More than 60 years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, Hawaii (native spelling: Hawaiʻi) has officially become the 50and state on August 21, 1959. The group of islands, located some 2,400 miles off the mainland of the United States in the South Pacific, followed Alaska on the 49and entry, only eight months.
Hawaii’s efforts to become a state had repeatedly failed for more than half a century, in large part, according to scholars, because of discrimination against the islands’ large non-white population. However, shrewd political maneuvering, coupled with changing US strategic interests in the Pacific during the Cold War, eventually turned the tide.
Statehood has not been universally embraced on the islands. For some Native Hawaiians, this reflects an unwelcome legacy of American imperialism, militarism, and colonization in the Pacific Rim.
From overthrow to annexation
Hawaii has attracted American interest for both economic and strategic reasons. After the visit of the Christian missionaries at the beginning of the 19and century reported favorable conditions for the planting of sugar cane, white commercial investors arrived, buying large tracts of land.
By the 1870s, treaties increasingly tied Hawaiian trade to the American economy, as the wealthy planter class worked actively to undermine the sovereignty of Native rule. In 1887, in what came to be known as the “Constitution of the Bayonet”, they forced King David Kalakaua at gunpoint to sign a constitution that emptied the monarchy of power and effectively denied voting rights to anyone who was not a white, English-speaking owner.
On January 17, 1893, a small group of white planters and businessmen successfully overthrew the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani. They had the help of the American envoy to Hawaii who, without authorization, had conspired to place an American warship off the coast, threatening invasion if the queen resisted. Despite President Grover Cleveland’s condemnation of the coup and his verbal support for the Queen, the Provisional Government refused to resign and established the Republic of Hawaii.
The new government immediately pushed for annexation, sparking five years of political debate. Proponents viewed Hawaii as a gateway to Asian markets and a strategic mid-Pacific stopover for military and merchant ships. Some opponents viewed annexation as cumbersome, amoral, and potentially unconstitutional. Others feared opening the way to citizenship for Polynesian, Chinese and Japanese residents of the islands at a time when racist immigration laws expressly excluded Asians.
Annexation efforts stalled until 1898, when the outbreak of the Spanish–American War urgently underscored Hawaii’s strategic value as a base for battles in the Philippines. On July 7 of that year, Congress passed the Newlands Resolution, annexing Hawaii as a United States territory; in 1900 it obtained autonomy.
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Early state efforts go nowhere
Efforts to establish Hawaii as a full state began early and continued for decades. Sanford B. Dole, the first governor of the Territory of Hawaii (and cousin of the future pineapple magnate), first raised the possibility in his 1894 inaugural address. On February 11, 1919, the first bill on Hawaiian statehood was introduced in the United States House of Representatives. He died in committee.
Despite investigations, reports and recommendations regarding the issue, statehood has gained little ground. Instead, Hawaii retained its tenuous territorial status, with only one nonvoting congressional delegate. This meant that the islands received little federal funding for critical needs such as infrastructure, improved transportation, conservation efforts, and education. Hawaiian residents could not vote for their governor or president. And at any time, Congress could abolish the territorial legislature and the local governor and place the islands under a resident commissioner or commission of the navy.
The Cold War alters the calculation of the state
In 1940, two out of three voters in Hawaii supported statehood. World War II initially stalled the process, but in 1947 the push resumed in earnest. The Hawaiian Equal Rights Commission changed its name to the Hawaii Statehood Commission. Numerous Hawaii state bills passed the United States House or Senate in 1947, 1950, 1951, and 1953. But none prevailed in both houses.
In 1956, after John Burns was elected as the Democratic delegate from Hawaii in a Democratic-controlled Congress, he managed to win the support of Southern congressmen, particularly Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and the Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. This proved crucial, as many so-called Dixiecrats still supported segregation and saw Hawaii’s multi-ethnic population as incompatible with their racially homogeneous view of America.
For some, however, Hawaii’s large Asian population was not seen as a barrier. Instead, they were potentially critical intermediaries for America’s growing commercial and military interests in the Far East, especially during the Cold War, argues historian Roger Bell, author of Last Among Equals: Hawaiian Statehood and American Politics.
On January 3, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill admitting Alaska as 49and State. Later that same year, Hawaii’s bill, ultimately aided by being split from Alaska’s bid, passed in the House by a 323-89 vote and in the Senate by a 76-15 margin. , 18 years after Pearl Harbor, Hawaiians were officially US citizens. Hawaii voters ratified statehood by an overwhelming 17-1 majority.
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In the midst of sovereignty, apologies
However, not all Hawaii residents celebrated statehood. Native Hawaiians continually challenged Hawaii’s incorporation into the United States, from royalists staging a counter-revolution immediately after the coup to contemporary calls for decolonization.
According to Dr. Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio, Dean of the Hawaiinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, the Native sovereignty movement received a significant boost in the 1970s through anti-military activism. In particular, resentment against the U.S. military grew as militants risked their lives trying to reclaim Kaho’olawe Island, a sacred native place that had been ecologically decimated after being destroyed. used as a shooting range.
In 1993, 100 years after the coup, the US government formally apologized to Native Hawaiians for overthrowing their kingdom and depriving them of their rights to self-determination. But while he acknowledged that 1.8 million acres of land had been surrendered “without the consent or compensation of the native Hawaiian people…or their sovereign government,” the statement offered no compensation. It ended with the disclaimer: “Nothing in this joint resolution was intended to serve as settlement of any claim against the United States.”