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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,589

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This is the grave of Charles Sprague.

Born in Lawrence, Kansas in 1887, he grew up in a pretty middle class household. His father ran grain elevators. He went to Monmouth College in Illinois but he had to pay for himself and so he worked as a reporter for local newspapers. Even with that though he had to drop out after a couple of years and teach school. He then earned enough money to get him through school. He graduated in 1910 and then took a job as school superintendent all the way out in Waitsburg, Washington, which is a small town not far from Walla Walla that I remember being a speck on the map we had to drive through to get to my grandparents house in Clarkston. He rose pretty quickly in this world and became assistant superintendent of public instruction for the entire state of Washington.

Now a pretty successful guy, in 1925, Sprague decided on a career switch. He moved south to Salem, Oregon and went into the newspaper business, buying a few papers in that state, but mostly based in Salem. That’s the capital and the center of power in what was a small state at the time and still isn’t really that powerful (has Oregon ever had a serious presidential candidate contender? There was talk for awhile that Mark Hatfield might run, but that never happened). Not surprisingly at all, Sprague was an old-school fiscally conservative Republican who wanted nothing to change in the way the nation was ran. Never mind that we had this gigantic economy that could bring down the entire global economy if we tanked it, nope, not when could have nostalgia for the 19th century. And do you think the Great Depression changed Sprague’s point of view? It did not! Just reinforced, watching that evil FDR do things like put people to work and build infrastructure and drag this nostalgic land into the 20th century finally.

Even given all that, Sprague was slightly less bitter and cranky than much of Oregon’s reactionary Republican Party and this gave him room to work when he became interested in personal involvement in politics. Sprague was an internationalist on foreign policy issues and that set him apart from the isolationists who dominated the party, and in fact dominated much of the politics of the American West at that time. He decided to run for governor in 1938 and this proved a propitious moment. Oregon had a Democratic governor named Charles Martin. He was very popular with the business community and had a ton of Republican elite support too. That’s because Martin was one of the Democrats who loathed the New Deal. So he became one of FDR’s targets in his failed attempt to purge the party of reactionaries that year. But like in much of the country, it didn’t work in Oregon either. Democrats split and Sprague was able to take advantage of this by building a political coalition that explicitly criticized the administration daring to get involved in Oregon politics. It worked and Sprague moved from sacrificial lamb to surprisingly competitive to victorious in a landslide.

Generally, Sprague governed as a relative moderate with support from business and at least tolerance from organized labor. He put a bunch of money into the schools and updated the state’s job placement services to reduce unemployment. Oregon’s far right assumed that Sprague would support their extreme anti-picketing bill to crack down on workers, but he did not and this bought him a good bit of support from the unions, at least for awhile. He mostly blew it eventually through a policy of lowest offer bidding on state contracts, which allowed non-union firms to undercut union firms. Sprague also began to develop some regulations over Oregon’s state timber lands, which was at the forefront of state-level timber management for the 30s.

Now, there’s nothing in Sprague’s background to suggest where I am about to go. He was a not great, but not the very worst, kind of Republican. As governor he had a couple of good policies and then a whole bunch of not good ones. But Sprague out-did himself in World War II. He was one of the only people in any position of power to oppose rounding up the nation’s Japanese population and throwing them in the American concentration camps that the U.S. has later referred to as “internment camps,” to make ourselves feel a lot more distant from Nazi Germany than we actually were. He openly opposed the harassment of the state’s sizable Japanese community and said so. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, he suggested that the Japanese-Americans stay at home and also that whites stop bothering them, since they didn’t have anything to do with it.

Unfortunately, politics got in the way of the rare brave stance from Sprague. The far-right of Oregon’s Republican Party already thought Sprague was basically a RINO and this took the case. They primaried him with Earl Snell (who proved to be more a wet noodle than an ideologue) and went after him on the Japanese issue. This forced Sprague to put his political career over his principles and he started saying the same bad things about the Japanese by February 1942 as everyone else.

It didn’t work. Sprague lost the primary. He spent the rest of his life regretting putting politics over principle on this. He tried to make up for it. He publicly stated that the Japanese should not only be allowed but encouraged to return to Oregon after the war. He also called for the restoration of their property. He ran for the Senate in 1944, but lost the Republican primary. After that defeat, realizing he was not going to have a real political career again, he went back to editing his newspaper and continuing to work closely to build good relationships between the United States and Japan. In fact, shortly before Sprague’s death, Emperor Hirohito granted Sprague an imperial decoration for all the service he had done for the nation of Japan.

There’s an interesting object lesson here. Sprague is no hero, I think we can agree on that. But he at least tried to do the right thing, did the wrong thing, and then spent the next 25 years trying to make up for it. That’s better than a lot of people. Also, you don’t have to be a good person on all issues to be a good person on an issue that matters. Even if he was deeply flawed, and he absolutely was, there’s something to respect here, if not admire.

Sprague died in 1969. He was 81 years old.

Charles Sprague is buried in Mount Crest Abbey Mausoleum, Salem, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit other Americans who tried to oppose throwing the Japanese into concentration camps, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ralph Carr, who as governor of Colorado flat out opposed everything that was happening, is in Denver. Emery Andrews, who was a former missionary in Japan who then became the pastor of a Japanese-dominated Baptist church in Seattle and organized a network of whites to oppose internment, is in Bellevue, Washington. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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