Sarah Miller Davenport: Racists in Congress fought statehood for Hawaii, but lost that battle 60 years ago

Sarah Miller Davenport, University of Sheffield

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 Hawaiʻi – West Oʻahu 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, titled ‘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 Davenport is the author of:

Gateway State: Hawai‘i in American Culture, 1945-1978The Conversation

Princeton University Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

Sarah Miller Davenport, Lecturer in 20th Century US History, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Jason Brennan on When All Else Fails

Brennan When All Else FailsThe economist Albert O. Hirschman famously argued that citizens of democracies have only three possible responses to injustice or wrongdoing by their governments: we may leave, complain, or comply. But in When All Else Fails, Jason Brennan argues that there is a fourth option. When governments violate our rights, we may resist. We may even have a moral duty to do so. The result is a provocative challenge to long-held beliefs about how citizens may respond when government officials behave unjustly or abuse their power.

What led you to write this book?

Almost daily for the past year, I have come across news stories about police officers using excessive violence against civilians, or about people being arrested and having their lives ruined over things that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place. I watched the Black Lives Matter protests and started reading histories of armed resistance. I watched as president after president killed innocent civilians while pursuing the “War on Terror.” I see people’s lives destroyed by the “War on Drugs,” which continues on the same course even though we have strong evidence it makes things worse, not better. Every day, government agents acting ex officio are committing severe injustices. 

I ascertained that contemporary philosophy was largely impotent to analyze or deal with these problems. Most political philosophy is about trying to construct a theory of an ideal, perfectly just society, which means philosophers usually imagine away the hard problems rather than consider how to deal with those problems. Philosophers often try to justify the government’s right to commit injustice, but they often rely upon irrelevant or incoherent models of what governments and their agents are like. For example, Suzanne Dovi’s theory of political representation is grounded in a false theory of voter behavior, while John Rawls’s argument for government simultaneously assumes people are too selfish to pay for public goods, and government agents are too angelic to abuse their power. I saw an opening not only to do original philosophy, but to do work that bears on the pressing events of our times.

You can see that in the book. The “thought experiments” I use are all based on actual cases, including police officers beating up black men who did nothing more than roll slightly past a stop sign; officers shooting unarmed, subdued men; governments spying on and wiretapping ordinary citizens; drone strikes on innocent civilians; throwing people in jail for smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine; judges having to enforce absurd sentences or unjust laws; and so on.

Can you give a summary of your argument?

The thesis is very simple: the conditions under which you may exercise the right of self-defense or the right to defend others against civilians and government agents are the same. If it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a civilian committing an act, then it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a government agent committing that same act. For instance, if I wanted to lock you in my basement for a year for smoking pot, you’d feel no compunction in defending yourself against me. My thesis is that you should treat government agents the same way.

My main argument is also simple: Both laypeople and philosophers have offered a few dozen arguments trying to defend the opposite conclusion: the view that government agents have a kind of special immunity against defensive resistance. But upon closer examination, we’ll see each of the arguments are bad. So, we should conclude instead that our rights of self-defense or to defend others against injustice do not simply disappear by government fiat. On closer inspection, there turns out to be no significant moral difference between the Commonwealth of Virginia imprisoning you for owning pot and me imprisoning you in my basement for the same thing.

To be clear,  I am not arguing that you may resist government whenever you disagree with a law. Just as I reject voluntarism on the part of government—I don’t think governments can simply decide right and wrong—so I reject voluntarism on the part of individuals. Rather, I’m arguing that you may resist when governments in fact violate people’s rights or in fact cause unjust harm.

Some will no doubt complain this thesis is dangerous. In some ways it is, and I take care to highlight how to be careful about it in the book. But on the other hand, the opposite thesis—that we must defer to government injustice—is no doubt even more dangerous. People tend to be deferential and conformist. Most people will stand by and do nothing while armed officers send people to death camps. Stanley Milgram showed most people will electrocute another person to death because a man in a white lab coat told them to. If anything, defenders of the other side—of the view that we should defer to government injustice—have a duty to be cautious pushing their dangerous view.

Can you talk a bit about the meaning behind the title? What exactly has to fail in order to justify the actions you describe?

Usually, lying, stealing, destroying property, hurting others, or killing others is wrong. However, you may sometimes perform such actions in self-defense or in defense of others. The basic principle of defense, codified in both common law and commonsense morality, is this: you may use a defensive action (such as sabotage, subterfuge, deceit, or violence) against someone else when they are initiating a severe enough injustice or harm, but only if it is necessary to defend yourself. Here, “necessary” means that you cannot use violence if a nonviolent means of defense is equally effective; you cannot use deceit if a non-deceitful means of defense is equally effective. So, the title is meant to signal that defensive actions—such as deceit or violence—are, if not quite last resorts, not first resorts either. 

What is the place of uncivil disobedience within a peaceful and successful polity?

What we call “civil disobedience” is a form of public protest. In civil disobedience, people publicly and explicitly break the law for the purpose of trying to have the law changed. They will often accept legal punishment, not necessarily because they think punishment is warranted and that even bad laws must be respected, but because it is strategic to do so to garner sympathy for their cause. Civil disobedience is about social change.

But self-defense is not about social change. If I kill a would-be mugger, I’m not trying to reduce crime or change gun policy. I’m trying to stop myself from being the victim of that particular injustice. Similarly, if you had been present and had acted in defense of Eric Garner, you would not necessarily have been trying to fix American policing—you would have just been trying to save Garner’s life. Defensive actions—or uncivil disobedience—are about stopping particular wrongdoers from committing particular harms or violating particular people’s rights. 

What are your thoughts on recent protests and movements such as Take a Knee, Me Too, and March for our Lives?

Globally, US policing and US criminal policy are outliers. American criminal justice is unusually punitive and harsh. We have 4.4% of the world’s population but around 25% of the world’s prisoners. We give longer, harsher sentences than illiberal countries such as Russia or China. Our police are unusually violent, even to the most privileged in our society. I applaud movements that bring attention to these facts.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, though the US had a higher than normal crime rate, its sentence lengths, imprisonment rate, and so on, were on the high end but similar to those of other liberal, rich, democratic countries. But starting in the 1970s, things got worse. 

Right now, Chris Surprenant and I are writing a book called Injustice for All explaining why this happened and offering some ideas about how to fix it. We argue that the problem is not explained by racism (as leftists argue), the War on Drugs (as libertarians argue), or crime and family collapse (as conservatives argue), though these things are each important factors. Rather, the US criminal justice system became dysfunctional because nearly every person involved—from voters to cops to judges to politicians—faces bad incentives created by bad rules.

Are there examples from history of individuals or groups following your philosophy with success?

Two recent books, Charles Cobb Jr.’s This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back provide strong evidence that the later “nonviolent” phase of civil rights activism succeeded (as much as it has) only because in earlier phases, black Americans involved in protest armed themselves in self-defense. Once murderous mobs and law enforcement learned that they would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and activists in turn began using the nonviolent tactics with which we are familiar.

Do you think there are changes that can be made that would lessen instances in which uncivil disobedience is justified?

A facile answer: all governments have to do is respect citizens’ rights.

More realistically: we need to train police differently, change recruitment tactics, and stop using SWAT teams so often. We should decriminalize many behaviors that are currently criminalized. We need to change tax codes so that poor localities are not dependent upon law enforcement issuing tickets to gain revenue. We need Congress to rein in the executive branch’s war and surveillance powers.

But even these kinds of ideas are too facile, because there is no willpower to make such improvements. Consider an example: violent crime in the US has been dropping since 1994 (and no, it’s not because we keep locking up all the violent criminals). Yet most Americans mistakenly believe, year after year, that crime is rising. They feel scared and vote for politicians who promise to be tough on crime. The politicians in turn support more confrontational, occupying-force style methods of policing. Here, we know what the problem is, but to fix the system we need to fix the voters, and we don’t know how to do that. To be clear, When All Else Fails is not a theory of social change, and not a prescription for fixing persistent or systematic social problems. As I often tell my political economy students, while we may know which institutions work better than others, no one yet has a good account of how to move from bad institutions to good.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. His many books include Against Democracy and The Ethics of Voting.

Congratulations Martin Ruhs, Winner of the 2014 Best Book Award for the Migration and Citizenship Section of the American Political Science Association

Martin RuhsThe Migration and Citizenship Section of the American Political Science Association has named Martin Ruhs’s The Price of Rights: Regulating International Labor Migration  the winner of the 2014 Best Book Award in the Migration and Citizenship category. The judging committee lauded Ruhs for his “innovative, rigorous, and very comprehensive treatment of the subject of international labor migration” saying additionally that his “command of knowledge and research skills demonstrates the best practices of scholarship.”

Martin Ruhs is an Associate Professor of Political Economy at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education and a Senior Researcher at COMPAS. He is also an Associate Member of the Department of Economics, the Department of Social Policy and Intervention and the Blavatnik School of Government. Ruhs’s research focuses on the economics and politics of international labor migration within an internationally comparative framework, which he draws on to comment on migration issues in the media and to provide policy analysis and advice for various national governments and institutions.

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Martin Ruhs is the author of:

The Price of Rights The Price of Rights: Regulating International Labor Migration by Martin Ruhs
Hardcover | 2013 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691132914
272 pp. | 6 x 9 | 13 line illus. 16 tables. |eBook | ISBN: 9781400848607 | Reviews Table of Contents Chapter 1[PDF]