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The Celebrating American Ideas Award honors those who take big ideas and move them into bold action. Phillip Johnston’s idea was to use the ancient Navajo language as a secure communications code and it came at an important time in our history, when Japanese intelligence experts were able to break every code the U.S. forces devised.
On March 25, 2010, Sagamore Institute hosted the first annual “Celebrating American Ideas” gala. Former Secretary of Education and renowned author William J. Bennett gave a rousing keynote address on the American Idea and the essential role of citizens to learn our nation’s history in order to define and defend our democracy.
As a think tank committed to moving ideas into action, the first “Celebrating American Ideas” award was presented to select members of the Navajo Code Talkers who transformed their ancient language into an indecipherable military code. Upon receiving the award, the Code Talkers said that theirs is an American story, not just a Navajo one.
Phillip Johnston’s idea was to use the ancient Navajo language as a secure communications code and it came at an important time in our history, when Japanese intelligence experts were able to break every code the U.S. forces devised. Johnston, a World War I Veteran and son of a missionary was reared on the Navajo reservation and spoke the native language fluently. Johnston recognized the Navajo language had the potential to be an indecipherable code: it was an unwritten language of extreme complexity with no alphabet or symbols.
Answering Johnston’s call, a small band of Navajos became U.S. Marines. From their ancient language, these modest sheepherders and farmers devised the successful code in U.S. military history, using it to transmit secret communications in the Pacific theater from 1942-1945. At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, declared, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima." Their heroic service played a pivotal role in saving countless lives and hastening the end of WWII.