Character: Build It Here
Democracy put to the test
The following is an excerpt of the transcript of George Takei’s talk on T.E.D., “Why I Love a Country That Once Betrayed Me.” It’s worth your time to hear Mr. Takei tell this experience on the stage. He's an actor, after all. Words on a page do not convey the emotion in his voice. The first part of his presentation describes the trauma of leaving his childhood home with his Japanese-American citizen parents and being transported by train to the swamps of Arkansas to live in an internment camp for three years. The last half of his talk is where he gets into his coming to terms as a teenager with the experience and how it defined his view of democracy for the good.
All men are created equal, we have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and I couldn't quite make that fit with what I knew to be my childhood imprisonment. I read history books, and I couldn't find anything about it. And so I engaged my father after dinner in long, sometimes heated conversations. We had many, many conversations like that, and what I got from them was my father's wisdom. He was the one that suffered the most under those conditions of imprisonment, and yet he understood American democracy. He told me that our democracy is a people's democracy, and it can be as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are. He told me that American democracy is vitally dependent on good people who cherish the ideals of our system and actively engage in the process of making our democracy work.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, young Japanese-Americans, like all young Americans, rushed to their draft board to volunteer to fight for our country. That act of patriotism was answered with a slap in the face. We were denied service, and categorized as enemy non-alien. It was outrageous to be called an enemy when you're volunteering to fight for your country, but that was compounded with the word "non-alien," which is a word that means "citizen" in the negative. They even took the word "citizen" away from us, and imprisoned them for a whole year.
And then the government realized that there's a wartime manpower shortage, and as suddenly as they'd rounded us up, they opened up the military for service by young Japanese-Americans. It was totally irrational, but the amazing thing, the astounding thing, is that thousands of young Japanese-American men and women again went from behind those barbed-wire fences, put on the same uniform as that of our guards, leaving their families in imprisonment, to fight for this country.
They said that they were going to fight not only to get their families out from behind those barbed-wire fences, but because they cherished the very ideal of what our government stands for, should stand for, and that was being abrogated by what was being done.
All men are created equal. And they went to fight for this country. They were put into a segregated all Japanese-American unit and sent to the battlefields of Europe, and they threw themselves into it. They fought with amazing, incredible courage and valor. They were sent out on the most dangerous missions and they sustained the highest combat casualty rate of any unit proportionally.
There is one battle that illustrates that. It was a battle for the Gothic Line. The Germans were embedded in this mountain hillside, rocky hillside, in impregnable caves, and three allied battalions had been pounding away at it for six months, and they were stalemated. The 442nd was called in to add to the fight, but the men of the 442nd came up with a unique but dangerous idea: The backside of the mountain was a sheer rock cliff. The Germans thought an attack from the backside would be impossible. The men of the 442nd decided to do the impossible. On a dark, moonless night, they began scaling that rock wall, a drop of more than 1,000 feet, in full combat gear. They climbed all night long on that sheer cliff. In the darkness, some lost their handhold or their footing and they fell to their deaths in the ravine below. They all fell silently. Not a single one cried out, so as not to give their position away. The men climbed for eight hours straight, and those who made it to the top stayed there until the first break of light, and as soon as light broke, they attacked. The Germans were surprised, and they took the hill and broke the Gothic Line. A six-month stalemate was broken by the 442nd in 32 minutes.
It was an amazing act, and when the war ended, the 442nd returned to the United States as the most decorated unit of the entire Second World War. They were greeted back on the White House Lawn by President Truman, who said to them, "You fought not only the enemy but prejudice, and you won."
They are my heroes. They clung to their belief in the shining ideals of this country, and they proved that being an American is not just for some people, that race is not how we define being an American. They expanded what it means to be an American, including Japanese-Americans that were feared and suspected and hated. They were change agents, and they left for me a legacy. They are my heroes and my father is my hero, who understood democracy and guided me through it. They gave me a legacy, and with that legacy comes a responsibility, and I am dedicated to making my country an even better America, to making our government an even truer democracy, and because of the heroes that I have and the struggles that we've gone through, I can stand before you as a gay Japanese-American, but even more than that, I am a proud American.
Here is the link to George Takei's talk on T.E.D.:
Here is a link to the 442 WWII Regiment's website: