More than 60 years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, Hawaii (Native spelling: Hawaiʻi) officially became America’s 50th state on August 21, 1959. The cluster of islands, situated some 2,400 miles off the U.S. mainland in the South Pacific, followed Alaska, the 49th entry, by just eight months.
Hawaii’s push for statehood had failed repeatedly for more than half a century—due largely, scholars say, to discrimination against the islands’ substantial non-white population. However, savvy political maneuvering, coupled with changing U.S. strategic interests in the Pacific during the Cold War, ultimately turned the tide.
Statehood hasn’t been universally embraced on the islands. For some Native Hawaiians, it reflects an unwelcome legacy of American imperialism, militarism and colonization in the Pacific region.
From Overthrow to Annexation
Hawaii drew American interest for both economic and strategic reasons. After Christian missionaries visiting in the early 19th century reported favorable conditions for planting sugar cane, white business investors arrived, buying up large tracts of land.
By the 1870s, treaties tied Hawaiian trade increasingly to the U.S. economy, while the wealthy planter class worked actively to undercut the sovereignty of Native rule. In 1887, in what came to be known as the “Bayonet Constitution,” they forced King David Kalakaua, at gunpoint, to sign a constitution that drained the monarchy of power and effectively denied suffrage to anyone who wasn’t a white, English-speaking property owner.
On January 17, 1893, a small group of white planters and businessmen successfully overthrew the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani. They had help from America’s envoy to Hawaii who, without authorization, had conspired to place a U.S. warship off the coast, threatening invasion if the Queen resisted. Despite President Grover Cleveland’s condemnation of the coup and verbal support for the queen, the provisional government refused to step down, and established the Republic of Hawaii.
The new government pushed immediately for annexation, prompting five years of political debate. Proponents saw Hawaii as a gateway to Asian markets and a strategic mid-Pacific stopover for military and merchant ships. Some opponents saw annexation as burdensome, amoral and potentially unconstitutional. Others feared paving a pathway to citizenship for the islands’ Polynesian, Chinese and Japanese residents 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 U.S. territory; in 1900, it was granted self-governance.
Early Statehood Efforts Go Nowhere
Efforts to make Hawaii a full state started early and continued for decades. Sanford B. Dole, the first governor of the territory of Hawaii (and cousin to the future pineapple magnate), initially raised the possibility in his 1894 inaugural address. On February 11, 1919, the first bill for Hawaiian statehood was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives. It died in committee.
Despite investigations, reports and recommendations regarding the issue, statehood gained little traction. Instead, Hawaii retained its tenuous territorial status, with only one nonvoting Congressional delegate. That meant the islands received scant federal funding for crucial needs like infrastructure, transportation improvements, conservation efforts and education. Hawaiian residents couldn’t vote for their governor or president. And at any time, Congress could abolish the territorial legislature and local governor and place the islands under a resident commissioner or a Navy commission.
The Cold War Changes Statehood Calculus
By 1940, two of every three voters in Hawaii supported statehood. World War II initially stalled the process, but in 1947, the push renewed in earnest. The Hawaiian Equal Rights Commission changed its name to the Hawaii Statehood Commission. Numerous Hawaii statehood bills passed either the U.S. House or Senate in 1947, 1950, 1951 and 1953. But none prevailed through both chambers.
In 1956, after John Burns was elected as Hawaii’s Democratic delegate in a Democrat-controlled Congress, he succeeded in winning the support of southern congressmen, particularly Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. That proved crucial, since many so-called Dixiecrats still supported segregation and viewed Hawaii’s multi-ethnic population as incompatible with their racially homogenous vision of America.
For some, though, Hawaii’s large Asian population was seen not as an impediment. Instead, they were potentially critical intermediaries for America’s growing trade and military interests in the Far East—particularly during the Cold War, asserts historian Roger Bell, author of Last Among Equals: Hawaiian Statehood and American Politics.
On January 3, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law admitting Alaska as the 49th state. Later that same year, the Hawaii bill, ultimately helped by being uncoupled from Alaska’s bid, passed in the House by a 323 to 89 vote and in the Senate by a 76 to 15 margin. At last, 18 years after Pearl Harbor, Hawaii’s people were officially American citizens. Hawaii voters ratified statehood by an overwhelming margin of 17 to 1.
Amid Sovereignty Push, An Apology
However, not all Hawaii residents celebrated statehood. Native Hawaiians have continually challenged Hawaii’s incorporation into the United States, from royalists staging a counter-revolution in the immediate aftermath of the coup to contemporary calls for decolonization.
The Native sovereignty movement got a significant boost in the 1970s from antimilitary activism, according to Dr. Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio, dean of the Hawaiinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge. In particular, resentment of the U.S. military grew as activists risked their lives trying to reclaim Kaho‘olawe Island, a sacred Native place that had been environmentally decimated after being used as a bombing range.
In 1993, 100 years after the coup, the U.S. government formally apologized to Native Hawaiians for overthrowing their kingdom and depriving them of their rights to self-determination. But while it acknowledged that 1.8 million acres of land had been ceded “without the consent of or compensation to the Native Hawaiian people…or their sovereign government,” the statement offered no remuneration. It ended with the disclaimer: “Nothing in this Joint Resolution was intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States.”