A lifetime proponent of peace, Spark M. Matsunaga, the son of an impoverished plantation worker, became a war hero and Member of Congress. Matsunaga believed firmly in gradual reform and the power of one man to change minds, a philosophy he often applied to the legislative process. As a knowledgeable member of the powerful House of Representatives Rules Committee and later as a United States Senator, Matsunaga influenced a broad swath of legislation during his 28 years in Congress. He alternately identified as a lawyer, soldier, peacemaker, poet, technology enthusiast, and a campaigner for equal rights. Fellow Senator Bob Dole of Kansas referred to “Sparky,” as he liked to be known, as a “renaissance man.”1
Spark Matsunaga was born Masayuki Matsunaga on October 8, 1916, in Kukuiula on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. His parents, Kingoro Matsunaga and Chiyono Fukushima, emigrated from Japan and worked on a Kauai sugar plantation. Masayuki grew up in a large family; his mother, Chiyono, was a widow with four children from her previous marriage. Kingoro Matsunaga sustained an injury on the job in the mid-1930s and, after his recovery, dedicated himself to a spiritual life as a Shinto priest. The Matsunaga brothers constructed a Shinto temple in their backyard at their father’s instruction. The nickname “Sparky” or “Spark” originated in Matsunaga’s youth; childhood friends used it to razz him for his frequent last-place finishes in races. The name stayed with him.2
Matsunaga’s interest in political office ignited early. While attending Kauai High School, he complained to his haole social studies teacher about discrimination against Asians. The teacher replied, “Run for office and fix it.” “Ohhh, he put that bug in my head!” Matsunaga recalled. “He planted a seed in my brain. In everything I did I was building steps toward the U.S. Senate.”3 After graduating high school in 1933, Matsunaga briefly worked as a bookkeeper and then as a sales clerk to save money for college.4 He participated in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) while attending the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in education in 1941, his ROTC experience led him into the military.
Matsunaga’s military career proved to be a defining life experience. He joined the Hawaii National Guard before entering the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. Matsunaga commanded a company on the island of Molokai when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Martial law was immediately declared, and Matsunaga took command of the island itself for several months. But after the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the Army removed Matsunaga from command and shipped him and other soldiers of Japanese descent to Camp McCoy in Monroe County, Wisconsin. “Oh, my heavens, that was a sad day,” Matsunaga later said.5
At the camp, while the soldiers continued training, Matsunaga helped organize a petition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow the troops to prove their loyalty in battle. In early 1943, the government relented and allowed the formation of the 100th Infantry Battalion and later the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which entered combat in Italy. Matsunaga was wounded twice traversing a minefield, causing severe damage to his right leg. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Italy before being released from active duty in 1945 at the close of the war.
After the war, Matsunaga officially changed his first name to Spark, but kept the name Masayuki.6 He took a job as a veteran’s counselor with the Department of the Interior for two years before joining the War Assets Administration as chief of the Priority Claims Division. He also lobbied Congress on behalf of disabled veterans like himself. In 1948 he married Helene Hatsumi Tokunaga, with whom he had five children, Karen, Merle, Diane, Keene, and Matthew. Using the GI Bill, Matsunaga pursued a law degree at Harvard University in 1949. He graduated two years later and worked as an assistant prosecutor for the city and county of Honolulu before going into private practice in 1954.
Matsunaga made his entry onto the broader national stage while still in law school when, in 1950, he testified before the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs in favor of Hawaiian statehood. He cited the patriotism of Japanese-American World War II soldiers and said they deserved “full recognition for the supreme sacrifice which they made for us and our country.”7 He returned to testify in 1954, once more sharing the perspective of a veteran. Later that year, he was elected to the territorial legislature of Hawaii in the Democratic revolution that swept Republicans out of control. He supported the successful abolition of the death penalty in Hawaii in 1957 and went on to serve as the territorial house majority leader in 1958.8
In 1959 Hawaii finally attained statehood after Delegate John Burns arranged a compromise admitting Alaska to the Union first. Matsunaga put his name forward for the position of lieutenant governor. However, Burns, the gubernatorial candidate and de facto head of the Democratic Party on the islands, had already handpicked fellow insider Mitsuyuki (Mits) Kido as his running mate. Matsunaga balked; he asked why he had “risked his life in Europe with the 100th to come home and be told not to run for office.”9 He ran anyway and weathered the primary loss. Burns, meanwhile, remained in DC for much of the campaign and lost the governor’s race in a Republican landslide. Matsunaga returned to his law practice, but kept an eye on opportunities for national office.
That opportunity arrived in 1962, when Hawaiian Senator Oren Long declined to run for re-election.
Representative Daniel Inouye ran for the vacant Senate seat, and redistricting doubled the number of Hawaiian congressional districts from one to two. Both seats were allotted At-Large in 1962 and were vacant, meaning Matsunaga could come in second overall but still serve in the House. Once again Democratic operatives pleaded with Matsunaga to reconsider, stating he was “upsetting the racial
balance that had been so carefully worked out” for the ticket. Furious at the charge, Matsunaga took the issue head-on in the primaries and ended up polling the most votes of any Democrat.10 In the general election, he ran alongside Democrat Thomas P. Gill against Republicans Albert Evensen and Richard Sutton. Matsunaga received 123,599 votes, only 50 fewer than Gill; neither Republican candidate managed to attain more than 20 percent of the votes.
Upon entering the House in 1963, Matsunaga was appointed to the Agriculture Committee. He also sat on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee in the 89th Congress (1965–1967) before gaining a spot on the powerful Rules Committee in 1967. Matsunaga’s seat on the Rules Committee was due to his personal friendship with Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts. When asked whether he had cleared the appointment with incoming Rules Chairman William Colmer of Mississippi, McCormack scoffed, “Absolutely not. The Rules Committee is an arm of the leadership and the Speaker must have complete freedom to select those members on whose personal loyalty he can reasonably depend.”11
Despite having no position of defined power on the committee, Matsunaga’s command of the House Rules ensured him significant influence over the process of lawmaking. He diluted the power of the chairman by shepherding a rule allowing the majority to call a meeting without the chairman’s consent. He frequently cosponsored legislation before it reached the Rules Committee, generating support from moderates on the committee who respected his views. He helped steer several major bills into laws this way, but he did not introduce much legislation himself. His expertise drew acclaim from House leadership. Majority Leader Hale Boggs noted in 1971 that “it’s getting to the point where you have to see Sparky Matsunaga to get a bill passed around here.”12 In 1976 he published a book with cowriter Ping Chen titled Rulemakers of the House, detailing the evolution of the Rules Committee. At one point during a re-election campaign, Matsunaga defended the importance of his place on the Rules Committee: “The Civil Rights Act of 1968 came out of this committee by an 8-7 vote. So did the Higher Education Act, the Vocational Education Act, the Federal Pay Raise Act, the Gun Control Act and others. You can see the importance of my one vote: Hawai‘i’s vote.”13
Matsunaga devoted much of his time and effort to Hawaiian interests, primarily the continuation of sugar subsidies for the island’s most important crop. Typically, a seat on the Rules Committee is an exclusive placement; however, Matsunaga negotiated to retain his spot on the Agriculture Committee as well because he “[knew] a lot about sugar.” Matsunaga valued the committee membership highly, noting that “sugar is the life-blood of Hawaii.”14 Through his dual positions on Agriculture and Rules, Matsunaga was able to assert his influence in hearings for the Sugar Act Amendments of 1971, speeding its passage. Using his position on the Rules Committee, Matsunaga voted down rules that had the potential to limit sugar benefits on the island, and the bill passed the House under a closed rule on June 10. The Sugar Act Amendments of 1971 maintained favorable prices and quotas for Hawaiian sugar above the world market price, stimulating a key Hawaiian industry.15
Throughout his congressional career, Matsunaga tirelessly advocated for peace. In an assigned paper during his first year at the University of Hawaii, Matsunaga wrote, “If we want peace, we must first educate people to want peace. We must replace attitudes favorable to war with attitudes opposed to war.”16 He strongly supported foreign aid as a method of peaceful support to cooperating nations, including India, which he described as “the bulwark of democracy in the East.” Matsunaga argued that foreign aid, an unpopular bill in the House, was “a sound investment in our future security.”17
However, his stance on Vietnam waffled over the years. Shortly after joining the House of Representatives, Matsunaga was recommissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the U.S. Army Reserve partially to show support for American troops.18 For much of the conflict, he viewed the defense of the South Vietnamese government as a moral imperative and supported defense appropriations and the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s decision to escalate U.S. involvement in the conflict. As the war dragged on under the Richard Nixon administration, however, Matsunaga added his voice to those calling for the war’s end. In early 1971, he offered one of the earliest resolutions for complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.19 On February 1, 1971, he spoke in favor of his resolution (H. Con. Res. 101), saying, “The war must end. Congress must move to reassert its constitutional responsibilities to ‘raise and support armies’ and to ‘declare war.’”20
Matsunaga had clashed with Nixon’s 1968 running mate over civil rights and treatment of Asian Americans. During the presidential election campaign, Republican vice presidential nominee Spiro Agnew casually referred to a Baltimore Sun reporter on his campaign jet as a “fat Jap.” Matsunaga decried it as a hateful episode, and though Agnew initially shrugged off the concerns as “desperate,” he publicly apologized days later.21
Matsunaga often spoke in favor of and voted for civil rights legislation, though he resisted its more militant aspects. He waded into the 1964 Civil Rights Bill debate on the House Floor to clearly state, “American society can be true to itself … only as rights are accorded to every person because he is a person.”22 But both before and after passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 Matsunaga warned against provoking civil disorder to further the cause of the movement, saying that African Americans should “exercise the patience of Job, and seek to remedy wrongs only through the peaceful means provided by the new law.”23 During the debate on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Matsunaga more passionately assaulted the hypocrisy that civil rights legislation aimed to correct, noting, “It was not pure chance that under Thomas Jefferson’s able draftsmanship the Declaration of Independence should state that ‘all men are created equal.’ These were not hollow words.”24
While he occasionally restrained his fervor for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he never wavered in his effort to restore dignity to Japanese Americans wronged during World War II internment. In 1971 he introduced H.R. 234 to repeal Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950, an act with similar provisions to the executive order that had enabled the United States to detain 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II without due process. The Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act after its sponsor, Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada, had been enacted over President Harry Truman’s veto. Matsunaga first introduced his repeal bill in 1969 with Representative Chet Holifield of California as a cosponsor. At the time, Matsunaga insisted the provision “violates the constitutional guarantees and judicial traditions that are basic to our American way of life.” Despite considerable support, opponents managed to refer the bill to the Committee on Internal Security, the successor of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where it languished.
When the pair reintroduced the bill in the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), Matsunaga used his position on the Rules Committee to have his bill considered before a competing, less effective proposal from Representative Richard Ichord, a conservative Democrat from Missouri who chaired the Internal Security Committee. Ichord’s bill would have continued the threat of denying due process to those accused of subversive activities. Matsunaga’s compromise forced Ichord’s bill to a vote as an amendment to his own. In debate, opponents argued that the provision had never been used and Representative Allen Smith of California declared the bill “much ado about nothing.” Representative Joe Evins of Tennessee, floor manager for Matsunaga’s bill, came out swinging by denouncing Title II as allowing concentration camps on American soil. Ichord’s amendment failed, 272 to 124; H.R. 234 then overwhelmingly passed the House, 356 to 49. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent two days later, and President Nixon signed it into law on September 25, 1971.25
After his first election, Matsunaga campaigned on his experience and the value of maintaining a strong veteran’s voice in Congress for Hawaii. His brochures declared “In the forefront for Hawaii and the Nation,” “Keep Hawaii Strong in Congress,” and “Spark’s rise to national prominence has been phenomenal.” The strategy worked, winning Matsunaga overwhelming victories in each election after 1962.26 In 1964, Representative Thomas Gill unsuccessfully challenged Republican Senator Hiram
L. Fong, and state senator Patsy Mink won his spot as Hawaii’s junior Representative. Matsunaga and Mink continued to represent Hawaii At-Large until 1970, when the two seats were assigned defined districts. Matsunaga took the district representing urban Honolulu as well as the northwestern Hawaiian islands.
In 1976 Senator Fong announced his retirement. Both Matsunaga and Mink jumped to announce their candidacies to fill the vacant seat. Both candidates attracted fervent support across Hawaii, and experts predicted a close race in the October primary. Ultimately, Matsunaga won with 55 percent of the vote.27 The brief general election campaign pitted Matsunaga against former Republican Governor William Quinn. Quinn had been out of politics for some time and had lost recognition among an electorate that tilted more Democratic than it had two decades prior. Matsunaga won 54 percent of the vote, amassing a comfortable 40,000-vote margin. Once established in the Senate, he returned to his well-practiced method of touting his experience and clout on Capitol Hill. His victories were much larger in his re-election campaigns in 1982 and 1988, when he won 80 and 77 percent of the vote, respectively.28
Reflecting on his arrival in the Senate in 1977, Matsunaga later joked, “I felt very uneasy, very out of place. Everybody else was running for president.”29 Still, he made his mark early. As a freshman, he cast the deciding vote in the Democratic caucus to elect Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia as Majority Leader. As a reward, Matsunaga was quickly moved from his early provisional appointments on the Commerce and Foreign Relations Committees and granted a seat on the powerful Finance Committee.30 He was also appointed to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, although he left Energy and Natural Resources for the Committee on Labor and Human Resources in the 98th Congress (1983–1985).31
The Senate marked a change for Matsunaga in more ways than one. Fong had retired in part because he grew tired of the long hours. Matsunaga embraced the workload as he adapted to the culture of the Senate. Despite his ceaseless commitment to the job, he developed a reputation for his good nature among his colleagues and his constituents. He became famous for showing visiting constituents around the Capitol and treating them to lunch in the Senate Dining Room. After his death, the Senate named the center table after him to mark the spot where he so often entertained Hawaiian visitors.32
Matsunaga first experienced being in the minority party during his years in the Senate when Republicans regained control of that body in 1981, riding the coattails of President Ronald Reagan’s election. During this period, Matsunaga grew more partisan but maintained his amiability. Weeks after reluctantly voting to confirm Alexander Haig as President Reagan’s Secretary of State, Matsunaga attended a White House reception for the visiting Japanese prime minister. Despite his best efforts, the Senator found himself lumped in with the Japanese delegation as they were shuffled along the presidential receiving line. Secretary Haig shook Matsunaga’s hand and asked if he spoke English. “Yes, Mr. Secretary, I do,” Matsunaga replied in a deadpan, “and I had the honor of voting for your confirmation the other day.”33
Matsunaga spent much of his first term mastering the rhythms of the Senate and forging a cooperative
relationship with the senior Senator from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye. They worked closely on legislation important to Hawaii, but each maintained their own legislative focus. Matsunaga added interests in space exploration, alternative energy, and cultural development to his agenda. At the same time, he continued to campaign on behalf of civil rights for Japanese Americans and broader peace initiatives.
Early in his second term, Matsunaga finally achieved a long-sought goal: the establishment of the United States Institute of Peace. He submitted a bill (S. 564) in 1983 to found an Academy of Peace for undergraduates to study the art of diplomacy and peaceful negotiation. More than 140 bills had been introduced during the previous half-century calling for some sort of agency dedicated to peace.34 Matsunaga had submitted several similar proposals since entering Congress in 1962. S. 564 garnered 51 cosponsors and seemed bound for passage, but was repeatedly held up in various committees, where it was redesigned to be a grant-making institution.
After suffering a heart attack on January 4, 1984, Matsunaga redoubled his efforts to create his Academy of Peace. He asked Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, to submit the United States Institute of Peace Act as Title XVII of the defense appropriations bill. Hatfield steadfastly backed the amendment, which carried it through committee.35 Codified in Public Law 98-525, the institute established a nonprofit corporation with federal funding, an appointed board of directors, and the mission to distribute grants, hold conferences, and award the newly minted Medal
of Peace.36 The Institute of Peace was not the academy Matsunaga had originally envisioned, but it carried a mandate to foster peace research in other academic and diplomatic institutions across the nation.
Matsunaga was also taken with emerging technologies, focusing on space exploration and alternative energy sources. While the latter appealed mainly to his love of science, the former tied directly to his tireless efforts for peace. In 1986 he published his second book titled The Mars Project: Journeys Beyond the Cold War, advocating cooperation with the Soviet Union to explore the red planet. He was moved to write the book as the Reagan administration pushed the ballistic missile defense system, better known as “Star Wars.” Matsunaga addressed the salience of focusing on space exploration at that moment, saying, “They may think I’m out of this world, but one of the objectives I had in mind was to offer something positive in lieu of ‘Star Wars’ because ‘Star Wars’ can only lead to our mutual destruction.”37
Matsunaga was one of the earliest proponents of an international space station, introducing a resolution (S. Res. 488) in favor of its development in 1982. “Space—the last and most expansive frontier—will be what we make it,” he wrote in a 1982 editorial.38 In 1984 Matsunaga sponsored another resolution (S.J. Res. 236) in favor of U.S.-Soviet space cooperation; this one passed the House and Senate and gained Reagan’s signature. Studies were launched to address the feasibility of manned spaceflight to Mars. Matsunaga also suggested turning the manned spaceflight program over to the U.S. Air Force, citing the Challenger disaster as evidence that NASA had become “overburdened.”39 The International Space Station eventually became a reality in 1998, when the first components were launched for the joint operation.
Another of Matsunaga’s longtime goals came to fruition in 1985, when he helped create the U.S. poet laureate position at the Library of Congress. Matsunaga was an amateur poet himself. During Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s visit in 1986, Nakasone praised the cherry blossoms at a congressional lunch. Inspired, Matsunaga spontaneously stood and formed a haiku: “Cherry blossoms bloom. Washington is beautified. East and West do meet.”40
In late 1985, he cosponsored the Arts, Humanities, and Museums Amendments of 1985 along with Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine. This bill (S. 1264) introduced a compromise that combined the position of poet laureate with that of the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. In floor debate on October 3, 1985, Matsunaga claimed that the United States was behind the times, noting the existence of the position in other developed nations across Europe. He also spoke of poetry’s cross-sectional appeal: “It is my hope that the work of the future poet laureate … will also reflect our Nation’s great diversity—its multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial heritage, its strength and compassion, and its democratic idealism.”41 The bill passed both chambers by voice vote within a week of each other and became law on December 20, 1985. Robert Penn Warren was chosen as the nation’s first poet laureate in early 1986.
The legislation Matsunaga viewed as his crowning achievement came very late in his career. In 1988 working with Representative Robert Matsui of California, among others, Matsunaga obtained redress for Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II. Like many of his major accomplishments, this legislation took years to achieve. Matsunaga began lobbying for reparations in earnest shortly after joining the Senate in 1979.42 He cosponsored Senator Inouye’s bill (S. 1647) in August 1979, establishing the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which proceeded to conduct a prolonged study of the effects of internment during World War II. “The proposed study would finally make all the facts known and would allow Congress to decide whether any further action should be taken to compensate victims of the wartime relocation policy,” Matsunaga explained just before the bill passed by voice vote.
The commission appointed by Congress published a report in 1983 titled Personal Justice Denied, which described internment as a product of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” and recommended redress payments to the victims and families.43 Shortly after the commission started, however, the Senate changed hands and Republicans blocked any legislation based on the commission’s report.
By 1987 Democrats had retaken the Senate and once more held both houses of Congress. Throughout the 100th Congress (1987–1989), Matsunaga became a man on a mission, working alongside the American Civil Liberties Union to approach each Member one by one and assert the need for reparations. In January 1987, Majority Leader Tom Foley of Washington introduced H.R. 442 calling for redress. Matsunaga and Inouye both testified before the House committees considering the legislation. Just before the Easter holiday on April 10, Matsunaga rose in the Senate chamber to report the long-awaited findings of the commission, declaring, “Perhaps the most traumatic experience, the one thing that has haunted Americans of Japanese ancestry for 45 years, was the stigma of being cast as disloyal to their own beloved country, the United States of America.”44 On September 17, 1987, the House passed H.R. 442 in a 236 to 137 bipartisan vote.
Despite the success in the House, progress stalled on Matsunaga’s Senate version of the bill (S. 1009). The proponents of the legislation began a concerted effort to talk down threats of filibuster from conservative opponents, specifically Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who objected to paying $20,000 to “Japanese.” Matsunaga assured him that only Americans who happened to be of Japanese descent were involved, and Helms temporarily relented.45 After obtaining support from the Reagan administration in early 1988, formal debate finally began on April 19. Senator John Glenn of Ohio introduced the bill and commended Matsunaga on his single-minded pursuit of its passage, saying, “He has been a real bird dog on this one.”46 Matsunaga thanked Glenn and said, “This bill provides a long overdue remedy for one of the worst violations of individuals’ civil liberties in our nation’s history. Passage of this bill removes a big blot on the Constitution … [by] bringing about personal justice which had been denied by our own government to our own citizens.”47
Senator Helms tried one final time to upend the bill, introducing an amendment seeking compensation from the Japanese government for the families of those killed at Pearl Harbor before awarding reparations to Japanese Americans. That amendment failed spectacularly, 91 to 4, after Matsunaga pointed out its false logic. Afterward, Matsunaga brought up H.R. 442, which had already passed the House, and asked that the text following the enacting clause be replaced with the substance of his bill. The symbolism of that bill number was lost on no one, as it invoked the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II. The bill, which spread $1.3 billion in reparations over five years, passed, 69 to 27, on April 20, 1988.
Reparations began in late 1990, but Spark Matsunaga did not have long to celebrate that achievement.48 The Senator fell ill in early 1990 with prostate cancer. His condition deteriorated quickly. He cast his final vote on April 3 from a wheelchair, unable to speak.49 Hawaiian newspapers called for his resignation, intimating that he might be unable to properly represent the interests of the state.50 Matsunaga waved off the concerns as “trying to make a decision a little too soon.”51
While seeking treatment in Toronto, Matsunaga died on April 15, 1990. He lay in state in the Hawaiian capitol rotunda before his ashes were interred in Punchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu. The United States Institute of Peace he had fought so long to create was renamed the Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution shortly after his death on Inouye’s suggestion. Speaking at his funeral, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine said of him, “Most of all, Spark Matsunaga loved his country enough to make it right when it was wrong.”52
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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