Commencement Address, American University 2005
Several months ago, I reached an important milestone in my life.
I became an octogenarian.
During these eight decades, I have been privileged to see and participate in many exciting events and challenging moments.
I would like to share some of these moments with you.
When I entered high school in 1939, I noted that my parents, in filling out a school form, had provided information that was surprising and stunning.
I noted that my father had indicated that he was not a United States citizen. That was understandable because he was born in Japan, and came to Hawaii as a young child of three.
I noted, however, that my mother had also noted that she was not a citizen. I was certain she was born in Hawaii, and, therefore, a citizen of the U.S.
I took the form to her and said, "I think you made a mistake in filling out the form," pointing to the citizenship question. She looked at me with sad eyes and told me that she had not made a mistake.
"According to the law," she said, "an American who marries a Japanese loses his or her U.S. citizenship, and, therefore, I really don’t know what I am."
I later learned that in 1924, the Congress enacted the Asian Exclusion Act. Since 1924, immigration from Japan had been prohibited and further, if a U.S. citizen married a Japanese national, he or she lost his or her citizenship. And what’s more, the Act also prohibited any Japanese national from becoming a naturalized citizen.
I was horrified to learn of this law, but this horror was magnified when soon after December 7, 1941, all Japanese nationals residing in the U.S. and all Japanese Americans were declared to be "IV-C" by the Selective Service.
"IV-C" was the classification for enemy aliens. My parents were now considered to be enemy aliens, and so was I.
Two months later, an Executive Order authorized and established 10 concentration camps in desolate areas in our nation to intern these Japanese.
For economic reasons, only a few Japanese in Hawaii were sent, but on the West Coast, it was a wholesale roundup of Japanese without due process of law. There were no questions of citizenship, guilt or innocence.
Several investigations were conducted after the war, and each concluded that not one of the interned Japanese was charged with or found guilty of treason or sabotage. Nonetheless, they were interned, more than 120,000 men, women, and children, resulting in not only massive dislocation of families, but also a massive loss of property – personal and real – that would be valued in today’s dollars at several billions of dollars.
However, in 1942, as a result of petitions generated by Japanese Americans across the land requesting the privilege of serving in the United States' armed services, the President issued an Executive Order that said, "Americanism is a matter of mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry."
A Regimental Combat Team was organized, and, as a result, many of us were given the opportunity to fight in the European theater of war against Nazi Germany.
I am happy to note that we did well. According to the Pentagon, this Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated unit for its size in the history of the U.S. Army.
In 1959, notwithstanding the fact that the demographics of Hawaii showed that Japanese Americans made up one-third of the population, Hawaii became the 50th State of our nation.
In 1988, an official apology to those who were placed in the internment camps was issued, and a token amount of redress payment was provided to surviving internees.
I cite this because it was a proud moment for me to know that my country was strong enough to admit her past errors and apologize. I cannot think of any other country that has come forth to make such an admission of wrong and officially apologize.
This is the background from which I have tried to conduct myself and my work as a Member of the United States Congress. As we study our history, we are only now learning about the full extent of slavery and, for some, it is painful to learn that the author of our Declaration of Independence maintained slaves in this land of freedom. Regrettably, our relations with the Native Americans – the Indians, the First Americans – have been equally tragic. Until I became Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I knew little of the treatment that our Native Americans received at the hands of the people of the United States.
According to anthropologists, before the first European contact, there were in the 48 contiguous states, anywhere from 30 million to 50 million Native Americans. At the end of the Indian Wars, in the late 19th century, there were perhaps 300,000 Native Americans surviving and living in this land.
At one time, there were thousands of Indians residing in Maryland and Virginia. These were bustling communities. This was the birth place of Pocahontas. Today, do we see any of these proud people in their native lands in Maryland and Virginia? We do not because it was the policy of the United States to clear the area of Indians, and we methodically used Oklahoma as the first dumping ground of First Americans. For example, the Cherokee – originally native to the Carolinas – were forced to walk to Oklahoma in the winter. Not surprisingly, only 15 percent survived, and the paths they walked are now referred to as the Trails of Tears.
I also learned that in the Smithsonian Institution there is a collection of human remains – particularly the skulls – of some 14,000 Native Americans. They were primarily collected by an ambitious Army Surgeon General. It was felt in those days that cranial capacity was directly related to intellect – in other words, the larger the skull, the smarter the individual. This particular Surgeon General wanted to test the theory on the Native Americans, and so requested the assistance of the Army in collecting remains of the Native Americans. The troops were most accommodating and searched burial sites and battlegrounds, and remains from across the nation were gathered. But because most remains were transported without label or documentation, no one has any idea which tribe or nation the remains originally came from.
Therefore, there are approximately 13,000 unidentified individuals at rest in the Smithsonian Institution today. Imagine if any museum in the United States had 13,000 remains of Chinese people – or French, or Russian.
From the above examples, I could not help but conclude that history is an ever-changing scenario, and that our democracy was an ever-evolving concept. For example, the minority opinion in the Supreme Court may in later years become the majority view. Slavery and segregation are some of the numerous examples. Laws may be repealed or amended – such as the laws, for example, that approved and funded the construction of the World War II internment camps. They were later repealed, condemned, and, as noted above, an official apology was issued by the President and the Congress.
Democracy is an imperfect concept slowly seeking perfection.
However, I note that we Americans have been quite impatient with people of other lands who have not embraced our democracy. In some cases, we have officially condemned these nations in very harsh terms, and, in some, we have even used military force.
The question we Americans have debated over the decades is simple but profound: "Should we impose our will upon other lands? Or should we adopt a more peaceful path in convincing others of the goodness of our system and philosophy?" I suppose this matter will be debated for as long as we exist.
As I speak to you, a great debate is raging in the United States Senate. It involves a parliamentary action that is commonly referred to as the "filibuster."
On the first Tuesday of January 1963, I took my oath of office as a Senator from the State of Hawaii. Four weeks later I found myself involved in what was later looked upon as a historic debate on civil rights.
The main issue was the filibuster. Many insisted that the filibuster was the stumbling block that prevented passage of decent laws to protect the rights and privileges of all citizens, regardless of race, color, or religion.
On January 31, 1963, I said: "I have heard so often in the past few weeks, eloquent and good men plead for the chance to let the majority rule. That is, they say, the essence of democracy. I disagree, for to me it is equally clear that democracy does not necessarily result from majority rule, but rather from the forged compromise of the majority with the minority."
"The philosophy of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights is not simply to grant the majority the power to rule, but is also to set out limitation after limitation upon that power. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion; what are these but the recognition that at times when the majority of men would willingly destroy him, a dissenting man may have no friend but the law."
This power given to the minority is the most sophisticated and the most vital power bestowed by the Constitution.
Today, some of us have been accused of blocking the nominations of certain citizens to high judicial positions. Some have suggested, however, that these men and women are not qualified, and, accordingly, have insisted upon extended debate on these nominations.
The majority leadership of the Senate has insisted that these matters should be resolved with a simple majority vote. To accomplish this end, they would do away with the right of the minority to filibuster.
To those who would advocate this position, I say to them as I did 42 years ago:
"You sow the wind, for minorities change and the time will surely come when you will feel the hot breath of a righteous majority at the back of your own neck. Only then perhaps will you realize what you have destroyed."