The “Picture Window of the Pacific”: Hawaiʻi Statehood and Global Decolonization

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 12:00 PM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Sarah Miller-Davenport, University of Sheffield
Why did Hawai‘i statehood become a matter of national debate in the post-World War II era, after Americans had for decades ignored the islands’ colonial relationship to the U.S.? And why did statehood—as opposed to commonwealth designation or independence—appear to be the obvious solution to Hawai‘i’s territorial status? This paper will explore how and why Hawai‘i statehood came to represent America’s commitment to self-government during the height of global decolonization. Before 1959, as a non-self-governing territory with a mostly Asian population—many of whose members only became eligible for citizenship when naturalization laws changed in 1952—Hawai‘i was a problem for the U.S., belying its anti-colonialist, anti-racist rhetoric. But statehood was never inevitable, as the lengthy campaign for statehood makes clear. The debates over statehood during the 1950s reveal contested understandings of race, sovereignty, and the U.S. role in the world in postwar America. While its opponents envisioned an insular and racially stratified United States, statehood supporters embraced of a more expansive notion of American identity—both in terms of who could be counted as American at home and what areas of the world were considered to be within the U.S. sphere of influence.

Advocates viewed statehood in the context of foreign, not domestic, policy. They believed it would demonstrate to the decolonizing world that America practiced what it preached on the issue of self-government. And by making Hawai‘i a fully equal part of the nation, as opposed to casting it off, the U.S. could counter Soviet claims of American racism by showcasing America’s commitment to both racial equality and democracy. But statehood was an incomplete and problematic form of “decolonization” in that it overturned Hawai‘i’s colonial status without granting national independence. In the context of the Cold War, civil rights, and decolonization, Hawai‘i demanded self-government without severance.

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