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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month
Washington, DC
May 21, 2009

Good evening, everyone.  I am most honored to be here.  Veterans Affairs has had a long and close working relationship with the office of the U.S. attorney here in D.C.  Together, our lawyers have sustained VA’s interests in a number of crucial cases. At VA, our mission is simply to care for veterans, and your great legal work has been tremendously helpful to us in meeting that mission -- so, thank you.

This is a wonderful setting for this evening’s observance of Asian-Pacific islander American heritage. Here, in this courtroom, immigrants in large numbers mark the important first step in their pursuit of the American dream -- citizenship. The venue could not be better.

My name’s Shinseki, and I’m a Soldier. I’m also a Sansei -- a third generation American of Japanese ancestry.  I was born in Hawai’i about a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor -- that means I was born in the first half of the last century.  

Growing up in the Pacific theater of operations during World War II and its aftermath ingrained an appreciation for both the expanse and the complexity of the Asia-Pacific region. Few of us here, today, are old enough to really remember World War II, but it threatened the survival of nations and left its imprint on the region for the remainder of the 20th century.

The sheer size of Asia-Pacific makes it impossible to properly pay tribute to every one of its fascinating cultures in a single celebration. With few exceptions, we are mostly people of color. Many of us know the Pacific Ocean intimately, having grown up in island communities there. Yet, so many among us also find our heritage rooted in the cultures of two of the world’s most populous nations -- China and India, where many never see the ocean in their lifetime.

Culturally, we are a collection of talented and creative peoples, whose music, art, dress, cuisine, language, and customs are so varied that they span social structures from stone age tribes to space age societies.  We are voyagers, both for purposes of commerce and curiosity. We were not hesitant about venturing beyond the boundaries of our communities to see what the world beyond the horizon looked like and what it offered in the way of opportunity for us and, more importantly, for our children. In part, this explains why so many of us have made our way to the United States, where opportunity abounds.   

Those, who made the original journeys, left behind what little security they had -- family, friends, work, property -- a house or a hut on a small patch of land. They were courageous beyond imagination, allowing themselves to be drawn into the swirl of human migration simply by the promise of opportunity.   

Some islanders perfected the art of navigating without instruments, using instead the currents, the stars, and the winds across broad reaches of the Pacific Ocean, and did so with such accuracy that, even today, mariners and helmsmen trying to retrace their voyages have barely figured out their methods. We come from tribes, kingdoms, empires, democracies -- and yes, scattered throughout the Asia-Pacific region are a number of oppressive regimes, which also adds explanation to why some of us ended up here in the United States, where freedom and liberty beckoned.    

With us came other aspects of our cultures -- our love of song and dance, our dress, our foods, our art, our languages, and our love of family. We worked hard to fulfill the promise of providing new and better opportunities for our children. And to our disappointment, all too soon, some of our children find those customs and traditions less important, and we, older ones, worry that if all culture is lost, we will lose our identity -- our sense of who we are and where we came from. So, celebrating heritage days like this one are opportunities for rekindling important ties to our past. 

In 1997, when I commanded SFOR, the peace stabilization force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of my earliest duties was to present myself to the national Tri-Presidency in Sarajevo. You may remember the terrible war that occurred in the Balkans, 1992-1995.    The stabilization force had the mission of providing a safe and secure environment in order to give democracy a chance to take root. When I called on the Tri-Presidents -- one Serb, one Muslim, one Croat -- shortly after taking command in Sarajevo I explained my mission and what I intended to accomplish during my tenure in command. They listened patiently  -- almost too politely -- and when I was done, one of them told me that they were happy that SFOR, the stabilization force, had come to Bosnia. Because of us, they felt secure again and could go about their daily activities safely. They were glad to have us there; their lives were better. But he concluded, “SFOR will leave someday, and when you do, we will go back to the way things were before you came. We cannot help ourselves; it is our history -- our 600 year history.”    

I looked at them -- President Kraijsnik, President Izetbegovic, and President Zubak  -- three European, Caucasian males. You couldn’t tell them apart; they looked like one another; they spoke the same language. Without knowing their names, it would be difficult to know which one was Muslim, which one was Serb, or Croat. I told them that I was probably the one person in all of Bosnia who wouldn’t accept their explanation for why things couldn’t change. “You see,” I told them, “I come from a country where no one looks alike. Most, not all, but most of us are immigrants. We are not threatened by our differences. In fact, we honor them by celebrating each other’s cultures. We are Americans first, and then, we are whatever we choose our cultures to be next -- Japanese-American, Hawaiian, or Red Sox nation. They would not believe what I was saying -- not even my description of heritage celebrations, like this one. Then, I explained that on Memorial Day, they would see Americans from all of our communities paying respect to the men and women, who gave their last full measure of devotion for our way of life.            

Twenty thousand Chinese fought for America during World War II. In New York city alone, 40% of the Chinese male population was inducted into the military, the vast majority of them into the army. Many did not have families stateside -- their wives and children were, for the most part, still in China. They had little personal stake in the war, and yet, they served in our formations to demonstrate their willingness to defend America against its enemies.

In the western Pacific, after months of fighting, the Bataan peninsula fell on 9 April 1942. Upwards of 70,000 Americans and Filipinos, who had fought valiantly together, were thrust into what was to become the Bataan Death March --  n even greater test of their courage and determination than battle had been. Some 14,000 Filipino guerrillas continued fighting unconventionally, providing critical intelligence from behind enemy lines until they were repatriated on 16 July 1945. 


“Indistinguishable” from the Japanese, Korean-Americans were classified as ‘enemy aliens.’ yet, they went forward, risking death in highly-dangerous and secret underground actions in enemy-occupied areas of Asia. In Los Angeles, fully one-fifth of the city’s Korean population joined the National Guard to form the ‘tiger brigade’ -- trained to defend the Pacific coast against the very real possibility of invasion.


Nowhere in our country was the attack on pearl harbor more keenly felt than by Americans of Japanese ancestry. Immediate distrust and suspicion turned into paranoia and anger resulting in Presidential Decree 9066, ordering the relocation of 120,000 Japanese, 62% of them American citizens. Their homes, businesses, lands, and other properties were confiscated -- 112,000 of them were, ultimately, re-settled in concentration camps , consisting of tar paper shacks, enclosed by barbed wire, and guarded by American Soldiers.   


All were reclassified 4C, enemy aliens, and lost their rights to citizenship. When I was born in Hawai’i in 1942, I was classified 4C, enemy alien. Fear, suspicion, and hatred gripped the country as a result of Pearl Harbor, and discrimination became its natural by-product. There was little that Americans of Japanese ancestry could do to protect themselves. Because of this injustice, determined men walked the halls of congress seeking legislative action to return to Americans of Japanese ancestry the right to bear arms in time of war to defend their country, just like all other American citizens. When the bill finally became law, the response was immediate. Out of such patriotism came the legendary Nisei units, comprised of second generation Japanese Americans commanded by Caucasian officers -- the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, the 232nd Combat Engineer Company, the 1399th Engineers, the 206th Army Band, and the Military Intelligence Service, whose existence was kept classified until the 1970’s. 


The 442nd Regimental Combat Team had an authorized strength of roughly 5,000 men.  We think about 14,000 men passed through her ranks during the war. 9,000 purple hearts and an incredible 21 medals of honor were awarded to soldiers of a regiment that was only on active duty for a little over three years.  It is believed to be the most decorated unit, for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the United States Army. But the point here is not 21 Medals of Honor because there were certainly many more than 21 heroes on the battlefields where the regiment fought. The point is that Asian-Pacific islander Americans have made significant contributions and helped to write the history of this county, in peace and in time of war.   


In more recent times, we can point to the accomplishments of architect Maya Lin, whose Vietnam Memorial still brings me to tears when I touch the names of the young men I knew; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, whose stories capture our imaginations; cellist Yo-Yo ma and violinist Midori, whose soaring music lifts spirits and soothes senses; and Vera Wang, whose fashions delight the world’s eyes.


Today, nearly 15 million Americans trace their roots to Asia and the Pacific. But for all our vast differences and complexities, we do have one thing in common. Our ancestors, maybe even some of us here, left homelands for the hope of a better life. In looking to our past, each of us is living affirmation of a magnificent legacy, borne of the dreams of resilient souls whose odyssey from the old world helped fire and forge a new one.


For most, the immigrant experience was a saga of struggle and hope; prejudice and pride; passion and perseverance; and, eventually, triumph. 


Years ago, I heard a senior general use a quotation in a memorial day speech in cold war Germany, which stuck with me.  I have repeated it myself, on occasion, and do so again, today. “I know that when I die, I will die a free man -- on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed.”  And then he pointed east and said, “thirty-five miles from here are a people who cannot say that and wouldn’t know what it means, even if they could say it. I was well along in my service in the Army at that point, and I realized that I had been taking my Americanism for granted. Because you see, I could make the same statement. That is my legacy, and it is yours, as well. And because it is our legacy, our children and grandchildren share in it -- it is their legacy to be able to make the same statement unequivocally. Only the free, who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it can bequeath such a legacy to anyone else. The shackled cannot. And the free who are not willing to fight and die for it, cannot. Only the free who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it, can bequeath that legacy to others. Today, young Americans are doing just that, and in doing so, they preserve for us our legacy as Americans. We honor them for it, and we pray for their safety.                       


Thank you, and God bless America.