History and change: On Daniel Inouye

It had been 31 years since a bunch of American businessmen had organized a coup against the monarchy that had ruled Hawaii for generations when Daniel Inouye was born. His parents came from Japan, and along with Korean and Chinese workers, the Japanese had come to work on the Sugar plantations. That same year, Congress passed a law banning further immigration from Japan to Hawaii or anywhere else in the United States.

In 1924, on the mainland, Calvin Coolidge was President and Republicans had majorities in both the House and the Senate. It was the era when a President could get away with saying little and doing even less, and Congress basically let the good times roll.

The world was an unstable place, though. During that same year, Adolph Hitler was arrested in a Beer Hall Putsch, Vladimir Lenin died and his successor Joseph Stalin tightened his grip on power, and Japanese nationalism led to fascist militarism.

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Seventeen years later, Inouye saw first hand his worlds collide. The people of his homeland launched an attack on the country where he was born, and thus started America’s entry into the Second World War. The teenager didn’t hesitate to throw his energies into helping his friends and neighbors recover from the attacks, and for his efforts, he was promptly thrown into a prison camp. But America soon came to its senses, and it permitted the young Daniel Inouye to volunteer to serve his country in wartime, and shipped him off to Italy, where he saved lives by killing Nazis, at the price of losing his arm.

After the war, Inouye decided to continue to serve his country, first at home and then in Washington. He helped bring statehood to Hawaii, and then for the next five decades, he served as a United States senator.

That’s a long time.

When Sen. Inouye got to Washington, African-Americans were systematically deprived of their voting rights in many parts of the country, most specifically in the Old South. How strange is must have been for a Japanese American to come to Washington and see how a whole group of American citizens were not allowed to live normal lives because of intensely racist attitudes.

Little did that newly minted senator know that only two years earlier, a biracial boy — his father was African and his mother was a white American — had been born in his home state who would break the ultimate color barrier by ascending to the highest office in land in his 46th year in the Senate.

Nor could he have know that just as he was saying his last Aloha, that a woman born of Indian parents would appoint, in her role as Governor, to the Senate, an African-American man, and that both were not only Republican, but both were also from SOUTH CAROLINA.

America changes, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. What doesn’t change is that America needs leaders with wisdom, courage, perspective, and humility.

Daniel Inouye had all of that and more. He saw more than his fair share of change, and did more than his fair share of making that change. He understood that the Senate was a better place to work out problems than in a battlefield, because he had been to both places. He knew what real warfare was.

With his passing, the last of the World War II lions have left the Congress. I pray that we gather continued inspiration from their service and that we try mightily to continue to learn from their wisdom.

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