The people of Hawaii did not choose to be annexed by the United States in 1897 any more than Puerto Rico wanted to be brought into the United States in 1898 — that is, some favored the move, but it was not by choice of the people living there.
Statehood was a different matter. While many people on the mainland believe that Hawaii was a kingdom until it became a State in 1959, the Kingdom of Hawaii was in fact supplanted by business interests from the United States. It became the Territory of Hawaii in 1900.
The first statehood bill was introduced in 1919, and dozens more such bills followed until Hawaii was finally admitted as a State of the U.S. in 1959. Native Hawaiians favored statehood, which would give them greater political power compared with the incomers from the United States. Just as was the case in New Mexico, the anti-statehood movement was underpinned by new residents from the States who enjoyed economic power.
Who opposed statehood for Hawaii?
There were people on the mainland who opposed statehood for Hawaii, including some in Congress. “Opposing representatives from the Southern states were concerned that the representatives from Hawaiʻi would encourage civil rights legislation in Congress,” says a research guide from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “For some of the opposing Democrat representatives, admitting a traditionally Republican state into the union could lessen the chances of the Democrats regaining control of the Senate.”
These arguments are familiar to those who follow the status struggle of Puerto Rico. In fact, Hawaii as a State votes Democratic, but that was not what Congress expected. Just so, many Republicans in Congress imagine that Puerto Rico as a State would vote Democratic, but recent polls show that this is not necessarily the case.
Territorial Senator Alice Kamokila Campbell was opposed to statehood in 1946, when Congress spent 17 days debating the admission of Hawaii. Since she was a representative of a territory rather than a State, however, she did not have a vote.
Campbell continued to fight against statehood until Hawaii was admitted.
It is impossible to overlook the fact that racism was part of the anti-statehood position against Hawaii. The Honolulu Republican for July 14, 1900, contained this paragraph:
If our fellow citizens in Hawaii will take the trouble to study the history of New Mexico and Arizona, they will probably conclude to let their successors of the next or some more remote generation do all the whooping up for statehood. Meanwhile, in order to create fair conditions for those far-off whoopers to work on, this generation should induce about 150,000 industrious and intelligent white people to emigrate to Hawaii and to ‘grow up with the country.’
The large Asian population was an issue for the Americans of the time, particularly when the United States was at war with Japan in the 1940s. At the end of that decade, China’s transition to communism set off more anti-Asian sentiment.
“Perhaps we should become the United States of the Pacific, and finally should become the United States of the Orient,” said Sen. George Smathers (D-FL). The Florida lawmaker went on to claim that Hawaii statehood threatened “our high standard of living” and “the purity of our democracy.”
Sen. John Stennis (D-MS) said that “they will be under terrific pressure from all parts of Asia, because it will be through the door of Hawaii that Communists can enter the United States Senate.”
Communism became a major motif in the debates, but Rep. Leo O’Brien (D-NY) said frankly in a hearing on statehood, “Many who oppose statehood because of the mixed races, particularly the oriental strains, hide their feelings behind the handy and confusing issue of communism.”
Puerto Rico compared with Hawaii
During the hearings, the subject of Puerto Rico arose.
“There never has been any question of whether a territory was to be made a state. The question was, ‘When?'” said an article from the Daily News which was inserted into the Congressional Record.
“The Commonwealth is in a transition between colonialism and independence…President Eisenhower recently assured Puerto Rico it can have independence whenever it wishes.”
The point being made was that Hawaii was different from Puerto Rico. Hawaii achieved statehood and Puerto Rico has repeatedly rejected independence. Puerto Rico is more populous than Hawaii was at the time of its admittance, and more economically integrated into the United States.