the world, but about how to be a good husband and father, how to be productive and make a difference without succumbing to workaholism. He had accumulated wisdom over his long life, from working with his hands before he worked with his mind, from sailing on every major body of water on Earth but the Black Sea.

But he also had so much empathy for the people he wrote about, and the people he knew. You could feel it in his writing and see it in his relationships.

Brian Niiya, content director, Densho: A giant figure in Japanese American history, everyone who has written on this topic in the last 50 years can’t help but have been influenced by Roger’s pioneering work on the anti-Japanese movement and the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. But he has also been a generous and supportive friend, colleague and mentor to dozens of scholars, curators, filmmakers and others trying to tell the Japanese American story.

Like many others, I found him an intimidating presence initially, but learned that this was mostly a front. Once I got to know him, he proved to be unfailingly kind and helpful, even when being critical of something I’d written. His impact on how we understand Japanese American history today is incalculable.

Eric Muller, Dan K. Moore Professor of Law, UNC Chapel Hill: My work all builds on a foundation designed and constructed by Roger Daniels. He graciously engaged with and supported my work from the first moment I contacted him when I was starting to look at the Nisei draft resisters. A thumbs-up from Roger was always a sure sign to me that I was on the right track.

Greg Robinson, professor of history, Université du Québec à Montréal: Roger was a great mentor figure. At the 2014 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Max Paul Friedman organized a panel session about Roger‘s career. The panelists spoke of Roger’s work as professor, advisor, researcher, writer, and activist. I reminded the audience of Roger’s prolific work as an editor, first of reprints of classic works, later with his series at University of Illinois Press, and the stack of books that he had guided to publication and for which he had done introductions.

I added that I had been one of the authors Roger had assisted, and testified to his contribution. After the panel, Roger expressed his warm appreciation over my mentioning that part of his career, but said, “You did not mention the title of the book.” I responded, “I didn’t want to make things about me.” He told me, “It doesn’t make it about you if you mention relevant facts. Otherwise, the audience will wonder what book you’re talking about.”

Such emphasis on clarity and informing the public, a hallmark of Roger’s work, is something I have tried to learn from him.

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