How did the U.S. become involved in Hawaii?

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U.S. involvement with the Hawaiian islands dates to Captain James Cook’s “discovery” of the island chain in 1778, during his search for a sea passage between Alaska and Asia.  Cook, of course, was a British naval officer and explorer who operated out of British territories in North America, and his discovery of the Hawaiian islands is considered more an American event than a British one.

Over the ensuing half-century, Hawaiian history became replete with imperialist objectives on the part of outsiders, including the United States, Britain, France and Russia, political intrigue and open warfare among competing clans and factions of indigenous peoples.  The islands were ruled by the Kamehameha dynasty, which established a monarchy following King Kamehameha I’s unification of the islands under his rule.  The death in 1872 of the last of the Kamehameha’s, V, and the usurpation of the monarchy by the Kalakaua presaged greater involvement in Hawaiian affairs by the United States, which sought control over Hawaii’s sugar industry – a development codified with the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875.  In the meantime, U.S. foreign policy objectives in the vast  Asia-Pacific region necessitated the establishment of military installations that would provide logistical support to the growing U.S. Navy’s expanding reach. 

While native Hawaiians continued to resist U.S. encroachment, internal disputes that flared into violence weakened Hawaiian self-rule and made it more difficult to fend off American entreaties or demands for access to Pearl Harbor.  Finally, in 1893, amid continued political instability regarding the nature of Hawaii’s government and the islands’ relationship to the United States – and prodded by American citizens who had taken up residence there – local representatives of the U.S. Government became more militarily active in interfering in internal Hawaiian politics, actions that succeeded in overthrowing the reigning monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani. 

Much political intrigue continued through the remainder of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century, with American involvement reflective of the back-and-forth nature of U.S. elective politics (President Cleveland opposed U.S. annexation of Hawaii; his successor, William McKinley, support it).  Finally, with the signing of the Newland Resolution in 1898 by President McKinley, the United States formally annexed the islands.  The U.S. Navy established its base at Pearl Harbor, the attack on which triggered the U.S. declaration of war against Japan, and Hawaii would formally ascend to statehood in 1959, becoming the 50th state.  A footnote to the history is the 1993 resolution passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton officially apologizing to the native Hawaiians for U.S. actions in the islands in the decades leading up to annexation and statehood.

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