On December 17, 2012, Senator Daniel Inouye, the most senior ranking member of Congress, passed away at the age of 88. Senator Inouye has represented the state of Hawaii in the House and Senate for over five decades, since Hawaii’s statehood in 1959.
Senator Inouye’s story is at once distinctly All-American, yet also speaks to the struggle of civil rights for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other communities of color in this country. As Japanese Americans across the country were viewed with hostility and interned in camps throughout World War II, Senator Inouye made the decision to fight for the country that viewed him with suspicion as the perpetual other. He joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a special battalion consisting completely of Japanese Americans – which later became the most highly decorated infantry regiment in the history of the United States Army.
Upon returning from the war, Senator Inouye continued to serve as an example and champion of civil rights, supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1965, later supporting the Americans with Disabilities Act, and supporting marriage equality. Senator Inouye and his peers also served a critical role in building our social infrastructure as we know it, including critical components for aging such as:
· The Social Security Act of 1965, which authorized the Medicare program,
· Older Americans Act in 1965, which authorized comprehensive services for older adults, and
· The creation of the Supplemental Security Income program in the 1970s.
These are just three examples of the huge investment in domestic programs and public infrastructure that characterized President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society – investments that received support across the political aisle from both Democrats and Republicans.
In an interview for the Ken Burn’s documentary “The War,” Senator Inouye recounted what his own father said to him when he left to join the army:
“This country has been good to us. It has given me two jobs. It has given you, your brothers and your sister education. We owe a lot to this country. Do not dishonor this country…”
As Congress seeks to avert the fiscal cliff, the reflection on Senator Inouye’s legacy is especially poignant. His generation, the greatest generation, has sacrificed immensely to build the strong contemporary American society that we are privileged to live in today. We mourn the passing of a great American hero, one who had the courage to stand up to bigotry and intolerance, and who, throughout his life, contributed to making this country a better place for all Americans.