Defense Issues: Volume 12, Number 28-- Asian-Pacific Americans: Microcosm of Greater National Mix
When you've worked for Sen. Sam Nunn, as I did before moving to the Pentagon, you quickly learn a great deal about the state of Georgia. So this sort of feels like home coming to me.
It was a wonderful opportunity to work for Sen. Nunn, who exemplifies the kind of public service I have tried to emulate in my career. Tonight I'll be talking with you about Asian-Pacific Americans in public service -- but it's worth noting at the outset that, for me at least, role models come in all colors.
... The United States, it has often been noted, is a nation composed almost entirely of descendants of immigrants. We call ourselves Americans, but at the same time, we are proud of our roots -- proud of where our parents, our grandparents and our great grandparents came from. We honor our heritage in many public and private ways -- parades and festivals from St. Patrick's Day to the Chinese New Year; family recipes from sauerkraut to kimchee; and gatherings from the Knights of Columbus to grandma's Tuesday night mah-jongg circle. And even though our association with the old country fades a bit as the generations progress, I daresay there aren't many of us here that do not keep some of the old traditions of our ethnic backgrounds. And in many respects, the many nationalities which are collectively called "Asian Americans" are a microcosm segment of our greater national mix. Of course, like African Americans, we look a little different from the Pilgrims, so our ethnicity is necessarily more present in our lives than, say, Irish or Greek Americans. But even that will become less and less important as the color of America changes in the next century -- when, collectively, what are now called minorities approach becoming a majority of the population.
How diverse are we as Americans? Well, quite frankly, I don't know of any ethnic group in the world that is not represented in our country. The fact is that there is no other country as diverse as we are.
About 3 1/2 percent of that diverse population -- almost 9 million people -- trace their roots to Asia and the Pacific Islands. And according to the "National Population Projection," the Census Bureau expects Asian-Pacific Americans to be the fastest growing segment of our population. They predict that by the turn of the century, the Asian-Pacific-American population will expand to over 12 million, double its current size by the year 2010, triple by the year 2020 and increase to more than five times its current size, to 41 million, by the year 2050.
So if we are one piece of America's polyglot puzzle, we are certainly becoming a bigger piece. And our diversity within that diversity continues to grow. It may seem like a mouthful to say Asian-Pacific-American Heritage Month, but try saying Chinese-Japanese-Korean-Filipino-Vietnamese-Thai-Cambodian-Laotian-Hmong-Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi-Afghan-Polynesian-Melanesian-American Heritage Month. Now that is a very big mouthful, and those were just examples -- I didn't even include all of us.
Is there harmony in our diversity? I think that the answer to that question for us, as Americans, is a qualified "yes." It has been over 130 years since we really had it out among ourselves, which is quite exceptional by world standards. And since then, our society has only gotten more complex and more diverse. Of course, it would be wrong to say we don't have problems that arise from our diversity, and at times these problems can get ugly. But in general, the principles of law and order and tolerance and freedom have won out in the end. We do not see the kind of extreme ethnic violence that has occurred, tragically, in the formerly communist parts of Europe or in Central Africa, for instance.
As a nation, our harmony in diversity is not an absolute, but it is something that we work toward and are getting better at achieving. I think that is because we share one thing in common. Whether our ancestors endured hardship to escape from the tyranny and poverty of a distant land or from the tyranny and poverty of slavery, they became American citizens to seek a better life for themselves and their families. This common goal ties us together in a relatively harmonious community that is unique in the world.
For Asian Americans, the story began in the mid-1800s, when Asian immigrant laborers were hired for the gold mines and railroad construction in the West and to work sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii. Despite discriminatory laws, which restricted immigration and imposed economic inequities, our forefathers and mothers overcame the fear of a "yellow peril." They tenaciously fought for the rights to which they were entitled and proved to other Americans their loyalty as citizens of this nation.
We who have inherited the fruits of their labors, who have more easily joined into American society must be mindful and appreciative of the struggle that has brought us as a group to where we are today.
As part of this event, I would like to highlight the public service of Asian Americans, and I think it is fitting to start with the highest service any citizen can offer to his or her country -- service in wartime. We should honor again the bravery of the famed 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed almost entirely of Japanese Americans, which became the most decorated unit in our country's military history.
These brave soldiers, who answered the call of their country in war, rose from the ashes of suspicion and fear -- many from behind barbed wire in the internment camps -- to fight with extraordinary valor in seven major campaigns during World War II. In less than two years, the soldiers of the 442nd received among other awards and citations a ... Medal of Honor; 52 Distinguished Service Crosses; one Distinguished Service Medal; 560 Silver Stars plus 28 oak leaf clusters; 22 Legions of Merit; 15 Soldiers Medals; 4,000 Bronze Stars with 1,200 oak leaf clusters; 9,486 Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in battle; seven presidential unit citations; two meritorious unit service plaques; 36 Army commendations; 87 division commendations; 18 decorations from allied nations; and a special plaque of appreciation from their fellow soldiers in the "lost" Texas battalion, which the 442nd shed blood to liberate.
As President Truman pinned the final presidential unit citation on the colors of the 442nd, he remarked: "I can't tell you how much I appreciate the privilege of being able to show you just how much the United States thinks of what you have done -- you fought not only the enemy but you fought prejudice -- and you won."
In subsequent conflicts in Korea and most recently in the Persian Gulf, Americans of Asian-Pacific heritage have carried on the military tradition established by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
While war is ugly and tragic, there is no question that many individuals display outstanding courage and valor in battle. The most supreme acts of heroism are recognized by award of the Congressional Medal of Honor. As part of the commemoration of Asian-Pacific-[American] Heritage Month, we in the Department of Defense pay special tribute to those of Asian-Pacific heritage who received the Medal of Honor. I'd like to read that honored list to you and ask you to join with me in paying humble recognition to their deeds:
In World War I:
- Pvt. Jose B. Nisperos, 34th Company, Philippine Scouts; and
- Fireman Second Class Telesforo Trinidad, U.S. Navy, USS San Diego.
In World War II:
- Pfc. Sadao S. Munemori, U.S. Army, Company A, 100th Infantry Battalion, 442 Regimental Combat Team; and
- Sgt. Jose Calugas, U.S. Army, Battery B, 88th Field Artillery, Philiippine Scouts.
- Cpl. Hiroshi H. Miyamura, U.S. Army, Company H, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division;
- Pfc. Herbert K. Pililaau, U.S. Army, Company C, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division; and,
- Sgt. Leroy A. Mendonca, U.S. Army, Company B, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division.
- Sgt. 1st Class Rodney J.T. Yano, U.S. Army Air Cavalry Troop, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment; and,
- Cpl. Terry T. Kawamura, U.S. Army, 173rd Engineers Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade.
These individuals, through their gallantry, have secured a special place in our history and in our Asian-Pacific-American Heritage.
Asian-Pacific Americans have not only served their country well in war, but in peacetime as well. They are represented in all fields of human endeavor. In music there [are] Yo Yo Ma and Midori. In sports there [are] Michael Chang, Michele Quan and Tiger Woods. In the sciences there is the "Time Man of [the] Year" Dr. David Ho. In architecture there [are] I.M. Pei. In commerce there is Gareth Chang and Frederick Wang. In academics there is Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien. In the military there is Lt. Gen. Rick Shinseki. And in government there are Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka; Reps. Robert Matsui, Patsy Mink and Jay Kim; delegates Eni Faleomavaega and Robert Underwood; and Govs. Gary Locke of Washington and Ben Cayetano of Hawaii.
The Asian-American contribution to public and private life is dynamic and growing. We are bound together by a common desire to improve our country. And it is a cause in which we must enlist our fellow citizens, especially the generation just now starting their careers.
This next generation will come of age as the expansion of the Asian-American population hits the national consciousness. The much-heralded Pacific century will be upon us, and American interdependence with the established and emerging economies of Asia will deepen. So this new generation of Asian Americans must be prepared to do their part to help lead this nation down the path of tolerance -- to help the country capitalize on the strengths inherent in diversity.
I want to say a few words now about the recent focus on Asian Americans and political fund raising. It has been a difficult year so far for the Asian-American community, and there is no use pretending otherwise. Many of us feel that the media's treatment of this issue has been unfair. Unfortunately, the political participation of an entire group of loyal and hardworking Americans has been made to seem suspect, simply because a few people who share our ethnic background may have done something wrong.
I'm not here to talk about political fund raising -- I bring up the issue because I want to encourage all of you, in the strongest possible terms, to stay involved. We must not withdraw from the system. Americans of all backgrounds must participate in politics and public service if our democracy is to work.
We must continue to make our voices heard -- by serving in government and public interest groups, by running for office, by staying informed and by supporting the candidates who we want to lead our nation. If we pull back from public life, it will be a victory for those who have decided that Asian Americans should somehow prove our loyalty all over again.
I am proud of the Asian-American participation in this administration. President Clinton has fulfilled his promise to appoint a government that "looks like America." He has named over 170 Asian-Pacific Islander appointees, three times more than any previous administration.
Asian Americans are 3 percent of political appointments in the administration, matching our representation in the population as a whole. And that representation is maintained at the higher levels: Asian Americans also hold 3 percent of positions requiring Senate confirmation -- representing a substantial increase over any previous administration. So Asian-American voices are heard in debates about immigration and education and Medicare and foreign policy.
I would like to close with a relatively recent example of a story that has been enacted millions of times in the last 300 years. ...
In the summer of 1969, when I left Vietnam after completing a one-year tour at Tan Son Nhut, I waved goodbye to a number of Vietnamese friends. At that time, I hoped for their eventual victory over oppression, but, as we know, that did not happen. Among those friends was a former secretary of mine who was a bright young lady who cherished the same ideals that we take for granted as Americans. Obviously, I was sad that the outcome of the war would not let her achieve these ideals.
To my relief, but not to my surprise, Kim took the same pioneering spirit of those who originally came to this land, and taking charge of her mother and sister, they risked their lives and property in a hazardous flight to freedom. I learned later that she was helped by Americans who, at the 11th hour, risked their personal safety to ensure that Kim and her family got out.
It's been 25 years since Kim and her family arrived in America. Overcoming language, cultural and financial challenges, they have set roots in their adopted country and are already contributing to its strength. Kim's sister graduated from college as an electrical engineer and is now employed by the state of Louisiana.
Kim has married and settled in Washington, where she works as a computer systems analyst for an insurance company. And 15 years ago, Kim became a U.S. citizen. Her two children are bright youngsters who are U.S. citizens by birth. They will no doubt maintain part of their Asian heritage but, at the same time, be thoroughly American.
Somewhere along the line, that's the story of every Asian-American family -- and, in different forms, almost every American family.
As a young man growing up in Hawaii, I remember working as a summer employee in a pineapple cannery. During a break, I overheard a couple of regulars talking about their hopes and aspirations for their children. In the course of their conversation, they talked about how it would be if they never left the "old country" to seek a better life.
It was clear to me that their future and those of their children would have been much bleaker. As they concluded their conversation, I heard one of them say, "We lucky we come to America." So I want to conclude my talk today by echoing the simple conclusion of that conversation 45 years ago: Whatever our prefix -- African, European, Hispanic, native or Asian -- we are all lucky to be Americans.
God bless those who have gone before us, and God bless this wonderful country.
Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/index.html.