Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt, Hawaii and Japan

When the United States seized Hawaii in 1893, it did not seize the islands from the native Hawaiians. It seized it from the Japanese. That is my new thesis, based on some hints I found these last few days. Probably some specialists in Japanese and Hawaiian history already have studied this issue. Of course, like any historical hypothesis it is stated too simply. Even if basically true, or somewhat true, to understand what happened you have to look at a very complex set of events.

Standard American history fare might be represented by Thomas A. Bailey's The American Pageant, a History of the Republic, a standard college-level introductory American history text during the 1950's and 1960's. "The white planters, mostly Americans, were further alarmed by the increasingly autocratic tendencies of dusky Queen Liliuokalani ... [they] organized a successful revolt early in 1893. It was openly assisted by American troops ..." President Cleveland, however, was against annexation. "A subsequent probe revealed the damning fact that a majority of the Hawaiian natives did not favor annexation at all." It was not until after the U.S. seized the Philippines in the Spanish-American War that "A joint resolution of annexation was rushed through Congress and approved by McKinley on July 7, 1898." As far as I can tell, nothing Bailey reports is untrue.

The standard leftist, anti-imperialist critique focuses on the native Polynesians of Hawaii. It tends to give more details about how the Christian missionaries, sugar planters, and traders grabbed the land and destroyed the native culture. It is not a pretty picture. Even Luzviminda Francisco's and Jonathan Fast's fascinating Conspiracy for Empire is focused on the role of sugar growing, manufacturing, and tariffs in its section on Hawaii.

Imagine my surprise when, in reading Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power by Howard K. Beale, to see a number of in-passing remarks about Japan and Hawaii prior to the U.S. seizure. Recall at this time that all the great powers (all European plus the U.S. and Japan) liked to seize islands to use for trade and military bases. That Hawaii was one of the last great prizes resulted from a balance of power and Hawaii's strategic position in the Pacific. Great Britain, in particular, believed it had rights to Hawaii since its Captain Cook had "discovered" the islands.

Theodore Roosevelt was an unabashed, aggressive American nationalist from an early age. As he rose to increasingly powerful positions in the 1890's, cumulating in his election as McKinley's Vice-President in 1900, he pushed an agenda of conquest. He was for the immediate annexation of Hawaii in 1893. In 1897, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he was one of a group of powerful men lobbying for annexation (and war with Spain). Secretary of State Sherman objected because of issues with previous treaties. "On June 16 an annexation treaty was signed. Sherman himself, ignorant of the treaty negotiations, had assured the Japanese minister that no treaty was being negotiated, and so when the treaty was announced Japan protested." Roosevelt publicly said "The United States is not in a position which requires her to ask Japan or any other foreign Power what territory it shall or shall not acquire." [Beale, p. 66-67]

Then the kicker: "Ignoring the presence of more Orientals than whites, Lodge argued on democratic grounds that a majority of whites and natives, who alone have a right to speak, seek annexation." A strange stance given that natives were against annexation. "Roosevelt pronounced the native Hawaiians unable to govern, and the whites therefore entitled to rule the islands."

The Japanese did not just protest. In April 1897 Roosevelt wrote that he wanted to annex Hawaii at once, rather than risk that he Japanese take it. In September 1897 he said Japan’s fleet was more powerful than the U.S.’s in the Pacific. “Then Japan sent a warship to Hawaii while our expansionists were trying to get McKinley to annex it…” [Beale, p. 233].

So, one can deduce that the U.S. had a treaty with Japan saying neither would annex Hawaii without the other's permission. I don't yet know what treaty that was; it is on my list to research for my U.S. War Against Asia. The Japanese sent some sort of battleship, and may have had a more powerful fleet in the Pacific than the U.S. (though that was probably just an example of Roosevelt trying to get Congress to appropriate more money for the Navy). And there were a lot of orientals in Hawaii. Maybe as many Japanese as Americans, certainly enough to warrant Japan's concern.

Fortunately, Hawaii was included in the U.S. census of 1900. Here are is the population, broken down by national derivation:

Group/of population

Hawaiian/mixed 24.4%
White 18.7%
Japanese 39.7%
Chinese 16.7%
Other 0.5%

It is surprising that Japan did not go to war with the United States in 1898. She might have seized the Philippines and Hawaii while the U.S. had its hands full fighting Spain. But unlike the U.S., the Japanese were still trying to act like a civilized, peaceful nation. Over the next few decades, the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Russian and France would continue to hammer home the lesson that being peaceful was for losers. Militarists would come to dominate the Japanese government and intimidate its normally peaceful population. But even so, Japan tried to stay at peace with the U.S. until it was given no other choice but war (or complete surrender) by the Franklin Roosevelt administration in 1940.


Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power by Howard K. Beale, Collier Books, New York, NY, 1962 paperback edition. Copyright 1956 by The Johns Hopkins Press.

The American Pageant, A History of the Republic by Thomas A. Bailey. Third Edition. D.C. Heath and Company, Boston. 1967. Copyright 1966.

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