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Lessons Learned From Annexation of Hawaii

Lessons Learned From Annexation of Hawaii
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On Jan. 24, 1895, the Queen of Hawaii was forced to abdicate her throne, thus paving the way for American annexation of the islands (which culminated in statehood in 1959). The American annexation of Hawaii had three important ramifications:

1. It set up a clash with the Japanese that ended with World War II. At the time of the Hawaiian monarch’s abdication, the Japanese and Americans were competing for influence in Hawaii and the broader Pacific Islands region by subsidizing settler immigration to various isles. The Japanese had more people in Hawaii than the Americans, and were easily winning the culture war there, but the Americans had more money and Washington was more willing to flex its muscle in Hawaii on the settlers’ behalfs.

Above all else, Washington’s willingness to subsidize a parallel legal system in Hawaii was the deciding factor in the American triumph over both the Japanese and the Hawaiians. Sally Engle Merry, a legal anthropologist at NYU’s Law School, wrote an excellent, readable book explaining how the American legal system came to dominate political life in Hawaii and why most people didn’t care all that much (save for the Hawaiian aristocracy).

Nobody in 1895 could have predicted that Japan and the United States would fight a major, worldwide war against each other 50 years later, but the strategy that led to Queen Liliuokalani’s abdication and the eventual annexation of Hawaii by the United States played a role in the war that was fought between the two budding imperial powers for supremacy over the Pacific. That the Japanese chose to bomb Pearl Harbor first, rather than somewhere like the Philippines, was no coincidence.

2. By subsidizing a parallel legal system that at first competed with indigenous law before replacing it, Washington sought to extend its influence into non-territorial realms in a manner unfamiliar to most American elites at the time. (This was not unfamiliar to the British or the Dutch, however. Jenny Hale Pulsipher, a historian at BYU, has a great book showing how the British did to the Native Americans what the Americans did to the Hawaiians: Give indigenous actors access to the British legal system and slowly, almost accidentally, supplant the indigenous legal system.)

3. It is a blueprint, however messy, for future interactions between political units in a world-state system. That is to say, there are theoretical lessons we can draw from the American annexation of Hawaii and apply them to today’s world. The old Anglo-Dutch playbook turned out to serve American imperial interests well, especially when contrasted with the disastrous Spanish-American War of 1898, when the United States seized the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico from Spain in an unwarranted act of aggression. Hawaii, now an American state, has one of the highest standards of living in the world (including for its indigenous and Japanese citizens), while the territories seized by the U.S. from Spain continue to wallow in relative poverty and autocratic governance.

The days of supporting the overthrow of monarchies are well behind us, as the experiences in both Europe after World War I and Persia after World War II showed just how disastrous democracy supporting policies abroad can be. However, offering up the American legal system, which is far and away the best in the world despite its defects, to organizations and individuals in poorly governed places is not such a bad idea. (See my 10 Places That Should Join the U.S. here at RealClearHistory for more on this line of thinking.)

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