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← Why I love a country that once betrayed me

When he was a child, George Takei and his family were forced into an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, as a “security" measure during World War II. 70 years later, Takei looks back at how the camp shaped his surprising, personal definition of patriotism and democracy.

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Showing Revision 5 created 07/04/2014 by Morton Bast.

  1. I'm a veteran of the starship Enterprise.
  2. I soared through the galaxy
  3. driving a huge starship
  4. with a crew made up of people
  5. from all over this world,
  6. many different races, many different cultures,
  7. many different heritages,
  8. all working together,
  9. and our mission was to explore strange new worlds,
  10. to seek out new life and new civilizations,
  11. to boldly go where no one has gone before.
  12. Well —

  13. (Applause) —
  14. I am the grandson of immigrants from Japan
  15. who went to America,
  16. boldly going to a strange new world,
  17. seeking new opportunities.
  18. My mother was born in Sacramento, California.
  19. My father was a San Franciscan.
  20. They met and married in Los Angeles,
  21. and I was born there.
  22. I was four years old

  23. when Pearl Harbor was bombed
  24. on December 7, 1941 by Japan,
  25. and overnight, the world was plunged
  26. into a world war.
  27. America suddenly was swept up
  28. by hysteria.
  29. Japanese-Americans,
  30. American citizens of Japanese ancestry,
  31. were looked on
  32. with suspicion and fear
  33. and with outright hatred
  34. simply because we happened to look like
  35. the people that bombed Pearl Harbor.
  36. And the hysteria grew and grew
  37. until in February 1942,
  38. the president of the United States,
  39. Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
  40. ordered all Japanese-Americans
  41. on the West Coast of America
  42. to be summarily rounded up
  43. with no charges, with no trial,
  44. with no due process.
  45. Due process, this is a core pillar
  46. of our justice system.
  47. That all disappeared.
  48. We were to be rounded up
  49. and imprisoned in 10 barbed-wire prison camps
  50. in some of the most desolate places in America:
  51. the blistering hot desert of Arizona,
  52. the sultry swamps of Arkansas,
  53. the wastelands of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado,
  54. and two of the most desolate places in California.
  55. On April 20th, I celebrated my fifth birthday,

  56. and just a few weeks after my birthday,
  57. my parents got my younger brother,
  58. my baby sister and me
  59. up very early one morning,
  60. and they dressed us hurriedly.
  61. My brother and I were in the living room
  62. looking out the front window,
  63. and we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway.
  64. They carried bayonets on their rifles.
  65. They stomped up the front porch
  66. and banged on the door.
  67. My father answered it,
  68. and the soldiers ordered us out of our home.
  69. My father gave my brother and me
  70. small luggages to carry,
  71. and we walked out and stood on the driveway
  72. waiting for our mother to come out,
  73. and when my mother finally came out,
  74. she had our baby sister in one arm,
  75. a huge duffel bag in the other,
  76. and tears were streaming down both her cheeks.
  77. I will never be able to forget that scene.
  78. It is burned into my memory.
  79. We were taken from our home

  80. and loaded on to train cars
  81. with other Japanese-American families.
  82. There were guards stationed
  83. at both ends of each car,
  84. as if we were criminals.
  85. We were taken two thirds of
    the way across the country,
  86. rocking on that train for four days and three nights,
  87. to the swamps of Arkansas.
  88. I still remember the barbed wire fence
  89. that confined me.
  90. I remember the tall sentry tower
  91. with the machine guns pointed at us.
  92. I remember the searchlight that followed me
  93. when I made the night runs
  94. from my barrack to the latrine.
  95. But to five-year-old me,
  96. I thought it was kind of nice that they'd lit the way
  97. for me to pee.
  98. I was a child,
  99. too young to understand the circumstances
  100. of my being there.
  101. Children are amazingly adaptable.

  102. What would be grotesquely abnormal
  103. became my normality
  104. in the prisoner of war camps.
  105. It became routine for me to line up three times a day
  106. to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall.
  107. It became normal for me to go with my father
  108. to bathe in a mass shower.
  109. Being in a prison, a barbed-wire prison camp,
  110. became my normality.
  111. When the war ended,

  112. we were released,
  113. and given a one-way ticket
  114. to anywhere in the United States.
  115. My parents decided to go back home
  116. to Los Angeles,
  117. but Los Angeles was not a welcoming place.
  118. We were penniless.
  119. Everything had been taken from us,
  120. and the hostility was intense.
  121. Our first home was on Skid Row
  122. in the lowest part of our city,
  123. living with derelicts, drunkards
  124. and crazy people,
  125. the stench of urine all over,
  126. on the street, in the alley,
  127. in the hallway.
  128. It was a horrible experience,
  129. and for us kids, it was terrorizing.
  130. I remember once
  131. a drunkard came staggering down,
  132. fell down right in front of us,
  133. and threw up.
  134. My baby sister said, "Mama, let's go back home,"
  135. because behind barbed wires
  136. was for us
  137. home.
  138. My parents worked hard

  139. to get back on their feet.
  140. We had lost everything.
  141. They were at the middle of their lives
  142. and starting all over.
  143. They worked their fingers to the bone,
  144. and ultimately they were able
  145. to get the capital together to buy
  146. a three-bedroom home in a nice neighborhood.
  147. And I was a teenager,
  148. and I became very curious
  149. about my childhood imprisonment.
  150. I had read civics books that told me about
  151. the ideals of American democracy.
  152. All men are created equal,
  153. we have an inalienable right
  154. to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,
  155. and I couldn't quite make that fit
  156. with what I knew to be my childhood imprisonment.
  157. I read history books,
  158. and I couldn't find anything about it.
  159. And so I engaged my father after dinner
  160. in long, sometimes heated conversations.
  161. We had many, many conversations like that,
  162. and what I got from them
  163. was my father's wisdom.
  164. He was the one that suffered the most
  165. under those conditions of imprisonment,
  166. and yet he understood American democracy.
  167. He told me that our democracy
  168. is a people's democracy,
  169. and it can be as great as the people can be,
  170. but it is also as fallible as people are.
  171. He told me that American democracy
  172. is vitally dependent on good people
  173. who cherish the ideals of our system
  174. and actively engage in the process
  175. of making our democracy work.
  176. And he took me to a campaign headquarters —
  177. the governor of Illinois was
    running for the presidency —
  178. and introduced me to American electoral politics.
  179. And he also told me about
  180. young Japanese-Americans
  181. during the Second World War.
  182. When Pearl Harbor was bombed,

  183. young Japanese-Americans,
    like all young Americans,
  184. rushed to their draft board
  185. to volunteer to fight for our country.
  186. That act of patriotism
  187. was answered with a slap in the face.
  188. We were denied service,
  189. and categorized as enemy non-alien.
  190. It was outrageous to be called an enemy
  191. when you're volunteering to fight for your country,
  192. but that was compounded with the word "non-alien,"
  193. which is a word that means
  194. "citizen" in the negative.
  195. They even took the word "citizen" away from us,
  196. and imprisoned them for a whole year.
  197. And then the government realized

  198. that there's a wartime manpower shortage,
  199. and as suddenly as they'd rounded us up,
  200. they opened up the military for service
  201. by young Japanese-Americans.
  202. It was totally irrational,
  203. but the amazing thing,
  204. the astounding thing,
  205. is that thousands of young
  206. Japanese-American men and women
  207. again went from behind those barbed-wire fences,
  208. put on the same uniform as that of our guards,
  209. leaving their families in imprisonment,
  210. to fight for this country.
  211. They said that they were going to fight

  212. not only to get their families out
  213. from behind those barbed-wire fences,
  214. but because they cherished the very ideal
  215. of what our government stands for,
  216. should stand for,
  217. and that was being abrogated
  218. by what was being done.
  219. All men are created equal.

  220. And they went to fight for this country.
  221. They were put into a segregated
  222. all Japanese-American unit
  223. and sent to the battlefields of Europe,
  224. and they threw themselves into it.
  225. They fought with amazing,
  226. incredible courage and valor.
  227. They were sent out on the most dangerous missions
  228. and they sustained the highest combat casualty rate
  229. of any unit proportionally.
  230. There is one battle that illustrates that.

  231. It was a battle for the Gothic Line.
  232. The Germans were embedded
  233. in this mountain hillside,
  234. rocky hillside,
  235. in impregnable caves,
  236. and three allied battalions
  237. had been pounding away at it
  238. for six months,
  239. and they were stalemated.
  240. The 442nd was called in
  241. to add to the fight,
  242. but the men of the 442nd
  243. came up with a unique
  244. but dangerous idea:
  245. The backside of the mountain
  246. was a sheer rock cliff.
  247. The Germans thought an attack from the backside
  248. would be impossible.
  249. The men of the 442nd decided to do the impossible.
  250. On a dark, moonless night,
  251. they began scaling that rock wall,
  252. a drop of more than 1,000 feet,
  253. in full combat gear.
  254. They climbed all night long
  255. on that sheer cliff.
  256. In the darkness,
  257. some lost their handhold
  258. or their footing
  259. and they fell to their deaths
  260. in the ravine below.
  261. They all fell silently.
  262. Not a single one cried out,
  263. so as not to give their position away.
  264. The men climbed for eight hours straight,
  265. and those who made it to the top
  266. stayed there until the first break of light,
  267. and as soon as light broke,
  268. they attacked.
  269. The Germans were surprised,
  270. and they took the hill
  271. and broke the Gothic Line.
  272. A six-month stalemate
  273. was broken by the 442nd
  274. in 32 minutes.
  275. It was an amazing act,

  276. and when the war ended,
  277. the 442nd returned to the United States
  278. as the most decorated unit
  279. of the entire Second World War.
  280. They were greeted back on the White House Lawn
  281. by President Truman, who said to them,
  282. "You fought not only the enemy
  283. but prejudice, and you won."
  284. They are my heroes.

  285. They clung to their belief
  286. in the shining ideals of this country,
  287. and they proved that being an American
  288. is not just for some people,
  289. that race is not how we define being an American.
  290. They expanded what it means to be an American,
  291. including Japanese-Americans
  292. that were feared and suspected and hated.
  293. They were change agents,
  294. and they left for me
  295. a legacy.
  296. They are my heroes
  297. and my father is my hero,
  298. who understood democracy
  299. and guided me through it.
  300. They gave me a legacy,
  301. and with that legacy comes a responsibility,
  302. and I am dedicated
  303. to making my country
  304. an even better America,
  305. to making our government
  306. an even truer democracy,
  307. and because of the heroes that I have
  308. and the struggles that we've gone through,
  309. I can stand before you
  310. as a gay Japanese-American,
  311. but even more than that,
  312. I am a proud American.
  313. Thank you very much.

  314. (Applause)