Celebration Turned Controversy: The Navajo Code-Talkers and Trump
Monday’s ceremony at the White House was intended to be a commemorative affair. The time was set aside to honor the Navajo code-talkers, an integral yet oft-forgotten group of Native Americans who served in World Wars I and II. Like all servicemen and women of that day and this, the Navajo were intrepid. This, I know, is an understatement—as our soldiers far exceed any synonym for valor—but it’s tough not to take for granted their bravery in times of prolonged peace. To lionize them, it seems to me, from one year to the next without skipping a beat, is the least we can and ought to do.
For a long time, however, the Navajo code-talkers were excluded from being recognized in the public square and from receiving the public’s praise. They were left out from what should’ve been years of exaltation for the work they did. And exactly what work did they do? you might ask. A good question, for hitherto few people under the age of thirty had heard of them. Theirs was a unique job in the Great War and its even greater successor. They didn’t stand in the gangrenous trenches at Somme or fight back the Luftwaffe at Market Garden. Nor did they rebuff the blitzkrieg at Belgium or raise the flag at Iwo Jima. They didn’t siege or sortie. They didn’t fire rounds or drop bombs.
No. Instead, they spoke. Not as conscientious dissenters or non-combatants speaking out against a battle ill-conceived, but as communicators of war. It was their voice, that most potent and enduring weapon of all, that pushed the Allies to their eventual victory.
When it came to sending messages through the Empire of Japan, American generals had a predicament on their hands. Most languages (of which there are many in America—a subtle convenience for the country that bathes in a melting pot) were easily understood by Japanese interceptors. So long as the Japanese could confidently unravel and understand our messages, they could thwart our every move. No secret would be safe and no plot practicable, and without these two things, victory wouldn’t have been possible.
To obviate this obstacle, the Marines employed the Navajo tribe. Selecting the tribe’s young men for service, the Corps called upon four-hundred members to be the polyglots of the Pacific. They were to combine their impenetrable language with their imperturbable pride for the allied cause. The Navajo language is well-known for its inscrutability: It has a grammatical and syntactical structure that’s so distinct and esoteric, that not even neighboring American Indian tribes can understand it. It’s a language the Navajo have refined with recondite attention for over six centuries—long before even the earliest Anglo-Saxons made their portentous acquaintance.
Because their language is so seldom spoken, and even less seldom understood, it was ideally suited for the war. No language in America’s toolbox could’ve befuddled the Japanese so completely. It hadn’t even a tincture of similarity with any other American tribal tongue, let alone any language circulating in the multifaceted Orient. They were able to speak as though telling an open secret that the Japanese couldn’t grasp.
And the rest, as they say, is history. V-J Day arrived at long last and marked the war’s end. The insuperable samurai spirit finally succumbed. MacArthur and his ego, now acting not as General but as plenipotentiary, waded the waters and climbed the beaches to press liberty upon the losers. There, with the power of Potsdam behind him, he instituted a constitution in the likeness of our own. The Japanese nation, that archipelago where the sun only rises, never shined so radiantly. Monarchy vanished and in its place came liberal democracy. Till this very day, and in this very form, Japan prospers.
This, we remember fondly. But what became of the Navajo code-talkers? For decades after the war, we hadn’t a clue. It wasn’t until 1968 that the public learned of the Navajo’s invaluable role. In the interim, between the Truman and Nixon presidencies, they received no recognition for their extraordinary efforts. While all other soldiers got their due, the Navajo appeared to be neglected. Some of this can be chalked up to the business of classifying and declassifying vital information, but not all of it. For far too long, the Navajo received no approbation or paean in their name.
This changed in 1982. It was then that Ronald Reagan began what became a tradition of honoring these unheralded heroes. During an adulatory event, Reagan gave the code-talkers a “Certificate of Recognition” and a commemorative holiday in their name (August 14th thenceforth became known as “Navajo Code Talkers Day”, an admittedly lesser-known holiday, but one we’d do well to embrace in the endless lull between Memorial and Veterans Day). Presidents Clinton and Bush continued the tradition set by Reagan when they in-turn awarded the code-talkers with Congressional Gold and Silver Medals. These awards were delayed but deserved. Now, the Navajo can be found where they belong—in that ascendant class of heroes in America’s pantheon.
Monday was President Trump’s chance to venerate the Navajo’s storied past, as his predecessors did before him. He didn’t have to say too much. A gracious handshake, a humble embrace, and a respectful salute would’ve done just fine. Nothing unctuous or fulsome was called for; nothing patronizing or over-the-top. The flavor of the day should’ve been good old-fashioned sincerity with a second-helping of respect.
Instead, President Trump took the opportunity to lash out at a political opponent. It was another cringe-inducing comment he gave, another gratuitous body-blow levied at the wrong place and time. With echoes of last summer’s embarrassing remarks at the Boy Scouts Jamboree lingering in the air, Trump again wagged his tongue and stoked the flames at the most inappropriate time.
Standing at the podium with Andrew Jackson’s looming, stolid portrait above him, President Trump set out to praise the code-talkers for the role they’d played. Aged into their eighties and nineties and numbered three, the code-talkers flanked Trump on his right. They, like their current Commander-in-Chief, seemed unaware of the abysmal optics hovering overhead. Having the group gather beneath the genocidal general’s portrait was a lazy mistake. It’s one of many this administration has habitually made, but this one was especially painful.
Jackson’s portrait was the unspoken faux pas; President Trump’s comment about Senator Elizabeth Warren was the audible one. In celebrating the Navajo’s indigeneity, Trump said that they were “here long before any of us were here…although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas”. By her, he of course meant Senator Warren, who has touted in the past what seems an apocryphal lineage to Oklahoma’s Cherokee tribe. It’s something Trump and other Republicans have long latched on to as a way to lambaste her. The suspicion shared by Senator Warren’s critics is that she is lying for political gain. They think her so-claimed “heritage” helped win her a job first at Harvard Law School in the 90’s, and then in Massachusetts for the Senator seat in 2013.
Warren’s critics have every right to raise their suspicions and call out the out-spoken Democrat. At a point, though, it becomes uncouth. Using a childish and historically insensitive nickname such as “Pocahontas” is just that. The historical Pocahontas’ memory deserves better than this, and so do the Navajo.
I’m often torn by how much I should expect of President Trump. Though it stirred me, his “Pocahontas” epithet in the Navajo’s presence didn’t surprise me in the least. I don’t expect him to do well with doling out praise or handling highbrow matters. Urbanity, after all, didn’t win him the presidency. And while mine might be a low bar, with some discipline, I think he can clear it. But he must do better than he did Monday. Through the president, the nation communicates its gratitude to these quickly vanishing veterans (anno domini ensures few will be left much longer to receive their praise and tell their tales). Nothing could be so valiant as to give one’s life for his land—a land, I might add, from which he and his tribesman had been repeatedly and viciously deposed. The Navajo code-talkers, and all Native Americans, deserve much better than this.