60 Years Ago, Racists in Congress Nearly Cost Hawaii Statehood

Racism in the U.S. Congress nearly derailed Hawaii becoming the 50th state, as Sarah Miller Davenport reports.    

By Sarah Miller Davenport
 University of Sheffield
The Conversation 

Sixty years ago, Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation making Hawaii America’s 50th state. The Hawaii admission act followed a centuries-old tradition in which American territories –acquired through war, conquest and purchase – became fully integrated states of the union.

But Hawaii was not an ordinary United States territory and would be unlike any other American state.

For one, Hawaii was not actually in America, at least not physically. Its islands lay in the Pacific, some 2,000 miles from the U.S. west coast.

And Hawaii would become the first state with a majority of people of Asian descent. Many had been ineligible for U.S. citizenship only a few years earlier, before the end of racial restrictions to naturalization.

These two defining characteristics – of Hawaii’s geography and demography – had led Congress to dismiss earlier bids for statehood before World War II. Hawaii was too far away and too Asian to be joined with the continental United States.

Asian Migration Conduit

Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898. That was five years after white settlers in the islands overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy to establish an American-led government.

Americans had first arrived as missionaries in 1820, and stayed on to establish sugar and pineapple plantations throughout the islands. A shortage of Hawaiian labor led them to seek workers from Asia – first China and later Japan and the Philippines.

Hawaii’s first American settlers were missionaries.
(The Hawaiian gazette, 23 May 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress)

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Hawaii became a major conduit for Asian migration to the American mainland, where anti-Asian racism led to a series of immigration exclusion acts. The first of these was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which eventually led to the near-total restriction of Asian migration in the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act.

Throughout this period, the American settlers who dominated Hawaii’s economy and governance were happy with the territorial status quo. They had carved out a comfortable enclave of wealth and influence, from which they ruled over a racialized working class. Any increased power that statehood might confer on Native Hawaiians and Asians would necessarily undermine white supremacy in the islands.

But the Sugar Act of 1934, which set quotas on Hawaii sugar exports to the continental U.S., changed the calculus of the territory’s white leaders, who now saw the advantage of being a fully equal U.S. state with federal representation. They launched an organized push for statehood.

By 1937, however, the statehood campaign had stalled on the back of a congressional investigation that called into question the loyalty of the islands’ Japanese population, Hawaii’s largest ethnic group.

According to one statehood opponent, the very idea of statehood was “preposterous,” since people of Japanese descent in Hawaii held allegiance to Japan, “which they could not disavow if they would, and would not if they could.”

Not surprisingly, Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor appeared to put statehood even further out of reach. For most of the war, the islands were subject to martial law. There was no mass internment of Hawaii’s Japanese population as in the continental U.S. To do so in Hawaii would have been logistically and economically infeasible given the numbers. But martial law imposed particular burdens on people of Japanese ancestry and severely limited political activity in the islands.

Statehood Push Stalled by Racism

After World War II, statehood advocates in Hawaii regrouped, with a new Hawaii Statehood Commission acting as an official arm of the territorial legislature.

Fears of Japanese disloyalty had faded. Japan was now a U.S. ally and popular stories of the heroism of Japanese-Americans soldiers in Europe papered over the wartime anti-Japanese racism that had justified internment.

But the forces of segregation and racism in Congress effectively derailed statehood for more than a decade. It was not until 1959 that a bill finally passed both houses.

Japanese immigrant women who worked in the Hawaiian sugar cane fields, 1919.
(University of Hawai’i – West O’ahu Center for Labor Education and Research)

The base of opposition to statehood in Congress was Southern Democrats. To them, Hawaii was a dangerous portent of an interracial future.

“Perhaps we should become the United States of the Pacific, and finally should become the United States of the Orient,” said Sen. George Smathers. The Florida lawmaker went on to claim that Hawaii statehood threatened “our high standard of living” and “the purity of our democracy.”

Segregationists also worried that Hawaii statehood would mean an end to Jim Crow, the systematic, legal enshrinement of racist policies in the South. Texas Rep. W.R. Poage suggested that the proposal for Hawaii statehood might result in “two more votes in the Senate” for civil rights.

From Rejection to Embrace

How, then, do we account for the dramatic shift in Hawaii’s fortunes, from racist exclusion to full legal inclusion in the nation? The answer lies in the intersection of global decolonization, the Cold War and the end of legal segregation in the U.S.

The Cold War, which followed World War II, was in part a struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for the allegiance of the “Third World.”

From a 1957 booklet by the Hawaii Statehood Commission, “Hawaii USA, Communist Beachhead or Showcase for Americanism.” (University of Hawaii)

One tactic the Soviets used in that battle was to call attention to segregation and racism in the U.S. By doing that, the Soviets had identified America’s Achilles’ heel,” in the words of Dean Acheson, President Harry Truman’s secretary of state.

Hawaii statehood advocates claimed that the new state would convince people in the decolonizing nations of Asia that the U.S. was committed to both racial equality and self-governance.

Mike Masaoka, representing the Japanese American Citizen League, argued that Hawaii’s racial composition was “one of the most potent arguments” for statehood. “To the millions of dark-skinned people” around the world, America’s denial of statehood to Hawaii was proof of the claims of “Communist hatemongers” that the U.S. was racist and anti-democratic.

By the mid-1950s, Hawaii, as America’s western frontier and host to the U.S. Pacific Command, was gaining new strategic and symbolic importance as the Cold War in Asia heated up.

American foreign policy had focused primarily on Europe in the 1940s, but by the next decade it was Asia that most worried the foreign policy establishment. The communist victory in China in 1949, North Korea’s breach of the South Korean border a year later, and the push for decolonization in Southeast Asia combined to draw American attention to the Pacific.

Katsuro Miho, a member of the Hawaii Statehood Commission, warned Congress that Asian nationalist leaders were scrutinizing the statehood debates. According to Miho, Mohammed Roem, the former vice prime minister of Indonesia, had told the Hawaii legislature that Indonesians “were watching to see if the United States will grant statehood to ‘racially tolerant Hawaii.’”

Hawaii was formally admitted as a state on Aug. 21, 1959, necessitating a 50th star on the U.S. flag. President Dwight Eisenhower holds a corner of a new flag.
(AP/Byron Rollins)

Bridge to Asia

Statehood advocates won the argument by emphasizing Hawaii’s cultural and geographic distance from the rest of the U.S. – the very obstacles to statehood before World War II.

Now, in the context of the Cold War, Hawaii could be America’s bridge to Asia.”

In urging Congress to vote for statehood in early 1959, Fred Seaton, Eisenhower’s secretary of the interior, celebrated Hawaii’s connection to Asia as useful to American foreign policy.

Hawaii, he said, “is the picture window of the Pacific through which the peoples of the East look into our American front room.” This was vital to “future dealings with the peoples of Asia,” because most of Hawaii’s people were “of oriental or Polynesian racial extraction.”

After statehood, policymakers in Hawaii and on the mainland sought to solidify the new state’s role as bridge to Asia by establishing a series of educational cultural exchange initiatives aimed at fostering “mutual understanding” between Americans and Asians.

Yet the language of connection that gave meaning to Hawaii statehood also served to distort the relationship between Asia and the U.S., particularly as Hawaii became a staging ground for various American military interventions in Vietnam and elsewhere. A bridge can link peoples and cultures, but it can also carry tanks.

Sarah Miller DavenportLecturer in 20th Century U.S. History, University of Sheffield, is the author of “Gateway State: Hawai‘i in American Culture, 1945-1978.The Conversation” This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. Princeton University Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

21 comments for “60 Years Ago, Racists in Congress Nearly Cost Hawaii Statehood

  1. Matt
    March 21, 2019 at 11:45

    And now a number of native Hawaiians want to leave the Union. Go figure.

  2. Robert Mayer
    March 21, 2019 at 05:04

    It’s the white man’s burdon to help in convertin’
    The infidel people from darkness 2 light
    Each emerging nation needs civilization
    & kindly insight from the erudite white!

    The African continent wasn’t explored
    The natives could not find their way
    The white man needs labor he can easily afford
    So he sells ’em into brighter day

    The indian people live close to the land
    & walk with the spirit above
    The white man moves westward & at God’s command
    Has soon stolen their birthright with love.

    The people of Asia have culture & taste
    But history cannot forget
    The natural resources there can’t go to waste
    So we’ll save ’em from communists yet!

    • Matt
      March 21, 2019 at 11:57

      Down with the White man and all of his dastardly technology
      Down with Western civilization and all of its medicine, buildings, transportation, clothing and food
      Down with writing, culture and art
      For surely Africa would have become the heart of humanity by now if the White man had left them alone in their universal peace to enjoy their long lives free of disease, famine and war
      And god bless Marxist communism which has done so much good for the peoples of Asia
      And blah blah blah
      -Bobby Mayer, 13

  3. March 20, 2019 at 23:33

    Statehood? They’d have been better off with restored sovereignty stolen by a coup in 1893 organised by US businessmen against the last rule. Those were the real racists.

  4. Timothy Janssen
    March 20, 2019 at 17:16

    There is so much history here that Americans are not aware of. Every American should read this and this should be added to the curriculum in public schools and institutions of higher learning.

  5. Mild - ly - Facetious
    March 20, 2019 at 14:28

    “American Exceptionalism” – – AKA American Expansion of the World – Wide White Empire ( An Historical Revelation )


  6. Jeff Harrison
    March 20, 2019 at 12:03

    Actual Hawaiians had no interest in either statehood or governance by American immigrants. Not that Americans gave them much choice. My mother’s second husband had a son who was married to a woman from the family of the last Queen of Hawaii. They are still not happy about it.

    • D'Esterre
      March 20, 2019 at 17:05

      Jeff Harrison: “Actual Hawaiians had no interest in either statehood or governance by American immigrants.”

      Indeed. An ancestor of mine worked for King Kamehameha V, so I’ve long taken an interest in that part of the world. Hawai’i was stolen from the Hawai’ians by the Americans. The missionaries have a lot to answer for, with regard to what happened there in the 19th century, but the overthrow of the monarchy followed a pattern of US behaviour in respect of other polities, especially (but not exclusively) in the Pacific and South America.

      Those of us who live in the Pacific are all too aware of the number of territories either annexed by the US, or occupied following WWII. Or acquired as the spoils of an earlier war, as with Guam and the Philippines. Although, with regard to the latter country, we watched deliriously as the Pinoy overthrew the egregious Marcos regime and threw out the Americans. We have connections to the Philippines; the Americans have returned, but not in previous numbers.

      We know well which polity is the potentially dangerous hegemon in our backyard. And it surely isn’t China!

  7. March 20, 2019 at 12:02

    I’m afraid the history of Hawaii and the United States has far more terrible things in it than this event.

    The native Hawaiians were overwhelmingly opposed to Washington’s rule from the start and sent a delegation to submit a petition signed by virtually everyone on the islands.

    No one in Washington would even speak to them. They were ignored and treated with contempt.

    The US simply seized the islands, and that was that. To hell with what the residents thought.

    • March 20, 2019 at 12:21

      A Hawaiian King died in a San Francisco hotel under suspicious circumstances, besides the capitalist, imperial gunboat coup.

  8. March 20, 2019 at 11:47

    A slice of history never taught in American schools. Thank you.

  9. Rick Patel
    March 20, 2019 at 10:59

    What a warped & twisted article. Hawaiians never wanted to be owned by the USA. The missionary gang, land speculators & the US Navy wanted Hawaii, and they got it.

    • DW Bartoo
      March 20, 2019 at 11:31

      “The missionaries came to do good, and did very well indeed.”

      Yes, a bit of the earlier history of the islands would have made even more clear the depravity, the corruption, and the hypocrisy.

      The racism, for that is what, in all its glory, the white USians foisted upon the people, the human beings, of Hawaii. And that racism, still very present, especially on the mainland “Homeland” (odious term, that, just dripping with exceptionalism and cultural superiority).

    • March 20, 2019 at 11:48

      Yes , many Hawaiians today support Hawaiian sovereignty.

      FDR ordered Hoover to compile a list of Hawaiian/Japanese leaders ONE YEAR before Pearl Harbor. These leaders were detained and placed in internment camp a couple days after Pearl Harbor.

    • March 20, 2019 at 12:04

      Indeed. See my comment above.
      This article certainly is warped.

    • March 20, 2019 at 12:05

      Many Hawaiians support Hawaiian sovereignty.

      FDR ordered Hoover to compile list of Japanese/Hawaiian leaders one year Before Pearl Harbor.
      These leaders were promptly interred after Pearl Harbor.

      • Tim
        March 22, 2019 at 10:43

        > These leaders were promptly interred after Pearl Harbor.

        Fortunately, the U.S. government did not go quite that far, but merely INTERNED them…

  10. DW Bartoo
    March 20, 2019 at 09:41

    Thank you for sharing this important history, Sarah, I have already passed it along to several individuals.

    I wish that the history classes taught in the US educational system might include such history as it might encourage much deeper understanding and perspective to counter the all to common simplistic mythology imparted to the young which suggests that a kindly benevolence lies behind US empire with its doctrines of dominance and manifest destiny.

    Too much of actual history is rewritten to glorify conquest and oppression as both inevitable and divine.

    A better, more honest assessment of the past might well provide needed insight into how we arrived at our present and what, if the human species is to avoid self imposed extinction, we might very well need to do now, to ensure that there might be a decent, sane and sustainable future for humanity and many other life forms.

    History is, very often, the dishonest recounting of those who dominate the present, it is also, equally often, composed of the day to day lies and oppressions of authority and power, of wealth and extraction, prettified up to look grand and inspiring, thus permitting the next outrage to appear “defensive”, wise, and necessary,

    Even world wars and the use of nuclear weaponry may be glorified.

    Honest history reveals who benefits from tyranny and destruction.

    Dishonest history merely excuses it.

  11. March 19, 2019 at 23:14

    God Bless Tulsi Gabbard for making it out of Hawaii all the way to Disneyland, um, excuse me, I mean Washington DC!


Comments are closed.