Hawaii Statehood

1945 – 1959: As Hawaii pushes for statehood, its politics and economy begin to change

Striving for Statehood

When World War II ended, so did Hawaii's state of martial law. Life returned to normal. Curfews, censorship of the press, military control of working conditions, and rent controls all were lifted. Commercial airlines resumed flights to and from Hawaii.

The nisei (second-generation Japanese) who had fought in Europe returned with numerous war decorations. After receiving such high honors for their military service, many nisei didn't want to return to second-class status as plantation workers or other kinds of laborers. They jumped at the chance to go to college under the G.I. Bill. Law, medicine, and teaching proved to be especially popular fields.

With the war effort over, unions once again pushed for better pay and working conditions. A 1946 strike of 21,000 plantation workers caused enough problems for the sugar companies that they yielded and made concessions.

That same year, the Hawaii Visitors Bureau began to actively promote tourism, both in the mainland and internationally. While there had been a small number of tourists previously, most visitors had been celebrities or adventurers. Cruise prices became more economical for middle-class travelers, and the U.S. military gave Hawaii several of its wartime airports. This set the stage for an expansion of commercial flights and destinations.

Political Struggles

Since Hawaii had been annexed as a territory, statehood had been proposed several times. The Hawaii Statehood Commission, founded in 1947, pushed the issue in Washington. Many of those involved were union leaders and labor activists, who had broad support from the working class. Statehood also appealed to the territory's large Asian population, who wanted more say in politics.

Of course, the Big Five companies who dominated Hawaii's business, finance, shipping, and government saw statehood as a threat to their power. Amplifying their fears were a 1948 decrease in sugar exports imposed by the U.S., and another crippling strike in 1949.

This time, the strike was against the Matson Line, which controlled all shipping in Hawaii. With no workers, all trade in and out of the islands stopped for six months. Under such immense pressure, the ownership had no choice but to make another bargain with its striking workers.

Several other factions opposed statehood. Native Hawaiians felt that the Hawaiian monarchy had been illegally overthrown, and therefore didn't want to be part of the United States. On the mainland, Southern congressmen believed that with Hawaii's non-white majority, its representatives would be more liberal, particularly in civil rights matters.

While supporters of statehood emphasized Hawaii's patriotism and all-American character, opponents used McCarthy-fever against its key players. In 1951, the FBI arrested seven union leaders for conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government by force and violence.

Although the arrests tarnished the reputations of those involved, it didn't stop political change. When the Immigration and Naturalization Law went into effect in 1952, approximately 35,000 alien residents became eligible to seek U.S. citizenship. Then issei (Japanese immigrants) were granted citizenship and voting rights under the Walter-McCarren Act.

With even larger numbers of minority voters on their side, the Democrats swept the 1954 territorial elections. The Republican business interests, who had dominated Hawaii's government, now found their influence greatly reduced. Among the winning Democrats, nisei war hero Dan Inouye was elected to Hawaii's House of Representatives, beginning his political career.

By this point, 78 percent of Americans on the mainland favored Hawaiian statehood. Some Republican politicians backed the idea because of Hawaii's strategic position. Meanwhile, continual pressure from statehood advocates had weakened opponents from the south.

However, Alaska was also bidding for statehood. For the next several years, the two territories competed with each other in a tug-of-war to become admitted first.

New Industries Grow while Hawaiian Culture Impacts the Mainland

Motion pictures had been shot in Hawaii as early as 1901, but in the 1950s filming increased dramatically. Several films from this era became classics, including From Here to Eternity, The Caine Mutiny, Mister Roberts, and South Pacific. Perhaps the most influential in the States was Gidget, a very popular movie that introduced surfing to masses of Americans. The first Hawaiian television show, starring Jack Lord, was also broadcast in the States.

Commercial planting of macadamia nuts began, with the first harvest in 1956. Tourism rose from 15,000 visitors in 1946 to 150,000 in 1956. Driven by tourism, the construction industry boomed. By 1957, construction brought in more money than both the sugar and pineapple industries.

Since the end of World War II, Americans had fallen in love with all things Hawaiian. Musician Martin Denny turned his tiki lounge music into an American craze. Following up his Hawaiian popularity, he scored a number one hit on the national Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1959.

Hawaii Finally Becomes a State

In the race for statehood between Alaska and Hawaii, both realized that they shared similarities. Neither was connected to the mainland, and both had large non-white populations. If one were granted statehood first, the U.S. would be pressured to admit the other one.

A deal was struck to admit Alaska first, then Hawaii the following year. The Senate and House both passed statehood legislation in early 1959, which President Eisenhower quickly signed.

To approve statehood, Hawaii held a special election on June 27. An overwhelming number of Hawaiians voted in favor of it, and only the small island of Niihau, populated exclusively by native Hawaiians, voted against it. Hawaii officially became the 50 th state on August 21, 1959.

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