On July 4, 1776, our Founding Fathers, with much personal courage, issued the Declaration of Independence. By doing so, they became enemies of what was then the most powerful nation on Earth—Great Britain.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
It is ironic that the author and many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slave owners. This irony was but the first of many contradictions that arose as well- meaning men and women worked to shape our nation. Since that time, the country I love has weathered many exciting and difficult times.
But history shows magnificently that when our nation has erred, we have endeavored to acknowledge the mistake. Although it has been painful, we have apologized and worked to make things right.
While not perfect, our nation is made up of generations of brave people who continue to strive for democracy. Sometimes we tilt to the right. Sometimes we move to the left. But, we always find a path forward. Americans are not deterred by mistakes and difficult circumstances. Democracy is not a utopian ideal but an honorable and ongoing effort to ensure that our society’s hopes and needs are pursued in a fair manner.
There was a time when I was a victim of our nation’s imperfect attempts at democracy. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, all Japanese living in the United States were declared "enemy aliens." And, as such, we were banned from putting on the uniform of the U.S. armed forces. Eventually, President Franklin Roosevelt heard our plea, and the order was rescinded.
Young men like myself rushed to enlist, each of us eager to prove our love of country by distinguishing ourselves on the battlefield. Under the heavy weight of prejudice, I joined my friends and fought and bled for my country. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team became the most decorated Army unit of its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. military.
When we trained at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, the Hawaii boys met many of our mainland Japanese counterparts whose parents were imprisoned in internment camps. I recall asking myself if I would have been able to fight for my country if my parents were locked away behind barbed wire fences. It took many painful years, but those interned eventually received the apologies of our nation and token reparation payment for the taking of their property and businesses.
Sadly, the discrimination felt by Japanese Americans during World War II was not the first time our nation mistreated a minority group. Filipinos, native Hawaiians, Native Americans, African-Americans and others have suffered horrible injustices while living on American soil. But in each case, the nation I love has found a way to apologize, and continues to work to right the wrongs.
In March 1942, the United States enacted a law allowing Filipinos, who fought side-by-side with the U.S. during World War II, to become citizens after the war. In 1946, the provision was repealed, and the promise we made to these men was broken. Once again, I am proud that the country I love admitted its error and restored its promise of citizenship. We have also appropriated monies, in a symbolic gesture, to compensate Filipino veterans of World War II for their service.
We are now in that process with native Hawaiians. In 1993, Congress enacted P.L. 103-150, otherwise known as the Apology Resolution, wherein the United States acknowledged that the overthrow was unlawful and formally apologized to the native Hawaiian people. The resolution started the process of reconciliation.
Today, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, known as the Akaka Bill, provides the critical next step: recognition. There has been much discussion and debate over the years. Now is the time to act, even if it may require compromise to, at long last, adopt a measure that begins the process of self-determination.
It is often said that the wheels of justice grind ever so slowly, particularly for those awaiting justice or equality. But, while not perfect, America is democracy’s best hope.
We recognize that oftentimes, change is not brought about by well wishes and big ideas. It is the child of sustained effort, corrected mistakes and collaboration toward a common goal.
In my wildest dreams, I would have never thought that the nisei son of a sugar plantation worker and an orphan would go from the barefoot, carefree days in Moiliili, to the battlefields of Italy, to become the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, and third in line of succession for the presidency. Only in America.
On this day, let us remember that we live in a land where anything is possible. Let us remember that our independence must still be fought for and our freedom defended. Let us remember that democracy requires vigilant oversight and cherished protection. Let us never take it for granted.
God bless you all and God bless America.
Senator / World War II veteran