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How the Senate Remembered Pearl Harbor Five Years Ago

Daniel Inouye reminded colleagues of the subsequent internment of Japanese-Americans

The battleship USS Arizona burns after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Library of Congress)
The battleship USS Arizona burns after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Library of Congress)

American flags on the Capitol campus, like those across the country, have been lowered Wednesday in honor of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Five years ago, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye delivered what must rank among the most poignant floor speeches in the history of the Senate chamber.

The Hawaii Democrat used the occasion to deliver a warning to his colleagues and anyone watching about not forgetting the lessons of Dec. 7 and the subsequent actions taken by the United States at home and abroad.

He made a particular point about the importance of honoring the restrictions of the Constitution even in the face of grave threats to civilization, talking about the decision by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to remove Japanese-Americans from the western United States and relocate them to internment camps.

“We have an extraordinary Constitution. We have an extraordinary set of laws. But throughout the history of mankind — not just the history of the United States but the history of mankind — war has always provided some justification for leaders to set aside these laws,” he said.

“Their crime was they were ‘enemy aliens.’ None of them had committed any crime. Investigation after investigation disclosed that. No sabotage,
no espionage, no assault, nothing. They were rounded up and placed into
these camps, which were described by our government as concentration camps,” Inouye said. “Yes, it was unconstitutional, but our leaders felt the war was a justification to set aside the Constitution and set aside the laws.”

There’s no one left in the Senate who saw the death and destruction caused by Japanese bombers 75 years ago, but Inouye, the legendary senior senator from Hawaii who won the Medal of Honor for his valor fighting in Italy, was a 17-year old at home in Hawaii then.

“We could see these black puffs, and then we knew what was happening. Suddenly, while watching these black puffs of explosions, we could hear a rumble just overhead, and there were three aircraft. They were pearl gray in color, and they had red dots on the wings,” Inouye said in 2011. “I knew what was happening, and I thought the world had just come to an end. Just about 2,400 American sailors and soldiers and noncombatants died that morning.”

Aides to Inouye had announced that the senator planned to make an extended floor speech at around the same hour the bombs were falling 70 years before, and yet the Senate chamber was relatively quiet.

There were not particularly large crowds clamoring to get in, nor were most senators at their desks, but in that moment, the Senate chamber felt worthy of the great debates of the past that had taken place within its walls.

Senators and their staff members generally watch from afar on an internal TV feed, but the emptiness of the floor on Dec. 7, 2011, felt unusually pronounced.

Speaking after Inouye was Sen. John McCain, another of the war heroes to have served as a senator.

“I am very moved by the words of the senator from Hawaii,” McCain said. “Not only his words but the example he has set for all Americans of heroism and sacrifice and service to his country, and a most valued member of the U.S. Senate but, more importantly, a genuine American hero.”

Inouye died a year later in December 2012.

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