Is Hawaii a Colony that Needs to Be Freed?

Mr. Dresner has taught Asian and World history in Iowa and Hawai'i and is a member of the Frog In A Well Asian history group blogs. He is an assistant editor for HNN.

The Nation just published Hawaii Needs You: An open letter to the US left from the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. It's accompanied by a report on the sovereignty movement by Elinor Langer that largely echoes earlier commentary here at HNN, but is notable for its failure to put the movement in anything resembling the proper context. On Wednesday, April 30, a group calling itself the"Hawaiian Kingdom Government" briefly seized control of the former royal residence in Honolulu, 'Iolani Palace and are threatening to return and establish a working government. Though the movement to remove US jurisdiction from the Hawaiian Islands seems unlikely to succeed (even the moderate Akaka Bill is not going anywhere), there's a good reason why they think bringing it up now makes sense.

Kingdom of Hawaii Election - Sign Closeup

Over the course of the twentieth century there were three great waves of decolonization, when empires collapsed and new states were born. The third wave came at the end of the century, and may not yet be complete. As these global restructurings occur, there are always some questions about the limits of reform and change, some cases that tested those limits. What we're seeing now, fifteen years past the crest of the post-Cold War boom, is a series of movements which are typical of the tail-end of a decolonization wave: marginal, long-shots, deferred issues and festering problems. It is what binds together the questions of Tibet, Chechnya, the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement, Kosovo independence and the Iraq war.

The first wave of decolonization came from the losses of World War One, with the partition of Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian territories. There was also Irish independence, one of the few cases of a winning nation decolonizing territory. Most of these new states were also nations -- people more or less unified by territory, language, religion, history -- which had at least some historical memory of independence, though rarely for long and rarely recently. There were a few notable exceptions, like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Iraq: territories which encompassed several peoples, usually in places that hadn't been free of some kind of imperial control for centuries. These exceptions were often held together by authoritarian central governments which suppressed internal dissent and regional identities and often didn't survive the passing of these authorities. There was also a massive set of deferred questions in the form of League of Nation Mandate territories, which were supposed to get self-determination when"ready" but remained under victor control until the second wave.

The second wave came, unsurprisingly, after World War Two, though this time both winners and losers surrendered territory: Japanese, French, British and German controlled areas -- some Mandate territories, some much older possessions -- became independent. Again, some of these new states encompassed reasonably well-defined nations, some of which had long-standing sovereignty movements: Korea, Poland, the Philippines, India and Pakistan. Some, though, most notoriously in Africa, were multi-ethnic states in which minorities held power over majorities, leading to decades of internal strife up to and including genocidal civil wars.

The third wave arrived at the close of the Cold War, with the collapse of Soviet Russian power. The relaxation of Communist control led to the separation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the abandonment of the Brezhnev doctrine led to the partition of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Some, like Czechoslovakia, parted peacefully, but Yugoslavia tore itself apart and Chechnya rebelled violently (and unsuccessfully) against the new Russian Federation.

In Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech of 1918, he called for"A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined." This formula left open the possibility that legitimate governments could maintain sovereignty over territories and peoples that wished to be independent, and that has, for the most part, meant that the desire for sovereignty wasn't enough against a stable government which preferred to maintain control. As a result, there have always been some potential new states which didn't meet whatever test was being applied at the time. The unsuccessful Korean attempt to regain sovereignty from Japan at the post-WWI Versailles conference is one of the more blatant cases of self-serving"victor's justice"; there have been many others.

Decolonization does not have to be a sign of Imperial weakness. The US and UK both handed over former colonial possessions at the end of their lease agreements: the Panama Canal Zone and Hong Kong. There's also the current process in Great Britain which is devolving considerably more power to Scotland and Wales as independent entities. The release of the Philippines in 1946 from its early 20c status as a possession certainly didn't arise from, nor produce, a sense of American decline. That said, strong states rarely surrender territory without extremely good reason, and even more rarely without bitter struggle: Algeria and Vietnam are perhaps the best known anti-colonial insurgencies of the 20c.

Systems theory pioneer Jay W. Forrester wrote that"Many of the problems the world faces today are the eventual result of short-term measures taken last century." That's certainly true of the current crop of anti-colonial movements testing the limits of our commitment to national self-determination. Others have noted the connections between our present problems with state-building in Iraq and the history of Ottoman collapse, Mandate and post-colonial state-building: the Kurds, in particular, are hoping that the destabilization of the post-WWI settlement can work to their advantage. The recent move by Kosovo to declare independence from Serbia and the failed Chechen uprising are clearly the tail end of the post-communist reorganization of Soviet satellite states; the failure of the latter and the success of the former are the result of the difference between the"equitable claims" of a long-standing power (Russia) and those of a relatively new, small state born in ethnic struggle.

The Tibetan sovereignty movement is in the spotlight at the moment, thanks to the recent unrest in Lhasa and the subsequent protests of the Olympic torch on its way to the Beijing Summer games. It's not a new phenomenon, having been continuously advocated by the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1951, but the collapse of the Soviet Union created a surge of hope, one sustained by a steady stream of rhetoric from the West regarding the likely democratizing effects of prosperity and vocal support from pro-Tibetan activists. The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Dalai Lama was perfectly timed to bring the issue to the fore at a time when the decolonization wave was beginning. The Chinese government, however, has maintained strong political control during economic liberalization and, taking note of the Soviet failures, apparently has no intention of carrying out political liberalization, much less minority liberation. If the Tibetans are going to gain autonomy or sovereignty, it isn't going to happen this time around. The cost of maintaining control in Tibet is relatively low; Chinese popular support for maintaining control is strong, as witnessed by counter-protests and boycotts in response to Olympic torch disruptions; the Chinese state is showing no signs of disarray or weakness.

Inverted Hawaiian Flag

But the Hawaiian sovereignty activists (and The Nation) can certainly be excused for thinking that their moment might have come. We're coming off of a twenty-year wave of decolonization, including the shockingly successful Kosovo split, recognized by many Western governments in a matter of days. Commentators -- liberal and conservative -- have been attacking Chinese law-and-order tactics, talking about Olympic boycotts over Tibetan issues, invoking the memory of the 1936"Nazi" Berlin Olympics and the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott, etc., all because a half-century-old colonial situation got ugly while the world was paying attention. The Hawaiian arguments in favor of independence aren't that different from the Tibetan ones which lots of folks seem to be in favor of, these days. Both are relatively recent take-overs of territories with strong traditions, both have a shaky legitimacy under the canons of international law, both have produced dramatic demographic shifts, including large numbers of military being moved into the subject territories. Both are subject to the control of imperial powers facing the limits of their power and internationally isolated on other issues. It's true that the official response to the movements is very different -- decades of often violent supression vs. benign neglect -- highlighting fundamental differences between the US and China in other areas, but the case the separtists are making is strikingly equivalent. And both are highly unlikely to produce any real change in the foreseeable future.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Tane I - 5/13/2008

Is Hawaii a Colony that Needs to Be Freed?
By Jonathan Dresner, History News Network'>http://www. hnn. us/articles/49818. html

Dresner contradicts himself and never understood the dynamics in Hawaii. Hawai'i wasn't colonized; it was belligerently occupied by the USA. Dresner references Hawaii as a US colony like those he is familiar with in his American history. We know this to be not true. His discriptive analysis of Hawaii is grouped with Tibet and some other colonized countries. He states that countries which were successful in achieving their independence was because they were a nation prior to the takeover. Why doesn't he get it that Hawaii was a nation-state unified by its territory, language, religion, and history which is much remembered of its independence.

As in cases in a court of law, the correct questions should be asked. He forgot the equation of the Laws of Occupation which the USA has continuously violated belligerently. He has no idea of Hawai'i's true history and instead subscribes to the US myth that Hawai'i is part of the U.S.A. lawfully and legally. The question should not be, "Is Hawai'i a colony that needs to be free?" but, Should the U.S.A. deoccupy the Hawaiian Kingdom?

Here we are playing with semantics. Whether pre-colonialization, colonialization, or post-colonialization, it is a form of assimilation in varied degrees. Most reference the term with one definition which is the outcome in spite of the differences as to how it is initially applied. Colonization is the end result.

Western mindset uses colonialization as going into new lands with the notion of Terra Nullius, Romanus Pontifex, Inter Caetera, Sublimus Dei, (the Papal Bulls or edicts) which contributed to the doctrines of Manifest Destiny to rightfully take the new lands; colonize and send their people there to populate the new territory; and assimilate or genocide the people who were already living there. It's the same old routine of the bible, plow, and the rifle; maybe not necessarily in that order.

A colony is a collective group of people occupying and living in a new territory but retaining ties with the parent state. It is the control by one power over a dependent area and people. Because of Hawai'i's status and standing within the international community, as peers to these countries, it cannot be considered new lands nor dependent of its existence by a foreign power.

The Hawaiian Kingdom had treaties of friendship, commerce and trade to support its economic and political growth among the rest of the recognized nations. Hawaii had an internationally acknowledged neutrality status; both these recognitions as a nation-state and as a neutral state has been violated by only one country, the U.S.A. The U.S.A. has acknowledged its complicity in destabilizing the Hawaiian Kingdom's government while trying not to set an international precedent; its invasion; and its belligerent occupation of the Hawaiian Kingdom. It is the U.S. belligerent occupation that post-colonialization has occurred and forced assimilation processes have been used.

The Ku'e Petitions of 1897, whereby over 98% of the Hawaii nationals protested the U.S.A.'s illicit attempt at annexing Hawai'i to the USA, was suppressed and downplayed by the U.S.A. Somehow, Dresner has the idea that this national movement is a recent one when it precedes the 20th century; he expects us to take it out of context and put it into one that he can verifiably argue as a colony.

Dresner claims that we have "a shaky legitimacy under the cannons of international law", when in fact, for over 50 years, we were part of the Family of Nations, front-runner to the League of Nations and the United Nations. Our Hawaiian Kingdom's external sovereignty was recognized by over 25 countries, who recognized each other as sovereign nation-states; Hawai'i held ratified treaties with these countries and had over 96 legations and consuls throughout the world.

Put it in the "proper context": the unwarranted invasion of the Hawaiian Kingdom; the disregard of the Hawaiian Kingdom's neutrality covered under the laws of neutrality; the scurrilous actions of the U.S. Minister to set up a puppet Provisional Government while the de jure Hawaiian Kingdom's government was still in control; the U.S.A.'s belligerent occupation of the Hawaiian Kingdom; the continuous violations of the laws of occupation; ignoring the people's protest against the U.S. domestic resolution of annexation without a treaty; the ruse in the process of making the Hawaiian Kingdom a U.S.A. state; and the only nation to break its treaties with the Hawaiian Kingdom.

The Chinese Journal of International Law, volume 1, issue 2, (2002), pp. 655-684, also recently published an article on the Larsen vs. Hawaiian Kingdom arbitration case. The author of the article is an associate attorney with a Swiss International law firm. It recognizes that the Kingdom of Hawaii still exists albeit under US belligerent occupation.

"Perhaps (we should) cite as-yet-unanswered challenges by Switzerland and Ireland at the UN ICCPR in 2006 and by Russia and Romania at the UN CERD in 2007 for self-admitted US violations against Hawai`i." as someone has suggested to me. The correct questions are being asked by the Hawai'i nationals and the answers are evident. With Dresner's question, we can see the wrong question is asked since it's a matter after the fact and a conflagration based on the laws of occupation. In a court of law, that question of colony is irrelevant , frivolous, and inconsequential to the proper context and questions we put before the judges.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/10/2008

You're the expert, honestly: I haven't done much reading on Wilson since grad school. I'm sure the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire was under discussion at Versailles, so he may have had something very direct to do with it.

Whether or not Wilson's views became law -- I don't know enough about decolonization policy under the League of Nations or UN -- they still define the terms in which we discuss the issue. In particular, the terms of discussion at the time were clearly set by Wilson: witness the unsuccessful Chinese and Korean attempts to invoke the 14 points at Versailles.

Jeremy Young - 5/10/2008

Jonathan, very well done and informative. Re: Wilson, have you read Erez Manela's new book The Wilsonian Moment? I've just skimmed the introduction at this point, but I'm wondering how much Wilson had to do with that first wave of decolonization you mention.

Michael Davis - 5/9/2008

That would be two less Democrat senators, and two less Democrat representatives in Congress.

arnie saiki - 5/7/2008

Too bad you weren't at the UN during the last two weeks (April 21- May 2, 2008). Since the UN passed the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the 107th plenary meeting on September 13th 2007, you probably had no idea that the issue of decolonization was still very much alive and going strong.

If you had been there, you'd know the UN reconizes the determination for self-governance among indigenous peoples throughout the world. But as you say that it is unlikely for any real change to occur in the forseeable future, you will probably not be seeing this new development of international people's struggle. It's a struggle to reclaim, language, food, land, health, customs-- to reclaim territories that may be recognized in the International Courts.

If you had been sitting in the UN Assembly, overflowing with ethnic minorities from around the world, you would have noted that story after story, not all struggles were the same. It is likely that you'd have walked away with conviction that the present course of our free-market capitalist enterprise, the latest mask of colonialism is sick, diseased and are driving peoples to extinction.

With respect to Hawaii, can you look into your Historical Society's Crystal Ball and see the future? The effects of global warming, Wall Street speculation driving up food costs and shipping, over-population, disease, water depletion? Five years? Ten years? What can the State of Hawaii do, other than throw money at the problem? The State will hire over-priced government sub-contractors with tax-payer money to fix these problems.

When you approach these future crises, I believe that by reclaiming much of the land for taro/ crop cultivation, harnessing alternative energies, and employing creative solutions to environmental factors are what will keep Hawaii sustainable and alive. That is what I see as the inherent strength of the Kanaka Maoli struggle for self-determination, and Elinor Langer's article in the Nation, should be read as an inspiration for People's struggle, because the future or our humanity is stake.

Thomas Holloway - 5/5/2008

Several referenda on the "status question" have been held in Puerto Rico in recent decades, the choices being independence, statehood, or the status quo (called "commonwealth" in English and "Estado Libre Asociado-Free Associated State" in Spanish.) The status quo has consistently won by wide margins.

Robert Lee Gaston - 5/5/2008

Tell them we tried it between 1862 and 1865. It didn't work.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2008

You're right, I completely forgot about it. I'll have to look into it a bit, but my impression is that it would go in the "unfinished business" category and that the biggest pushes for statehood/independence clarity have come along with the big decolonization waves.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2008


Thomas Holloway - 5/5/2008

Since Mr. Dresner is an Asia specialist I am not too surprised that of territories the US acquired in one of its several discretionary wars--the one against Spain in 1898--he mentions the Philippines, but not the case of Puerto Rico. It's too complicated to discuss in this brief note, but in a review of decolonization as wide-ranging as this one, Puerto Rico deserves some mention. Unlike Hawai'i, it has not been declared an integral part of the USA, via the statehood process, yet it is not an independent nation-state.

Charles W. Hayford - 5/5/2008

This piece brilliantly jogs us into thinking, really thinking! How many Americans understand how the Hawaiian royal house was overthrown? It's irreversible but should be acknowledged.

Thank you, Jonathan.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2008

I discussed that parallel in my Akaka Bill article a few years ago. You're probably right that the sovereignty movement is a small one -- and I think the Nation's article is particularly bad in that regard, failing to note the real range of opinions -- but that wasn't my point here.

Also, most movements start out small: the Hawaiian sovereignty movement really isn't more than about forty years old: it grew up along with the wave of Hawaiian music and language revitalization in the 70s.

Thomas R. Cox - 5/5/2008

The Hawaii sovereignty movement is the work of a tiny minority of ethnic Hawaiians and haole sympathizers in a state where the vast majority has no interest in independence. The solution is a more equitable treatment of the land issue, the problem of poverty, and other concerns of the minority. Rather than Kosovo et al., the useful parallel to consider is the situation of other Native Americans and their efforts to improve their position and status.

History News Network