This post was written by Jenny LeRoy, a CUNY graduate fellow at the New-York Historical Society who helped to process the James G. Harbord Papers.
For General James Harbord, president of the Radio Corporation of America from 1922-1947 and lieutenant to General Pershing during the Philippine-American War, discussing the drama surrounding his servants was a favored pastime. In countless letters to his friends and family, he describes the ups and downs of his domestic labor situation. He employed Japanese domestic workers throughout his adult life, and generally found this to be a desirable arrangement. At various points, however, servants departed from his employ and prompted stressful periods for him and his wife, Ann. This was especially so when Japanese servants quit during the tense years of World War II. The War had already put a strain on Harbord’s professional life, which long involved traveling to Japan and meeting with dignitaries and businessmen. By 1938, though, a speech Harbord delivered in Tokyo felt like “skating on thin ice.” When tensions flared in his own household, then, they seemed to take on the weight of larger social and geopolitical conflicts that were playing out on the world stage.
Even as Harbord was carrying on civil, diplomatic relations with Japanese ministers and traveling there for leisure, he was privately writing friends, the Higinbothams of Saratoga, and others, with updates on his domestic troubles. In August, 1934, Harbord delved into explicit and longwinded details about his Japanese cook falling ill — a circumstance of which he was skeptical — and quitting. Going for a rhetorical effect of understated morbidity, he wrote that “the Harbord family is in the throes of hunting servants.” As if to turn the macabre into the banal, he remarks that “the trouble with most of these cooks is that they have a fine automobile for which they demand room in a garage and we are not able to furnish it.” A likely story!
John Higinbotham commiserated, suggesting his problems were minor in comparison to Harbord’s. “Our chief worry is whether our man will finish his prune picking before our lawn — God save the mark — gets too many. We have a Jap young woman who comes in once a week and removes the top layer of dust. Those two are our ‘labor problem.’” Quickly, though, Higinbotham’s letter took on a more racist tenor: “Many of our friends have Filipinos but I am afraid of them. On this coast they have developed a cockiness and a high estimate of their sex appeal that makes it a menace to have them around. And there is a class of young white women here as well as elsewhere, that are color blind.” Evidently, the affront of a servant quitting gave way to other male anxieties regarding their authority, which Higinbotham articulates as a sexual threat.
Harbord eventually rectified his domestic situation, and found other Japanese laborers to run his household, but by August 1936 he was again informing his wife in a hurried telegram that “servants leaving Friday with intention going by bus San Francisco thence Japan evidently on plans decided some time ago.” He promised her he had the situation under control, though: “I have hired Japanese childless couple cook, waitress and housemaid. Woman worked seventeen years for Vice President Bethlehem Steel and left own accord to go to sick family in Japan. Man worked three years for same family….They seem to me like a real find.” The threatening recognition that Asian people are willful agents of their own lives, which Harbord and Higinbotham attempt to bandy about as a joke, had been contained once again. Not unwittingly, Harbord describes the transfer of servants from one executive to another as though it is a transfer of property.
By the time Harbord’s servants quit again in the forties, it starts to look suspiciously like the Harbords were the common denominator in these fraught situations. This time, however, the episode was inflected with anxieties about the war and heightened nativism and racism. Writing to Bernadine Higinbotham on April 5, 1943, Harbord claims that his household is in the “midst of domestic troubles, because the two Japanese servants I have had for seven years have decided to quit on us. We have grown very dependent on them because they have become expert servants, and Ann is tearing her hair now as to how to replace them.” To another friend, Mr. Grunert, he describes the situation on April 7, 1943, in slightly more dramatic brushstrokes. These servants were creating a “domestic insurrection in our own house.” They want to leave the Harbords, but he thinks “they are liable to encounter unpleasant incidents due to their status as Japanese that they have hitherto been spared.”
Whether or not these servants were actually endangered outside the Harbord home remains untold, but the letter Harbord received in response from Bernadine testifies to the kind of racial hatred that Japanese in America were subjected to. On May 15, she wrote, “When Pearl Harbor happened I discharged a Jap cleaning woman we had had for nineteen years. I think she was loyal, perhaps, but her husband was not, and the Jap women are always dominated by their men. I never want to see a Jap again.” The expulsion of a servant from the home seemed, to Bernadine, to balance out a grander score.
Harbord followed up with Bernadine about the domestic state of affairs on June 2, 1943 to remark that they still hadn’t been able to find anyone to replace their employees. He talks of his servants as though they’re citizens of his home, choosing whether or not to defect. “We have neither cook nor chambermaid,” he declares. “The gardener, who is an old Marine who served under me in France, is still faithful, and the chauffeur, on reduced compensation to correspond to the reduced use which the gasoline rationing permits us to make of him, is still faithful.” The Harbords find themselves eating almost entirely at their country clubs to get by. “The servants we had for so long were Japanese, but the cook acquired a bad case of varicose veins and was not able to go ahead with his work, and his wife followed him to town. I understand now that she has had her hair cut — bobbed — and curled by a hairdresser, so I think the outlook for her assistance in the future is not so good.” This haircut seems to signify to Harbord a life of comfortable repose, meaning she’d be unlikely to return to her post as his chambermaid. “What you say about Japanese women,” he quips to Bernadine, “being always dominated by their men sounds to me like a pretty good thing to introduce in this country.” Harbord might be annoyed that his chambermaid deferred to her husband and quit her job. But he can look past this, momentarily, to concede the attractiveness of a culture of American women submitting – perhaps like servants — to their husbands.
The Harbord papers are pocked with racist commentary of all stripes. But Harbord’s preoccupation with his Japanese servants in particular suggests that in his white supremacist vision of the globe, a particular hierarchy needed to be in place for all to be right in the world. When that hierarchy seemed unstable, such as when his Japanese servants decided to leave his employ, it caused him intense, and rather telling, irritation.