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Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2005 Commencement

American University
School of Public Affairs
School of International Service
Commencement Address
Senator Daniel Inouye
May 8, 2005
[as delivered]

Graduates, especially parents, spouses, distinguished guests; I’m deeply honored by your invitation to participate in this very important event in your life.

On April 21 st 1945, two and one-half weeks before V-E day, I found myself in an Army hospital, with my dreams of youth of becoming a physician suddenly shattered and being told that my lifespan might be limited. Well, several months ago, I reached a very important milestone in my life—I became an octogenarian.

During these eight decades, I have been privileged to see and experience many exciting and challenging events, and I would like to share some of these 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 stunning and surprising. I noted that my father had indicated that he was not a citizen of the United States, but that was understandable because he was born in Japan and came over as a child of three. But, in the case of my mother, I knew she was born in Hawaii, so I knew she was a citizen. So, I approached her and said, ‘I think you made a mistake in filling out this form.’ And she looked at me with sad eyes and said, ‘no she had not made a mistake.’ According to the law, she told me, and I can still remember her telling me this…an American who marries a Japanese national loses his or her citizenship. And therefore, I really don’t know what I am.

Well, in later years I learned that in 1924 the Congress of the United States passed a law—the Asian Exclusion Act—which among other things stopped immigration from Japan and further if a U.S. citizen married a Japanese national, he or her lost citizenship. But, more than that, the act also prevented any Japanese national from becoming a naturalized citizen. I was naturally horrified to learn this, but this horror was magnified when soon after December the 7 th, 1941, all Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans residing in the United States were declared to be 4-C’s, by the selective service commission. 4-C is the designation of an enemy alien. So, my parents were now considered enemy alien and so was I. Two months later, a presidential executive order was issued establishing ten concentration camps at the United States in very desolate areas to intern these Japanese. For economic reasons only a few Japanese from Hawaii were sent, but on the west coast, it was a wholesale round-up of Japanese without due process of law. There were no questions of citizenship, guilt or innocence and as a result they were interned. Over 120,000 men, women and children resulting in not only a massive dislocation of families, but also a massive loss of property.

However, in 1942, as a result of petitions generated by Japanese Americans across the land requesting the privilege to serve our nation in uniform, the president issued an executive order that said, ‘Americanism is a matter of mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was a matter or race or ancestry.’ And thus, a regimental combat team was organized, and as a result many of us were given the opportunity to fight for our nation in Europe against Nazi Germany. I’m happy to note that we did well. According to the Pentagon, this regimental combat team was the most decorated for its size in the history of the United States Army. Over 22 medals of honor, over 19,000 other decorations.

And, in 1959 Hawaii became a state, and in 1988 an official apology to those who were placed in these camps was issued. I site 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 of which I have tried to conduct myself and my work as a member of the United States Congress.

Today, as we study the history of the United States, we are now only learning about the full extent of slavery and I know that 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 Native Americans—the first Americans—the Indians have been equally tragic.

I knew very little about the treatment about our Native Americans that they received from the hands of my fellow Americans, but I learned. According to anthropologists, before the first European contact, there were in the 48 contiguous states 30 – 50 million indigenous people. At the end of the Indian Wars, in the late 19 th century, there were perhaps 300,000 Native American surviving and living on this land. At one time there were thousands of Indians residing in Maryland and Virginia where we sit today. These were bustling communities, and as some of you know this was the birthplace of Pocahontas. But, today do we see any of these proud people in their native lands in Maryland and Virginia? We do not because it was a policy of the United States to clear the area of Indians, and we methodically used the Oklahoma territory as the first dumping ground of the first Americans. For example, the Cherokee, originally native to the Carolinas were forced to walk to Oklahoma in the winter. And, so not surprisingly, only 15 percent survived, and the paths they walked are now referred to as the Trail of Tears.

I also learned in the Smithsonian Institute there is a collection of human remains, particularly the skulls of 14,000 Native Americans. They were primarily collected by an ambitious Army Surgeon General at that time. It was felt in those days that the cranial capacity was directly related to the intellect. In other words, the larger the skull, the smarter the individual. This particular Surgeon General wanted to test this theory on Native Americans, so he requested the assistance of the Army in collecting the remains of Native Americans. The troops were most accommodating and they searched burial sites and battle grounds and remains were shipped over to Washington from all over the nation. But because most remains were transported without label or documentation no one has any idea which tribal nation the remains originally came from. Therefore, there are approximately 13,000 unidentified individuals resting in the Smithsonian Institution. Imagine if any museum had 13,000 remains of Chinese people, or French people, or German people.

From the above examples, I could help but conclude that our democracy was an ever evolving concept. For example the minority opinion of our Supreme Court today may in late years become the majority view. Slavery and segregation are some of the examples. Law may be appealed or amended.

Yes, today I note, however, that we Americans have been quite impatient with people of other lands, who have not embraced our democracy. Yes, we can be proud of our democracy, but in some cases, we have officially condemned these nations in very harsh terms, and in some we have even used military force.

The questions 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 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 a filibuster. On the first Tuesday of January 1963, I took my oath of office as a Senator from the state of Hawaii. Four week later I found myself involved in the historic debate on civil rights, and the main issue of that day was the filibuster. Many insisted that the filibuster was the stumbling block that prevented the passage laws to protect the rights and privileges of all citizens regardless of race, color or religion. On January 31, of that year 1963, I said, ‘I’ve heard so often in the past few weeks eloquent and good men plea for a 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 our Constitution and the Bill of Rights is not simply to grant the majority the power to rule, but it is also to set out limitation after limitation upon that power. For example, freedom of speech; freedom of 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 our Constitution. Today some of us have been accused of blocking the nomination 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 sew 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 you will realize what you have destroyed.

Fifty-five years ago, in cap and gown, like most of you, I waited for my diploma with much excitement, and much impatience. I cannot remember the commencement speaker, nor can I remember his remarks, but like all of you I hoped that my future would be a challenging, exciting and successful one. Well, I have had the blessings, and I have been blessed with a lovely and wonderful wife, and a wonderful son and a daughter-in-law. My bride has been my bride for 56 years. So, as the good book would say, ‘my cup certainly runneth over!’ And, I hope you cups will run over too.

Thank you very much

 

American University
Commencement Addresses

President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)

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