From Exclusion to Inclusion, 1941–1992
Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the congressional declaration of war the following day reverberated for decades.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a tragic day for all Americans, but for Japanese Americans, years of exclusionary policies reached a climax in February 1942 when the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration broadly interpreted its wartime powers and mandated the internment—or what many historians call a mass incarceration—of Japanese-American men, women, and children. Long unwelcome in their adopted country, Japanese Americans were now considered by the federal government to be potential supporters of the Japanese military and a threat to the nation itself. Roughly 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, largely from along the West Coast, were rounded up and sent to remote detention camps in the country’s interior where they remained for much of the war.
Internment inflicted searing personal injustices—forced relocation, the loss of livelihoods, homes, and possessions, a complete lack of due process—not to mention deep psychological scars. It was not until decades after the war that Congress formally acknowledged that the treatment of Japanese Americans had been reprehensible and worthy of redress. Coming to grips with what happened during the war forced the nation to confront long-simmering tensions that had kept many APAs from fully participating in American society.
“Dec. 7 was the worst date in history for Americans of Japanese ancestry,” Daniel Inouye once observed. “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.”19
Inouye served his country as a member of the now-legendary all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated unit in the war that the U.S. House and Senate later recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal. Inouye was separately awarded a Medal of Honor for his heroism. Though his dream of becoming a surgeon was dashed when he lost an arm in combat, he entered Hawaiian politics, became that state’s first U.S. Representative, and served nearly a half-century in the U.S. Senate. He now stands as one of Congress’s legislative titans.
Inouye was one of 14 APAs first elected to Congress in this time period, which spanned roughly from the United States’ entry into World War II until the end of the Cold War. Seven of the 14 Members covered in this essay were Japanese Americans, a testament to the fact that this ethnic group remained the largest single subset of APAs until the 1970s. Inouye, along with other Japanese-American Members of Congress, including Californians Norman Mineta and Robert T. Matsui, both former internees, spearheaded one of the APA community’s major legislative accomplishments of the era: redress for the internment of Japanese Americans.
With Philippine independence in 1946 and Hawaii entering the Union in 1959, the APA storyline shifted away from statutory representation to one in which most of these individuals served as full-fledged voting Members. This was a slow process, however. After the last Philippine Resident Commissioner, Carlos Romulo, departed Congress in 1946, a decade elapsed before a Punjabi Indian immigrant named Dalip Saund from Southern California became the next APA to serve in Congress and the first to represent a mainland state.
Most of these 14 APAs represented Hawaii and California. These included Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color to serve in Congress beginning in 1965, and Mineta, who served as president of the “Watergate Baby” freshman class a decade later and remains the only APA to chair a standing committee in the House. Others won assignments to influential committees for the first time; among them was Robert T. Matsui, who was the first APA to serve on three key panels: Judiciary, Interstate and Foreign Commerce, and Ways and Means.
America’s combat with Japan in the Pacific Theater during World War II not only changed life for mainland Asian Americans, it reshaped America’s relations with its current and former territories in the Pacific. An independent Philippines became a close ally during the Cold War, and Guam and American Samoa, because of their strategic importance, were further enveloped by the American embrace. Later in this period, they also received representation in Congress as their first Delegates, Antonio Borja Won Pat and Fofó I. F. Sunia, respectively, were sworn into the House.
The wartime loyalty and bravery of the Japanese-American community, the World War II alliance with China, and later the imperatives of Cold War policies in Asia collectively softened deeply ingrained negative perceptions about Asian Pacific Americans and gradually eroded long-standing immigration barriers. At first, these movements were symbolic, such as the wartime repeal of prior Chinese exclusion legislation, the extension of naturalization privileges, and the creation of a modest immigration quota from that country (a little more than 100 people annually).
When the global Cold War struggle between the United States and communist powers began in the late 1940s, Congress passed a series of bills allowing Asian refugees to enter the country. As Japan became a vital Cold War ally and Americans’ perceptions about that country improved, the McCarran–Walter Act of 1952 extended naturalization privileges to Japanese immigrants (issei). Later, American military interventions in Asian civil wars, most notably in Korea and Vietnam, opened the door for thousands of refugees from those nations to enter the United States.
The signal piece of immigration legislation in this era was the Hart–Celler Act of 1965, which replaced the existing national quotas that were racially based. Crafted during a burst of Great Society legislation, Hart–Celler not only overturned the last vestige of racial discrimination in immigration policy, it had the unexpected consequence of sharply increasing the flow of immigrants from Asia by putting into place two key components: family reunification and skilled workers’ preferences.
19Caryl Rivers, “A Career of Many Lifetimes,” 15 January 1967, Boston Globe: A32.