Sixty years ago today, Hawaii became the 50th — and final? — state of the United States. As anniversaries go, this one is probably not one that will get much attention, although Hawaii’s entry into the Union six decades ago proved to be more momentous than anyone could have imagined then. Two things that can be traced directly to Hawaiian statehood: The presidency of Barack Obama and U.S. dominance in women’s soccer.
Nearly two years after Hawaii became a state, Obama was born in Honolulu — racist “birther” conspiracy theories notwithstanding. History delights in ironies and here’s one of many. Southern Democrats were the loudest opponents of Hawaiian statehood. They looked askance at Hawaii’s large Asian population and assumed Hawaii would be a state whose representatives would vote for civil rights legislation. They got that and then some — because Hawaii, not the Deep South, gave us our first African-American president.
Last month’s U.S. victory in the Women’s World Cup can also be traced to Hawaiian statehood. In the early 1970s, when Congress was taking up an overhaul of education laws, it was Rep. Patsy Mink, a Democrat from Hawaii, who pushed for what today we know as Title IX — the provision that guarantees men and women be treated equally in education. One of the most visible effects of that law has been on the sports field, where number of female athletes in high school and college has increased twelvefold. U.S. dominance in women’s soccer — a dominance that American men can only dream of — is a result of public policy that began with the discrimination Mink faced when she found she could not get into medical school because of her gender.
Hawaiian statehood also tells a story of American expansionism that doesn’t always hold up well against modern sensibilities. Hawaii was an independent nation when it had the misfortune to be “discovered” by the British and then invaded by France. The French left, but the American businessmen who moved to the islands in the 1800s did not. They made a nice profit exporting sugar cane and the occasional pineapple. In time, they decided they’d like to run the whole show and overthrew the Hawaiian government in 1893. Conveniently, a ship full of U.S. Marines just happened to be off the coast, ostensibly to safeguard American property. Hawaii’s queen was imprisoned and a new government was proclaimed under a certain Stanford Dole. You may recognize his name the next time you buy pineapple juice. Hawaii may be way out in the Pacific but its story is much the same as the continental United States — colonists showed up and stole the land from the natives.
Hawaii was soon annexed (you can thank President William McKinley for that) and the question soon became: Should Hawaii become a state? The first request came in 1903 and went nowhere, as did subsequent efforts in the 1930s. Hawaii was too far away — and seemed far too, well, non-white. The events of Dec. 7, 1941, changed the perception of distance. Suddenly, Hawaii was very American territory — and a strategically-important one at that. After World War II came another push for Hawaiian statehood but its demographics (only 25% white) were still a factor. So were more ordinary politics. Hawaii was presumed Republican; Alaska was believed Democratic. Some saw the makings of a compromise — statehood for both on the theory their votes would cancel each other out. Southern Democrats opposed both because they rightly assumed neither state would have much interest in preserving segregation in the South. In November 1950, President Harry Truman wrote angrily in his diary that two powerful Southern senators “have decided against statehood for Alaska and Hawaii — color and power!” One of Virginia’s senators then was Harry Byrd Sr. He was a staunch segregationist, but also a big fan of parks — the Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park are part of his legacy. Byrd wanted to see Hawaii’s parks, but was vehemently opposed to statehood. How could he resolve this dilemma? This way: The official records of the National Park Service detail how he travelled to Hawaii under a fictitious name. The park service, keen to curry favor, arranged for a personal tour by a renowned naturalist. “The day after the senator left Washington with destination supposedly unknown, however, some newspaper reporter called up his home in Berryville, Virginia, and the maid who answered the telephone told him that Senator Byrd was on a trip to Hawaii,” the records say. Hawaiian newspapers started printing Byrd’s photo, asking that anyone who saw him to notify the military and the governor, presumably so the politicians could lobby him about statehood. Somehow, Byrd managed to remain incognito. Despite his fondness for Hawaii’s parks, Byrd voted against statehood for both Hawaii and Alaska. So did all but one but one member of Virginia’s congressional delegation. The lone exception was William “Pat” Jennings, a Democrat from Smyth County who represented the 9th District. The new state immediately played a role in the 1960 presidential election. Richard Nixon, eager to combat John Kennedy’s contention that America was at a standstill, wanted to emphasize the two new additions by campaigning in all 50 states. The travel — along with an illness — left him so haggard that he made a poor impression in the first televised debate. In that sense, Hawaii (and Alaska) helped elect Kennedy and put a man on the moon. The compromise that saw Alaska become the 49th state on Jan. 3, 1959, and Hawaii the 50th on Aug. 21 was based on a political miscalculation by both parties. Alaska today is strongly Republican and Hawaii strongly Democratic. That’s something that those who oppose statehood for Puerto Rico should keep in mind. Maybe Puerto Rico would be Democratic now, but political alignments sometimes change. Hawaii was presumed Republican in the 1950s because Republicans then were the party most open to minorities; witness the opposition by those Southern Democrats. Puerto Rico has elected Republicans in the past and might do so again, although probably not under a Republican Party led by Donald Trump. It’s now been 60 years since we added a state; that’s the longest such stretch in American history. Consider this: Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory the same year Hawaii did. It’s also more populous than Hawaii and Alaska (and Wyoming) combined. Should we welcome another island territory as our 51st state? Some states might say bienvenida. The 50th state might say aloha.