Why is Hawaii Part of the USA?
It’s difficult to put the United States on a map.
There’s the problem of what to do with Alaska, and the bigger problem of Hawaii. Putting the islands in their proper place would require double the wall space: Honolulu is farther from Los Angeles than New York is. Typically, Hawaii is placed in the Gulf of Mexico. I recently heard of someone so used to looking at those maps that he thought Hawaii was across the water from Houston.
So how did Hawaiian islands, 2,500 miles from the coast of California, end up being part of the United States? They are a beautiful place for a vacation, but that’s not why the U.S. government annexed them in 1898 and then made them a state in 1959. The real reasons can be found in America’s semi-reluctant ascent to global power.
No one quite knows when Polynesians first settled on what we call Hawaii. There’s also debate about who were the first Europeans to arrive. England’s Captain James Cook found the islands in 1778. He met his end there the following year, but not before his writings had told the world of their existence. Whalers and merchants were soon making use of this convenient and beautiful halfway house in the North Pacific.
American traders started arriving in the 1800’s. With them came missionaries keen to teach and convert the local population. They were more successful, however, at killing them. Not intentionally. But diseases carried from North America reduced the Polynesian population from approximately 300,000 in 1800 to 40,000 one hundred years later.
The foreigners quickly recognized that Hawaii was a perfect place for growing sugar. Missionaries encouraged the Hawaiian king to sell land, most of which went to whites with deep pockets. To work the plantations, the owners recruited tens of thousands from China, Korea, and Japan. Many would eventually return home but those who stayed would soon make up three quarters of the population.
By 1900, whites made up only 5% of the population but they controlled the economy. Locals said of the American Christians: “They came to do good, and they did well.”
Hawaii had become very valuable to some Americans. But it was not valuable to America, which showed little interest in the islands. Indeed, Hawaii would become an embarrassment to Washington before it became an asset.
American planters decided they wanted more control over how Hawaii was run. At the time, the islands had both a king and an elected government. In 1887, however, armed Americans marched into the king’s palace and forced him to sign what was aptly termed the Bayonet Constitution. Three-quarters of native Hawaiians lost the right to vote.
Worse was to come. The next monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, tried to claw back power for herself and the Hawaiians. The planters responded in 1893 with a coup—carried out with the help of the Marines. Now power lay firmly in white hands. The revolutionaries then appeal to the government in Washington to make Hawaii an American territory.
They had grounds to be hopeful. In 1887, the U.S. government had negotiated a lease on Pearl Harbor. You only had to look at a map to see the strategic importance of the islands between Asia and North America, and imperialists at home were urging the president to grab not only Hawaii but also Haiti, Cuba, and Guam. This was the age of the steamship, and global powers such as Britain, France, and Japan were grabbing islands to serve as coaling stations and naval bases. The US had already warned other countries of its exclusive interest in Hawaii. Wasn’t it now time to make it official?
President Cleveland said no. He had little interest in collecting island colonies. It all seemed rather un-American. As Cleveland’s Secretary of State put it, he could not agree to “stealing territory, or annexing a people against their consent.”
Five years later, however, President McKinley’s administration saw things differently and made Hawaii a territory of the United States. What changed?
Part of it was fear that Japan might make a move on the islands. They sent a warship to the islands in protest against the 1893 coup, which they rightly saw as bad news for Hawaii’s Japanese majority. The following year, Japan fought and defeated China. American officials were worrying about something like the attack on Pearl Harbor five decades before it took place in 1941.
More important still was America’s decision to take over the Philippines after they had liberated them from Spanish control in 1898. Hawaii’s strategic importance as a link between the homeland and America’s first far-flung colony was obvious. So the US completed the formal takeover of the islands.
Americans assumed annexation would be good for Hawaii. The few native islanders disagreed at the time, and some still do. But what can you do, when most of your people have died out and then you are taken over by one of the strongest powers in the world?
The story has two good postscripts. The first was when Hawaii became a state in 1959. The white Americans hadn’t asked for statehood in 1893 because as a small minority they didn’t want to give voting rights to the Asian majority. Thankfully, Congress felt differently in 1959, giving statehood and therefore full rights to all Hawaiians—despite the opposition of some who worried about the country’s first non-white-majority state.
Second, exactly one hundred years after Americans overthrew Hawaii’s democratic government, in 1993 Congress passed a resolution to apologize. Not every country has the courage to do that.