Kismet: how the chief architect of WWII’s Japanese-American internment camps went from infamous racist to president of Champion Paper and Fibre in Hamilton, Ohio

On April 19 of this year—the 70th anniversary of Ron Tammen’s disappearance—we discussed how, around the time Ron went missing, he’d cashed a check from someone by the name of Dorothy Craig. We then proceeded to narrow the field of potential Dorothy Craigs to the one who was a long-time employee of Champion Paper and Fibre, in Hamilton, Ohio. We then discussed Champion’s extraordinary practice of providing lucrative jobs to decorated military officers and CIA officials after they’d retired or stepped down from their posts in the federal government. This led us to the hypothesis that someone within the company had been funding activities conducted by people in Miami University’s Psychology Department (and, by extension, Ron Tammen) and using Dorothy Craig as cover.

Today, I’d like to elaborate a little more about one of the military guys whom Champion had hired. Recently, I learned something astonishing about him and I think I need to give it more column-inches than a mere mention on Facebook.

His name was Karl Robin Bendetsen. In my April 19 post, I’d reported that, before Karl had arrived at Champion Paper, he’d been the assistant secretary of the Army, and, eventually, undersecretary of the Army, both of which are very high up the climbing rope. As assistant secretary, he was in charge of general management issues, and as undersecretary, he was immediately below the secretary and above two assistant secretaries, one who oversaw research and materiel and the other who oversaw manpower and reserve forces. So, to sum up this paragraph for readers who, like me, have little to no military background, Karl R. Bendetsen was an important person in the U.S. Army before Champion Paper had hired him.

Karl R. Bendetsen; credit: Library of Congress and the U.S. Army Signal Corps

What I hadn’t realized at the time of the earlier writing was that Bendetsen was also famous the world over—infamous actually—at the time that Champion had hired him due to his activities during WWII. After the war, he’d tried to downplay those activities, conveniently glossing over his military past on his resume or in bios. Nevertheless, decades later, when Congressmen asked him about those (infamous) activities, he defended what he did, claiming that he still considered his and others’ actions to have been necessary at that time. 

So let’s delve into Bendetsen’s military past now, shall we?

Right after Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, the Army was concerned that Japanese Americans living on the West Coast might be used as spies and whatnot to assist Japan, a country they no longer lived in or perhaps had never lived in. For this reason, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the Army’s officer in charge of the Western Defense Command in San Francisco, a man named Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, the power to declare areas of the region “military zones” in which certain citizens—i.e., people of Japanese ancestry—must be evacuated. Plenty of politicians and Army brass were involved in the decision to institute such a program, but one man was given the dubious distinction of being in charge of said program, and that man was Karl Bendetsen. Indeed, with the job title of commanding officer of the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), for which he reported to Lt. Gen. DeWitt, Karl was responsible for ousting Japanese Americans and immigrants from their homes and relocating them into primarily 10 concentration camps in California, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, and Arkansas

If you happen to be feeling sorry for Karl, as if he was merely following orders, don’t. Karl was one of the principal authors of Executive Order 9066. He believed strongly in what he was doing. All over the internet, he’s known as the chief architect of the Japanese American internment program, which means that, by and large, he was the mastermind. 

And so, as Nazis were forcibly removing people of Jewish ancestry from their homes and herding them into concentration camps, Karl was overseeing the forced removal of people of Japanese ancestry from their homes on American soil and herding them into concentration camps as well.

Without question, the German camps were far worse. Not until the war’s end did the world fully grasp the atrocities that the Nazis had been committing. Six million European Jews died in the Holocaust, as did five million others. For these reasons, Hitler is widely recognized as the personification of evil—the most vile human to have ever lived. 

Still, when a government that represents the land of the free imprisons a segment of its populace, not for anything they’ve done, but because of their ancestral heritage, it’s not only immoral, it’s unconstitutional. With FDR’s signing of Executive Order 9066, the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for a subset of Americans was thereby revoked. 

In point of fact, at the time that Karl was tearing Japanese-American men, women, and children away from their homes in states along the Pacific Coast and beyond, there wasn’t much dissention in other parts of the country. Perhaps people weren’t aware of what was happening or maybe they were looking the other way, somehow thinking that their government was beyond reproach and that the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, 110,000 by force, was a disturbing though inevitable aspect of war. 

But four years after WWII had ended, Americans across the country were taking a more critical view. The public was learning how egregious the government’s actions had been. They learned how, after being physically uprooted, forced to leave nearly everything behind including their pets, families were transported by bus and train, sometimes over state lines, and crammed together in makeshift buildings covered in tar paper with no kitchen or bathroom facilities. The living conditions were deplorable. Doctors and nurses; lawyers and clerks; professors and teachers; Buddhist monks and Shinto priests; artists and musicians; fishermen and farmers; cooks, wait staff, dishwashers, and all the rest were forced to leave their livelihoods, their very lives, behind. Their access to medical care was abysmal, though incarcerated doctors and nurses were known to step in to care for their fellow prisoners. And even though (to the best of my knowledge) no prisoner had been killed outright through the internment program, 1862 people died while being held there, perhaps some as a result of the unsanitary living conditions.

On August 26, 1949, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had ruled that the government’s internment program was “unnecessarily cruel and inhuman.” In the ruling, Chief Judge William Denman lays out perhaps the most vivid description of how the prisoners were treated at the camp at Tule Lake, California, excoriating Lt. Gen. DeWitt in the process. He said: “The barbed wire stockade surrounding the 18,000 people there was like the prison camps of the Germans. There were the same turrets for the soldiers and the same machine guns for those who might attempt to climb the high wiring.” I encourage you to read it.

Karl Bendetsen was the poster child for all of the above.

In the fall of 1949, just weeks after the Court of Appeals ruling, Karl was being considered for the post of assistant secretary of the Army, which is when his name was making the biggest headlines, and not in a good way. At least 40 civil rights organizations joined together to declare their opposition to the nominee based on his deeply entrenched racist views. The organizations who denounced him included the Japanese-American Citizens League Anti-Discrimination Committee, the NAACP, and other members of the National Civil Liberties Clearing House. A priest from Los Angeles named Father Hugh Lavery who had first-hand knowledge of Bendetsen’s callousness sent an impassioned letter to President Truman hoping to persuade him to rescind the nomination. According to the book The Colonel and the Pacifist, by Klancy Clark De Nevers, and other sources, Father Lavery told Truman of the following exchange:

“Colonel Bendetsen showed himself to be a little Hitler. I mentioned that we had an orphanage with children of Japanese ancestry, and that some of these children were half Japanese, others one-fourth or less. I asked which children we should send to the relocation center.” 

Bendetsen had replied “I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must all go to camp.”

Continued Lavery in his letter, “Just as with Hitler, so with him. It was a question of blood.”

You’d think that all of that bad press might have affected Karl negatively. You’d think he would have slunk away from the spotlight and found a less newsworthy way to make ends meet. He could put his Stanford law degree to use and set up a respectable practice in a small, out-of-the-way town.

But that’s not what happened. President Truman and the United States Congress waved away the letters and petitions and went through with his confirmation as secretary of the Army anyway, which, in turn, put him on the path to occupying the Army’s second-most-powerful office. Even so, Karl didn’t remain with the Army long. In 1952, he accepted a consultant position at Champion Paper and Fibre’s Texas division, and, from that point on, he went about reinventing himself, banking on the American public’s inability to retain names and faces for very long. Karl Bendetsen would go on to become vice president, president, and, by the time of his retirement in 1972, chairman of the board at Champion International, the company’s new name after it had merged with U.S. Plywood Corporation. 

As for how Karl managed to get his foot in the door at Champion Paper at a time when his name was being equated with “little Hitler” in the minds of a large sector of Americans? A former colleague of his described it thusly:


I can see that several of you have questions.



Q: 😮

A: I know. It’s a lot to process. Take your time. 

Q: Kismet? Why did he consider it kismet?

A: That’s the word used by B. Joseph Feigenbaum, who used to work in the same San Francisco law firm as Karl Bendetsen, and whose interview is part of the Earl Warren Oral History Project at University of California, Berkeley. 

Here’s the juicy gossip regarding how it all went down with Champion Paper in Feigenbaum’s words. Note that the transcriber misspelled Reuben, and I’ve spotted a number of other inaccuracies (which I’ve corrected in bold with my initials). It’s kind of a wild story:

Then comes, as it often does in life, kismet, fate. Secretary of the Army Gordon Gray was supposed to make a speech at the homecoming day at the University of North Carolina, I think it was, at Chapel Hill. And Gray gets some other assignment and can’t go. He gives the speech to Bendetsen (who’s by now Assistant Secretary of the Army, I guess. I don’t know whether he was Assistant Secretary of Defense [JW: there’s no such position, and he was never the deputy secretary of defense either] or Under-secretary of the Army, maybe it was still Army).

He goes down to Chapel Hill, makes the speech, finds himself sitting on the stand next to a prominent alumnus [JW: neither Reuben Jr. nor Reuben Sr. were alumni of the University of North Carolina; Reuben Jr. graduated from Yale, and Reuben Sr. graduated from Yale and the University of Cincinnati Law School], I guess, by the name of Ruben Robertson from Cincinnati who is the head of Champion Paper Company, a more or less family-controlled, but very large company. And as Karl told me the story, after they made their speeches, Mr. Robertson invited him up to his room to chat and drink and he went along, and Robertson says, “You know, some time when you’re out in Cincinnati, look me up. We could use somebody like you around our company.” Karl told me he said to Mr. Robertson, “When you’re in Washington sometime look me up.”

It happened that Robertson’s son at that time or just before had been Under-secretary [JW: deputy secretary] of Defense. Karl looked up Mr. Robertson, or vice versa, left the Army, and became a vice-president of Champion Paper. [JW: He started as a consultant at Champion in 1952, three years before Reuben Jr. was made deputy secretary of defense.] They sent him to a mill outside of Houston, Pasadena, Texas. Karl had never had any paper experience. He’d done a little work for a client of ours in the paper business. And he was there a number of years, did apparently an outstanding job and was called back to Cincinnati, where the company had gotten so big and loose they wanted somebody to pull tag ends together. [JW: I think he’s speaking metaphorically?] He was made one of the executive vice-presidents.

The president now was Ruben Robertson, Jr. Mr. Robertson, Jr., is driving in traffic in Cincinnati and somebody bumps the rear of his car. [JW: Reuben Jr. had hit someone who was stopped, not the other way around.] He opens the door to get out to see what happened and another car comes along and kills him, and two or three weeks [JW: actually, it was two dayslater, Karl is the president of Champion Paper.

Here’s a link to the entire transcript on the topic of Karl Bendetsen.

Q: I’m confused. Which of the Reubens bonded with Karl Bendetsen—was it Reuben Jr. or Reuben Sr.?

A: I’ve been trying to figure that out. The way that Feigenbaum tells the story, it sounds as if he thinks that Bendetsen had met with the father, Reuben Sr., since he refers to Reuben Jr. as “Robertson’s son.” But there’s one major problem: Reuben Sr. had been born and raised in Cincinnati. He received degrees from Yale and the University of Cincinnati, but his home was in Asheville, NC. So the part where Robertson says ““You know, some time when you’re out in Cincinnati, look me up,” sounds more like something Reuben Jr. would say, since he lived in Glendale, which is a Cincinnati suburb.

I still think it was the dad, though, since, of the two Robertsons, the one more likely to speak at a UNC homecoming (or whatever the event—we don’t know if Feigenbaum got that detail correct either), would be the man from Asheville who seemed to have a strong relationship with UNC’s Asheville campus. It could be that, when Karl recounted the story to Feigenbaum, he told him that Robertson had said, “If you’re ever in town, look me up,” and Feigenbaum had presumed he was talking about Cincinnati. 

I’ve been consulting with the archivists at UNC Chapel Hill to find out if they have a record of an event where the two men were speaking. If they’re able to find anything, I’ll let you all know.

Q: Do you think it matters which one it was?

A: I think it does. I don’t know much about Reuben Sr.’s personality, but I happen to think Reuben Jr. was a warm human being who genuinely cared about his employees at Champion, treating them like family. For a man who treated his employees like family to have an interest in hiring a man who spent WWII tearing American families away from their homes and businesses seems out of character for Reuben Jr. It seems out of character for Reuben Sr. too, but more so for Reuben Jr., in my opinion.

Q: Do you have any other reasons for thinking it was Reuben Sr. who bonded with Karl Bendetsen?

A: Yes, the timeline. As it turns out, Gordon Gray was secretary of the Army for only one year, from April 28, 1949, to April 12, 1950, therefore that’s the time frame in which the UNC event likely occurred. What’s more, Gray, who was indeed an alumnus of UNC Chapel Hill, was named president of his alma mater in October 1950, so, again, the UNC event couldn’t have taken place after that date. If Bendetsen was assistant secretary of the Army when the UNC event took place, as Feigenbaum suggested, then we’re talking about a window of roughly 8 months after he was publicly described as “little Hitler” that one of the Robertsons told him that the company could really use somebody like him. 

But here’s another clue: homecoming. If Feigenbaum is correct that the UNC event had been on homecoming, then it couldn’t have occurred in 1950. Homecoming in 1950 was on October 28, and President Gray was in attendance at the football game that day. The only other homecoming to fit within Gray’s timeline as secretary of the Army was the one in 1949, which occurred on November 26, 1949. Although Bendetsen hadn’t yet been confirmed as assistant secretary of the Army, reports indicate that he was working for Gray in a less official capacity. 

If the UNC event occurred on November 26, 1949, then my strong suspicion is that it was Reuben Sr. who’d bonded with Bendetsen, not Reuben Jr. At that time, Reuben Jr. was still an executive vice president for the company. He was important, but he wasn’t the big boss. He wouldn’t be named president until July 1950, when his father was promoted to chairman of the board. 

One thing is for certain: if the Robertson-Bendetsen meeting took place on November 26, 1949, it was at the height of the period in which Bendetsen was generating negative headlines about his activities during WWII. Perhaps Robertson was unaware of what Father Lavery had said about Bendetsen at that time, but plenty of other things were being written that could have, and should have, given Robertson pause.

In 1960, after Reuben Jr. died, and Reuben Sr. retired, the whole feel-good “Champion family” culture began to dry up. From what I’ve heard and read, many people point to Karl Bendetsen as the reason. According to a student research paper written by Brannon Ernest Aughe, Bendetsen was responsible for “sealing the end of the paternalistic nature of Champion Paper and Fibre Company.” Aughe went on to say that on March 31, 1961—a little over a year after Reuben Jr.’s death—Bendetsen laid off one-third of the employees in the Canton, NC, mill. That awful day came to be referred to as “Black Friday.”

Q: Are you sure the Robertsons were aware of the things that were being said about Bendetsen, especially Father Lavery?

A: I’m positive. Much of the bad press Bendetsen was receiving occurred in September and October of 1949. Also, even if the UNC event had occurred in November 1949, they would find out in a couple months what Father Lavery had said about Bendetsen. 

On February 3, 1950, Drew Pearson, syndicated writer of the newspaper column Washington Merry-Go-Round, had written an article that included Father Lavery’s accusations, word-for-horrifying-word. Pearson said that many senators were opposed to Bendetsen’s nomination and that Lavery’s letter could put him in jeopardy, though, as we know, he was still confirmed.

Drew Pearson was huge in the newspaper field. If you were a politician in the nation’s capital, it didn’t matter if you were right, left, or center, if you were up to no good, he’d find out about it and let his readers know. And his readers were…everyone. His sources were iron-clad and he didn’t mince words, so people felt they were getting the unvarnished truth about the people who were representing them.

Pearson even came down hard on Reuben Jr. once. The article ran in February 1960, after Pearson had discovered that Champion Paper had paid $15K to Admiral Arthur Radford, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to work as a consultant even though he didn’t know anything about papermaking. Pearson had found a number of lucrative consultant gigs for Radford, which led him to question what he was actually doing for all that money. When he tried to reach Reuben Jr. for answers, he wound up getting Bendetsen instead, who, I must say, may be one of the best stonewallers of all time, what with all the “I don’t knows” and “Not my jobs” and “That’s out of my bailiwicks.”

Suffice it to say that it was never a good thing to be mentioned in a Drew Pearson article, which is probably why most people read it. It’s kind of like reading the obituaries—if your name wasn’t there, the day was off to a good start. 

As it so happens, we know that both Reuben Jr. and Reuben Sr. had to have been aware of the tumult that Bendetsen’s nomination was causing nationally, since both Reuben Jr.’s newspaper, the Hamilton Journal-News, and Reuben Sr.’s paper, the Asheville Times, carried Pearson’s article the same day. 

How anyone could read the accusations that were leveled against Karl Bendetsen in Pearson’s article and think “we need more of THAT on our team” is beyond me. But put in perspective, it might be one more indication that, in the 1950s, Champion Paper could be counted on to support anyone or anything having to do with the U.S. military. Even if a person was a political hot potato. Even if a project resulted in a student who mysteriously disappeared.

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