From Exclusion to Inclusion, 1941–1992
Around 9:00 in the morning on April 21, 1945, Daniel K. Inouye, a 20-year-old army lieutenant from Honolulu, Hawaii, was shot in the stomach on the side of a mountain in northwestern Italy. The German bullet went clean out his back and missed his spine by a fraction of an inch. “It felt like someone punched me,” he remembered years later. “But the pain was almost non-existent. A little ache, that’s all and since the bleeding was not much I said well, I’ll keep on going.”1
Later that morning, Inouye, a pre-med student who had been getting ready for church when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was hit again.This time a rifle grenade nearly blew off his entire right arm. After picking up his tommy gun with his left hand, he continued to charge up the hill, firing at German soldiers as he went. Eventually shot in the leg, Inouye waited until his men seized control of the mountain before being evacuated.2 The war in Europe ended 17 days later.
Inouye lived in military hospitals for the next two years to rebuild his strength and learn to do everyday tasks with one arm. The war forced him to adapt, and over the next two decades, the country he nearly died for began to adapt to the war’s consequences as well.
For the most marginalized people—women and minorities, especially—World War II had profound implications for what it meant to be American. The sacrifices they made overseas and on the home front challenged the country to confront its legacy of political exclusion: What role would they have in this new world order?
For Inouye, the war had something of a twisted logic. “Dec. 7 was the worst date in history for Americans of Japanese ancestry,” he told the Boston Globe in 1967. “And yet—maybe this is a horrible thing to say—Dec. 7 was one of the greatest breaks we ever had. The hatred erupted and gave us a chance to counteract it.”3
Of course, not everyone saw the Pearl Harbor attacks as an opportunity for positive change. In their aftermath, the federal government, afraid that immigrants or their family members with Japanese ancestry had helped orchestrate the attacks from U.S. soil, uprooted more than 120,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast and placed them in internment camps out of “military necessity.” For these people, the war was a period of remarkable emotional and psychological trauma. Beginning in the 19th century, Congress and the courts prevented Japanese immigrants from becoming citizens and from participating in the political process. After 1924 Congress made them ineligible for admission into the United States entirely, and the federal government considered them a direct threat to the nation. The native-born children of Japanese immigrants were U.S. citizens, yet they were imprisoned by their own government, including four who years later would serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Because their community lacked a voice at almost every level of government, mainland Japanese Americans’ political exclusion was quickly compounded by their physical exclusion with internment.
From Hawaii to Capitol Hill, the effects of the war ricocheted across the legislative process over the next 50 years. At first, wartime alliances altered the political math Congress used to determine immigration policy. In 1943 Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act but still kept Asian immigration at a minimum for another two decades. Then the sacrifices and courage of Japanese-American GIs during the war questioned stereotypes at home. Finally, the war against communism encouraged legislators to adopt new visa programs as existing policy became inconsistent with post-war foreign policy needs. In the 1960s, federal lawmakers overturned a century of exclusion and opened citizenship to thousands of Asian immigrants from a host of different countries.
The process did not have a clean narrative arc stretching neatly from exclusion to citizenship. Congress did not swear in its first voting Asian Pacific American (APA) Member, Dalip Singh (Judge) Saund of California, until January 1957, more than a decade after the war. But through fits and starts, exclusion gave way to citizenship, which provided a path to political agency. The decades of discrimination against Asian Americans that culminated in the forced imprisonment of the Japanese-American community during the war left deep and lasting scars. But by the end of the 20th century, APAs in Congress wielded significant political power and forced the country to confront the haunting legacy of internment and prejudice.
This section profiles the 14 APA Members first elected to Congress between 1956 and 1992.4 Five served as U.S. Representatives, two as Senators, and three held seats in both chambers. Unlike the first section of this book in which every APA Member profiled was a statutory representative, only four of the Members in this section served as Delegates. The first part of this essay provides the general historical context of the war and the experiences of Asian-American communities during this era. The middle section describes the new paths to citizenship and the process of turning that status into political power. Lastly, the discussion turns to the kinds of issues APA Members dealt with during their time in Congress.
This essay groups together the stories of Guam and American Samoa for two reasons. First, both territories became part of America’s insular orbit following the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century and both figured prominently in the Pacific theater during World War II. Second, because they were under U.S. jurisdiction at the time, the experiences of the islands’ peoples differed significantly from those of immigrants coming from Japan, China, and other independent nations.
1Quotation from Senator Daniel K. Inouye, oral history interview by Major Debora R. Cox, 26 April 2000, U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History: 5. See also Daniel K. Inouye with Lawrence Elliott, Journey to Washington (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969): 149–154; Willard Edwards, “Nisei Hero Inouye Brings Battlefield Courage to Senate,” 17 February 1963, Chicago Tribune: 11; Caryl Rivers, “A Career of Many Lifetimes,” 15 January 1967, Boston Sunday Globe: A32; Bill Yenne, Rising Sons: The Japanese American GIs Who Fought for the United States in World War II (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007): 215–217.
2Inouye with Elliott, Journey to Washington: 149–154; Yenne, Rising Sons: 215–217.
3Rivers, “A Career of Many Lifetimes.”
4This figure does not include the final Philippine Resident Commissioner, Carlos Peñaomulo, who was appointed to that position by the Philippine government-in-exile in August 1944. Because his career was so brief and fits better within the context of Philippine-U.S. relations, which is broadly covered in Part 1, “Exclusion and Empire, 1898–1946,” his profile appears in that section of the book.