Trailblazing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

14 Americans of Asian or Pacific Islander descent who changed the face of U.S. government and military leadership

During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which has been officially recognized every May since 1992, we reflect on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders' rich contributions to our country's history. To celebrate, learn about those who blazed the trails in American leadership.

First U.S. Army General:

Albert Kuali'i Brickwood Lyman

In 1942, Lyman was promoted to brigadier general by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Born and raised in Hawaii, Lyman was of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and European descent. During the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Lyman was the commanding officer at nearby Schofield Barracks, one of the sites of the bombings.

Following his sudden death a year later, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his "untiring effort, unceasing devotion to duty, and inspiring leadership."

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First Member of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Dalip Singh Saund

Saund was elected to represent a Southern California district in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1956. Born and raised in India, Saund immigrated to the United States in 1920 to attend the University of California, Berkeley.

If elected, promised Saund during his 1956 campaign, he would visit India and the Middle East and say, “Look — here I am, a living example of American Democracy in practice. The American people elected me to their Congress. Where else in the world could this happen?”

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First Senator:

Hiram Fong

Fong became one of Hawaii’s first two senators when it became a state in 1959. A son of Chinese immigrants and graduate of Harvard Law School, he served as a U.S. senator from 1959 to 1977.

Speaking before the Senate in support of immigration reform in 1965, Fong said, “Our tenets, regardless of race, creed or color, have inspired freedom-loving people everywhere to look to America... Our opportunity is to live up to their ideals.”

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First Female Member of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Patsy Takemoto Mink

Mink, a Japanese American lawyer from Hawaii, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964. She served from 1965 to 1977 and again from 1990 until her death in 2002.

“It is easy enough to vote right and consistently be with the majority,” Mink told a Honolulu newspaper in 1975. “But it is often more important to be ahead of the majority, and this means being willing to cut the first furrow in the ground and stand alone for a while if necessary.”

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First Federal Judge:

Herbert Choy

In 1971, Choy was nominated by President Richard Nixon to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, headquartered in San Francisco. Choy, a graduate of Harvard Law School, became the first Korean American lawyer when he was admitted to the bar in 1941.

“It was a great honor to [be] the first Asian federal judge, but it does not make me feel special,” Choy told a biographer in 1994. “I feel a great responsibility to make a good judicial record for the sake of future judges of Asian ancestry, my state, and my family.”

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First State Governor:

George Ariyoshi

Ariyoshi, the lieutenant governor of Hawaii, assumed the governorship in 1973 when the sitting governor became ill. He was then elected in his own right in 1974 and served three terms until 1986 — making him the longest-serving governor in Hawaiian history. The son of Japanese immigrants, Ariyoshi served as a military intelligence officer during World War II.

He wrote in his 1997 memoir: “As the first governor of Japanese ancestry, I felt a special obligation and sometimes a special burden.… I had to do well not only for my sake, but for the sake of many others.”

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First ambassador:

Julia Chang Bloch

Chang Bloch was appointed as U.S. ambassador to Nepal in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush. Born in China, she immigrated to the U.S. at age 9 and served in several government posts before becoming ambassador.

“I've learned that women and minorities need role models,” Chang Bloch told a reporter in 1991. “One of the most devastating problems suffered by some women minorities is lack of self-confidence and lack of self-dignity — that somehow you can't [do something] because you don't see anyone else like you doing it.”

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First female Federal Judge:

Susan Oki Mollway

Mollway, a Japanese American, was nominated as a judge of U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii in 1997 by President Bill Clinton and served until her retirement in 2015.

“Someday it will be normal for people of all races and creeds to be all profession[s],” said Mollway, speaking to a group of Asian American studies students in 1999. “And that is the excitement I'm looking forward to, because you're going to do that.” 

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First Cabinet Secretary: 

Norman Mineta

Mineta served in two consecutive presidential cabinets: first appointed as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of commerce in 2000 and then as President George W. Bush’s secretary of transportation from 2001 until 2006. Born to Japanese immigrant parents in San Jose, California, in 1931, Mineta and his family were among those incarcerated in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Some 30 years later, in 1971, he was elected mayor of San Jose. From 1975 to 1995 he represented the region in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Each of us has an obligation to stand up for the rights of fellow Americans — not with rancor or bitterness, but with pride and resolution,” said Mineta in a 2001 speech commemorating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

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First Female Cabinet Secretary:

Elaine Chao

In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Chao as secretary of labor, and she served until 2009. President Donald Trump appointed her to another cabinet-level position in 2017 as secretary of transportation. Born in Taiwan, Chao and her family immigrated to the United States when she was 8 years old.

“True leadership,” said Chao, speaking to students at Harvard Business School in 2001, “draws its source from core values such as character, integrity, personal courage, and a commitment to ideals.”

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First Female U.S Army General:

Coral Wong Pietsch

In 2001, President George W. Bush promoted Pietsch, who is of Chinese and Czech heritage, to the rank of brigadier general in the Army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps. After retiring from the military, Pietsch was appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama as a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

“It took the Army to get me to realize that I was no different than anybody else,” Pietsch said in a 2004 interview from her home in Hawaii. “I had come from a world where I felt as if I were different, to a world where there was no difference at all.”

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First Female State Governor:

Nikki Haley

Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, was elected as South Carolina’s governor in 2011 and again in 2015. She left office in 2017 when she was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“Immigrants have been coming to our shores for generations to live the dream that is America,” said Haley as part of the Republican response to President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address. “They wanted better for their children than for themselves. That remains the dream of all of us, and in this country we have seen time and again that that dream is achievable.”

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First Female Senator:

Mazie Hirono

In 2012, Hawaii elected Hirono to the U.S. Senate; she had previously served two terms in the U.S. House. Hirono’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Japan when she was a child.

In a 2019 press release about her memoir, Hirono said, “I hope that my uniquely American journey can help pave the way for others, especially women, to step into their own immense power.”

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First Vice President:

Kamala Harris

Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian heritage, was elected vice president of the United States in 2020. She accomplished a triple first: the first Black American, the first South Asian American, and the first woman to be elected vice president.

In her first public address as vice president, Harris remarked: “In many ways, this moment embodies our character as a nation. It demonstrates who we are. Even in dark times — [Americans] not only dream. We do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be.... We are bold, fearless, and ambitious. We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome, that we will rise up. This is American aspiration.”

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