Monthly Archives: December 2012

Daniel Inouye: Civil Rights Warrior, Senate Giant

I want to start off this blog post by extending my condolences to the victims of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut and all of their friends and family. This was a truly horrific event that makes us all yearn for a better future. The main point of my blog post is about a Senator who passed away recently and who, I would argue, deserves to be called a hero: Daniel Inouye. You may have heard that Robert Bork also passed away recently. Seeing as it is almost Christmas and seeing as Bork does not seem to be garnering the national tribute that bigots like Jerry Falwell and Robert Byrd got, I see no need to devote a lot of space on this blog to criticizing him. In May, I wrote a blog post about Bork called “Romney’s Jeremiah Wright” describing Bork’s racism, homophobia, and toxic influence on the Republican Party. There is nothing in there that I regret saying about Bork and nothing that is not still true. I will never apologize for speaking the truth. That is all I am going to say about Bork in this blog post.

As for Daniel Inouye, I want to explain why I consider him to be a hero and fit to be ranked among the greatest U.S. Senators, such as Charles Sumner, Hubert Humphrey, and others. And in order to do this, I think one should first look at the specific position he occupied in the U.S. Senate. For the last two and a half years before he went to join Sumner and Humphrey debating politics in Heaven, Inouye was the President Pro Tempore. This is a position created relatively recently which traditionally goes to the highest ranking Senator from the majority party. While most Americans have not heard of this position, the Senator occupying it is third in line to the presidency behind the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House. The other three Senators to have occupied this position have been, from most to least recent, Robert Byrd, Ted Stevens, and Strom Thurmond. Two of these men were blatant racists, one spent time in the KKK, and all three were very homophobic. Hence, it was becoming almost expected that the President Pro Tempore would be a thoroughly disgraceful individual. In the Summer of 2010, Robert Byrd died. Democrats fell over themselves offering praises to Byrd and implausibly claiming he had repented of his old racism, while firing a black federal employee a couple months later who actually had repented of her racism. What few people noticed was that Daniel Inouye had brought a sense of honor and decency to the position of President Pro Tempore.

Inouye was born in 1924 in what was then the Hawaii Territory to Japanese American parents, one of whom was a first generation immigrant, the other the child of immigrants. He was born in a time when Americans were becoming increasingly paranoid about immigration. Whereas immigrants in the mid 1800s had come mostly from Northern and Western Europe, newer waves of immigrants often came from countries that many Americans considered to be more alien. Many of these immigrants were Eastern Europe/Jewish and Asian. The same year that Inouye was born, Congress passed legislation imposing strict quotas to limit immigration. Japanese immigrants were essentially banned from coming to the United States. While Calvin Coolidge was unhappy with the clause banning Japanese immigrants, he supported the bill as a whole and signed it. When World War II broke out, the seventeen-year old Inouye was saved from internment only by the fact that Hawaii immediately became subject to military government. Mainland Japanese Americans, meanwhile, were hauled off into internment camps. In 1942, Inouye volunteered for the U.S. Army and served until 1945. That year, he fought valiantly in a battle in Italy against Germans that would change his life forever. During the battle, Inouye lost his right arm. He was one of the most inspirational figures to disabled people everywhere. Few people, disabled or not disabled, ever achieved more than he did. In 1959, he was elected to Congress, and became a Senator in 1963. He was the first Japanese American Representative, the first Japanese American Senator, and the highest-ranking Asian American ever to serve in the U.S. government. In the 1980s, he would help lead the successful fight to pass legislation giving reparations to the survivors of Japanese American internment. Yet it would be a colossal mistake to think that Inouye was only interested in the rights and well being of Japanese Americans. Few Senators could rival him when it came to showing support for all oppressed people. The National Congress of American Indians said of Inouye, “As a member and chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs he championed the rights of Native peoples, and we will always remember him for holding the line on numerous issues critical to cultural protection and tribal sovereignty.” He opposed racial segregation, voted for civil rights legislation, and spoke in his 1968 Democratic National Convention keynote speech of the need to achieve equality for African Americans. In the same decade that he fought to secure reparations for victims of internment, he also cosponsored legislation to oppose South Africa’s policy of apartheid. He favored affirmative action. He defended the existence of a Jewish state.

From 1981 to 2012, Inouye built up a phenomenal gay rights record. In 1981, he joined with a group of other courageous Senators and Representatives to cosponsor gay rights legislation. For comparison, three years later, Al Gore, who was twenty-four years younger than Inouye, said he was against homosexuality, opposed such a bill, and would not take money from gay rights groups. In 1993, Inouye was one of thirty-three Senators to vote to remove “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” from the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1994. He wanted gays and lesbians to be able to serve openly in the military. He supported the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in 2010. When it was finally repealed, he stated, “Finally, all brave men and women who want to put on the uniform of our great nation and serve in the armed services may do so without having to hide who they are. My only regret is that nearly 13,000 men and women were expelled from the military during the 17 years that this discriminatory policy was in place,”

He cosponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act. When President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage in 2012, Inouye wrote, “I am very pleased that the President affirmed his support for marriage equality.  I think everyone who wishes to enter into marriage and start a life together should be allowed to do so, regardless of sexual orientation.   How can we call ourselves the land of the free, if we do not permit people who love one another to get married? I look forward to working with the President to ensure his position on marriage equality becomes law in this country.”

He also left a positive mark on issues other than civil rights. He voted against the Iraq War in 2002. In 2006, when many Republicans and sadly some Democrats tried to glean votes for their reelection bids by trying to constitutionally ban flag burning, Inouye forcefully spoke out against such violations of free speech.

Like Bella Abzug, a Congresswoman that I consider to be a personal hero and who is also now debating politics with Humphrey and Sumner, Inouye triumphed over adversity and broke down barriers for other Japanese Americans the way Abzug broke down barriers for other women. But like Abzug, he understood that it was also important to fight for the rights of other oppressed groups of people. And he acted forcefully on this understanding. When President Abraham Lincoln was shot, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The same should be said of Daniel Inouye.


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Pearl Harbor, the Lives and Liberties Lost

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a blog post I wrote last year for the seventieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor

On this day seventy years ago, Japanese military forces bombed Pearl Habor, leaving several thousand Americans killed or wounded. The greatest tragedy of Pearl Harbor is the Americans who died and their loved ones left to carry on. In response to this attack, millions of American soldiers put their lives on the line, and hundreds of thousands gave their lives. That is the second great tragedy. As I have discussed in previous blog posts, part of this tragedy is that some of the soldiers who served in the U.S. military were gay, black, and Native American, fighting for the freedom of others when it was denied to them. The recently deceased Frank Kameny is one such example. I first want to thank all World War II veterans for their service. In some ways, the U.S. reaction to Pearl Harbor had good results. Our nation played a decisive role in stopping Nazism and liberating those who suffered under the terror of the Third Reich. Absent our intervention, the world would likely be an even more terrifying place today. Indeed, it is hard to see how, by December 7, 1941, FDR could have avoided a world war. Yet in order to see how World War II became impossible or nearly impossible to avoid, we must go back all the way to the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant general, but he was also a belligerent racist and megalomaniac in the mode of Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Adolph Hitler. Among the lands that he conquered was what is now Germany. (Germany would not become a unified country until 1871.) This action imbued Germans with a long-lasting hatred for France that persisted long after Germany was freed from French rule. In fact, it was a major reason why Germany in the early 1900s wanted to fight a continental war in Europe and why World War I ended up taking place. The other reason that World War I took place was the military and trade alliances between various nations. Because of these alliances, what should have been a war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary developed into a world war. And it was because of our desire to trade with members of the Allied Powers like Great Britain that made the United States enter World War I. Germany did not want us to trade with Britain, and rather than avoiding trade with nations that were at war (a wise policy, given that we had already fought the War of 1812 largely because we couldn’t stop trading with warring powers), Woodrow Wilson dug his heels into the sand. Thus, tensions ratcheted up, and the United States entered World War I. It was economic interest, not human rights, that led America to fight in World War I. How could it be otherwise, when Woodrow Wilson himself had blatantly disregarded the human rights of African Americans by allowing branches of the federal government to be re-segregated? In the end, the Allied Powers defeated Germany and forced a series of one-sided, humiliating restrictions on them. A German veteran of World War I, who had been savaged by mustard gas, was so furious at these recent events that he built up a political party that eventually seized control of the German government, ending the largely free to be you and me democracy that had recently came to power in the country. His name was Adolph Hitler. Hitler was a vile, evil man, even worse than Joseph Stalin. The crimes of the Third Reich cannot be understated. Yet it is also true that if Napoleon had left Germany alone in the first place, if Britain and the United States had not chosen to involve themselves in an unnecessary war, or if Germany had not been made Europe’s whipping boy after World War I, Hitler might have been merely some unhinged lunatic screaming from a street corner while people walked by shaking their heads with incredulity. The evidence suggests that Germans were, as a whole, no more susceptible to racist ideology than Americans. In fact, when black track star Jesse Owens competed in the Berlin Olympics, he described how the ovation he received there was the greatest of his life. He also said, “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” While Anti-Semitism played a role in building up public support for the Nazis in Germany, the nation’s humiliation at the hands of foreign powers was also a factor. World War II was inevitable in 1941. But unlike the Civil War, which became impossible to avoid as soon as the ink on the Constitution dried, World War II could have been avoided if appropriate steps had been taken just ten or fifteen years before Pearl Harbor. Would Japan have dared attack if they had not had Hitler to rush to their aid? Unlikely. Japan’s industrial resources were just one-tenth of what America possessed. Attacking Pearl Harbor without the aid of the other Axis Powers would have suicidal. Furthermore, FDR and Winston Churchill did not fight World War II to save the foreign people being terrorized by Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini. Winston Churchill’s, shall we say, strained relationship with Ireland has received attention, but few know his role in South African Apartheid. Whatever else may be said about British colonial policy, the fact remains that the British government served as a bulwark for a time that prevented Afrikaners from implementing full-scale Apartheid. The more control the British lost over the colony, the worse things got for black South Africans. According to a 1994 article in The Independent, “The young Churchill, then Under-Secretary for the Colonies, had covered the South African war as a journalist and had been captured by – and escaped from – the Boers. His knowledge and influence in making the agreement after peace was signed was crucial. In a debate in July 1906 he called the peace treaty ‘the first real step taken to withdraw South African affairs from the arena of British party politics’. He argued passionately that the Afrikaners should be allowed self-rule, a self-rule which he admitted would mean that black Africans would be excluded from the vote.” Do we really believe that this same man would have expended so much of his country’s blood and treasure to save Jews in Nazi Germany? FDR was no better. Under his administration, New Deal agencies were segregated by race. When Republican Governor Phillip La Follete of Wisconsin asked that CCC camps in his state be integrated, Roosevelt’s Director of the CCC, Robert Fechner, refused his request. Warm Springs, Georgia, Roosevelt’s own personal facility, was segregated by race. The United States military, while fighting the Nazis in Europe, remained racially segregated. The president also failed to publicly support a federal anti-lynching bill. How could FDR have been fighting a war against racial violence in Germany when he would not even take a firm stand against it in his own country? Lincoln’s motives for fighting the Civil War were also impure, but at least his war resulted in the ending of slavery here. He did not have the nerve to fight other countries for “freedom and democracy” while denying it to U.S. citizens. In fact, despite the tendency to view all isolationists from 1939-1941 as pro Nazi, some isolationists, such as Oswald Garrison Villard and Norman Thomas, were firmly against anti-Semitism and took much more liberal positions on racism than FDR. Furthermore, the civil liberties violations undertaken by Roosevelt in reaction to World War II were deadly. 110,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were found guilty of no law-breaking, were rounded up and placed in prison camps. Some of FDR’s civil liberties violations developed lives of their own. FDR used military tribunals, rather than civilian courts, to try enemy combatants. Sound familiar? Prior to Pearl Harbor, the president had responded to the growing Axis threat by favoring the creation of a military draft and HUAC, better known as the House Un-American Activities Committee. Of course, the draft forced young men to risk their lives against their will. As mentioned earlier, some of these draftees were forced to fight for a country that did not even give them equal rights. And HUAC harassed people for expressing controversial viewpoints. Yet both the draft and HUAC outlived the Axis Powers. Except for a couple short respites, America has constantly either required young men to serve in the military or register for the draft since the end of World War II, even though the United States has not declared war since the end of that conflict. And HUAC became the dreaded instrument used in the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. Today, we rightfully mourn the loss of life caused by Pearl Harbor and rightfully praise the downfall of the Axis Powers. We should also reflect on the belligerence from all sides that caused World War II, the minority groups whose rights were ignored while the United States waged the war, and the danger of “temporarily” sacrificing personal freedom during national emergencies.


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