The U.S. Occupation of Hawai’i

The Roots of the U.S. Militarization of Hawai‘i: Invasion and Occupation

The militarization of Hawai‘i was driven by the desire of U.S. leaders to access markets and resources in Asia and was amplified by their ideology of white supremacy. In the 19th century, the independent Kingdom of Hawai‘i had entered into treaties with dozens of other nations, including the United States, Great Britain and France. But due to its strategic location and role as a vital refueling and provisioning stop for nearly all transpacific commerce Hawai‘i was a highly coveted prize to U.S. leaders with imperial ambitions.

In 1873 U.S. military spies picked Waimomi, which is one of the original names of Pearl Harbor, as the “key to the central Pacific Ocean.” In 1887 haole (white foreigner) business leaders and descendants of missionaries staged a coup d’etat and forcibly enacted the “Bayonet Constitution”, which dramatically shifted power to the haole minority and disenfranchised most of the non-white population. This enabled the leaders of the coup to adopt a new Treaty of Reciprocity that ceded exclusive use of Pearl Harbor to the U.S. in exchange for dropping tariffs on Hawai‘i grown sugar, a move that was strongly opposed by Hawaiian nationals.

When Kalakaua’s successor, Queen Lili‘uokalani tried to restore provisions of the former Hawaiian constitution, the haole coup leaders conspired with the rogue U.S. Minister John Stevens to land U.S. troops. On January 17, 1893, U.S. Marines from the U.S.S. Boston backed the conspiracy to oust the Queen.  To avoid bloodshed and preserve Hawai‘i’s neutrality, the Queen temporarily yielded to the U.S. troops, expecting that leaders in Washington, D.C. would disavow the military action in accordance with its treaties, and restore Hawai‘i’s sovereignty. But despite President Cleveland’s acknowledgement of the illegality of the U.S. military invasion of Hawai‘i, the U.S. did not act to restore the Kingdom.

Despite successful protests by Hawaiian nationals to defeat two attempted treaties of annexation to the U.S., the outbreak of the Spanish-American War triggered the full-scale military occupation of Hawai‘i. On July 6, 1898, Congress passed a simple joint resolution that authorized the seizure of Hawai‘i. Virtually overnight, Hawai‘i became the hub of the United States’ vast military enterprise in the Pacific and a launching pad for its imperial thrust into Asia.

U.S. occupation brought unbridled military expansion in Hawai‘i. Construction of a naval base at Pearl Harbor began in 1900, destroying 36 traditional Hawaiian fishponds and transforming what was once a rich food source for O‘ahu into a vast naval station. This was soon to be followed by the construction of Fort Shafter, Fort Ruger, Fort Armstrong, Fort DeRussy, Fort Kamehameha, Fort Weaver and Schofield Barracks. General Macomb wrote “Oahu is to be encircled with a ring of steel.”  From 1898 to 1941, Hawai‘i was ruled by a haole oligarchy that controlled the government and business and a military occupation that provided the force to control the majority non-white population of Kanaka Maoli and Asian settlers in Hawai‘i.

World War II and the Expansion of U.S. Empire

The Japanese surprise attack on U.S. military targets in Hawai‘i on December 7, 1941 provided the long-anticipated opportunity and the justification for the military to impose martial law in Hawai‘i.  Many of Hawai‘i’s Japanese community leaders were arrested, put in detention centers and shipped off to concentration camps in America. Large tracts of land were seized through presidential executive orders, swelling military land holdings to its peak of 600,000 acres (242,806.8 hectares) in 1944.

The transition from World War II to the Cold War transformed Hawai‘i from a remote military outpost of the United States into the center from which the U.S. projected its power outward across the Pacific. Tragically it turned Hawai‘i into both a casualty of and an accomplice in the building of empire.

The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), the oldest and largest of the United States’ unified commands, was established in Hawai‘i on January 1, 1947.  The PACOM area of responsibility stretches over more than 50 percent of the earth’s surface and encompasses 43 countries, 20 territories and possessions and 10 U.S. territories, 60 percent of the world’s population, the world’s six largest armed forces, and five of the seven worldwide U.S. mutual defense treaties.  PACOM has 300,000 military personnel in the theater (one fifth of the total U.S. active-duty military force), including 100,000 forward-deployed troops in the western Pacific.  Kanaka Maoli activist Kaleikoa Kaeo described the US military in Hawai’i as a monstrous he‘e (octopus), its head represented by the Pacific Command headquarters, its eyes and ears the mountaintop telescopes, radar facilities, and underwater sensors, and its brain and nervous system the supercomputers and fiber optic networks that crisscross the islands. The tentacles of the he‘e stretch from the west coast of North America to the East Coast of Africa, from Alaska to Antarctica.

Other Resources:

David Keanu Sai’s Doctoral Dissertation, University of Hawai`i at Manoa, Political Science, “The American Occupation of the Hawaiian Kingdom: Beginning the Transition from Occupied to Restored State.” (December 2008)

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