Fifty-five years ago this week, on August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state in the Union. Alaska had been admitted at the beginning of the year, becoming the 49th state in January of 1959. Now, as the first Baby Boomers were becoming teenagers, it was Hawaii’s turn.
The idea of Statehood for Hawaii had been proposed early on. The U.S. had had a presence in Hawaii since 1898. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison submitted an annexation treaty to the U.S. Senate, but the measure failed. When the U.S.S. Maine was attacked at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, the need for a refueling spot in the Pacific drove the idea of annexation through, despite the protests of the Hawaiian people. It became an official U.S. territory in 1900.
Pan American Airways began regular commercial service to Honolulu in 1935, chopping a 5-day sea journey to a 16-hour flight from Los Angeles. Yet the average American was not able to afford air travel and wouldn’t be taking to the skies with any regularity until the 1960s. Nonetheless, U.S. companies were heavily invested in Hawaii’s sugar plantations, so the idea of Statehood was a recurring debate in the U.S. Congress.
In October of 1937, a bipartisan Congressional committee held hearings concerning the possibility of Statehood for Hawaii. The committee concluded that Hawaii had met the legal standards for becoming a state, and recommended a vote of the people be taken in the Hawaiian territory. On November 5, 1940, Hawaiians voted on the measure, and elected for Statehood by a 2 to 1 margin.
Early that year, on May 7, 1940, the U.S. established the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu and moved its Pacific Fleet headquarters there. Seven months later to the date, that base was attacked by Japanese war planes, prompting the U.S. to enter into World War II. Statehood would have to wait.
The War officially ended in August of 1945, and the idea of Statehood was back on the table. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes endorsed the idea in December of 1945. Three years later, President Harry S. Truman proposed Hawaiian Statehood in his State of the Union address in January of 1948.
Considerable opposition had built up to the idea since the war. Ethnic prejudice and worries about the loyalty of Hawaiians were raised, with one end of the spectrum thinking Hawaii was filled with Communist sleeper cells while the other end thought, with one third of Hawaii’s population being of Japanese descent, they were too “un-American” to be admitted to the Union.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, having been the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Normandy invasion in World War II, did not agree with these assertions and was a proponent of Statehood early on in his Administration. Ultimately, Congressmen who wanted Alaska to become a state held up the measure until a compromise was reached, where they agreed to vote for Hawaiian Statehood if in return Alaska would be admitted first.
Meanwhile, the Hawaiian people again voted for Statehood, this time with a 94 percent majority. Alaska was admitted in January of 1959, and on August 21, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official proclamation making Hawaii the 50th state. At the same time, a new flag was shown bearing a field of fifty stars. On July 4, 1960, the new flag was flown across the country for the first time.
Mister Boomer was quite young at the time, but recalls his teachers talking about the new states and explaining the new flag displayed in the classroom in the fall of 1960. Hawaii seemed so remote and tropical that he couldn’t even imagine what the place was like. His only connection to Hawaii was through commercials with the cartoon character Punchy asking, “How would you like a nice Hawaiian Punch?”
One year later, he would see his first real glimpses of Hawaii (in Technicolor no less) via Elvis’ Blue Hawaii. In the 1990s, Mister Boomer and his wife traveled to Hawaii for the first time. They visited one of the actual locations on the island of Hawaii where a scene from Blue Hawaii was filmed. Hawaii, once a place that could only conjure up dreams of a tropical Paradise, had become a real place to him. A real place in the United States of America.
What memories of Hawaiian Statehood do you recall, boomers?