The U.S. War Against Asia
by William P. Meyers

Note: This is a work in progress, and one I am not likely to finish (short of receiving a grant or an offer from a larger publisher) for some time. Everything posted here should be considered a draft. [Main Page, U.S. War Against Asia]

The U.S. Conquest of Hawaii and other Pacific Islands

[Draft completed May 13, 2007]

The islands that now constitute the State of Hawaii were settled by Polynesian adventurers, probably some time in the first millennia A.D. The natives of the various islands had a complex civilization with well-developed agricultural techniques and fine sailing and navigation skills. It is likely that European sailors from Spain happened upon the islands in the 1500’s. In 1778 Captain Cook, of the British Navy, was surprised to find the islands and became the first European to establish their latitude and longitude.

In traditional Hawaiian society each of the islands had a supreme chief (Alii). Following a period of multiple chiefs on the big island of Hawaii in the 1700’s, by 1810 a single ruler, Kamehameha, had emerged for the entire chain of islands. British sailors had helped him conquer the islands and he ruled as a king. A Constitution was written in 1840 with a Parliament on the British model. In theory Hawaii was an independent nation, recognized as such by other nations. But already the U.S. considered Hawaii to be within its sphere of interest; other imperialist powers were warned to keep out.

Commercial penetration of Hawaii by Americans and other immigrants continued throughout the 1800’s. In addition to acting as a reprovisioning point for trans-Pacific trade, the islands were a source of tropical products, most notably sugar. U.S. trading ships also picked up Sandalwood to sell in China [Oxford History, p. 284]. The first American war ship to visit Hawaii was the Vincennes, which around 1830 presented a letter from U.S. President Andrew Jackson to King Kamehameha III. [Oxford History p. 443].

In 1863 Claus Spreckels, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany, founded the second sugar refinery in San Francisco (the other was owned by Sharon, Mills & Ralston). He founded the California Sugar Refinery in 1866 using the latest equipment developed in Germany. The raw sugar for these refineries, of course, came mainly from Hawaii. Spreckels forced prices down. Growers in Hawaii, almost all from the U.S. (and often sons of missionaries) found themselves competing with growers in Philippines and Taiwan. The tariff on sugar was considered crucial by the U.S. Treasury, at times amounting to one-fifth of its total annual receipts. It also gave growers within the U.S., mainly in Louisiana, a competitive advantage. Hawaiian growers felt they needed to either make Hawaii part of the United States or get a free trade agreement. Meanwhile expansionists in the U.S. saw Hawaii as a vital gateway to the commercial and military conquest of Asia. [Fast p. 1-3]

As early as 1867 a free trade treaty was propose in the U.S. Senate, but it was held up by Senators representing East Coast sugar refining interests, who did not like the idea of competing with Spreckels. They had to buy there sugar from high-cost Louisiana growers or pay duties on imports from Cuba and other Caribbean sugar islands. It should be noted that during this era Democrats tended to favor free trade, in the tradition of the Southern slavers who had founded the party, while Republicans tended to favor high tariffs, as they represented northern industrialists and factory workers. Opponents of the treaty pointed out that Hawaiian sugar produced $1.2 million in federal revenues annually. [Fast p. 3-4]

Claus Spreckels did not just want a treaty; he wanted to micro-manage its language. He feared that refineries might be set up in Hawaii by the growers, thus undercutting the advantages of his San Francisco refinery. The tariff in place had a higher tax rate for refined sugar than for raw sugar, thus helping all U.S. based refiners. Spreckels got his way: the final treaty had a differential clause. Claus rushed to Hawaii in advance of the Senate vote to buy raw sugar and sugar plantations.

There was already a U.S. military presence in Hawaii, as in 1874 U.S. troops were used to suppress rioting following the electoral victory of David Kalākaua over Queen Emma in an election to pick a successor to King William Lunalilo, who was a puppet of the U.S. planters. In addition it was feared that if a trade treaty were not enacted the British might seize the islands. The Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 formalized trade relations between the nation of Hawaii and the United States of America. It provided for duty-free trade for most items. It might serve as a warning that a free trade treaty can be a prelude to annexation.

Claus Spreckels became one of the richest men in the United States. Production of sugar cane in Hawaii doubled over the next decade. King Kalakaua was further corrupted by gifts from Spreckels, who also made loans to the Hawaiian government. His personal attorney, John T. Dare, was appointed Attorney General of Hawaii. The greater sugar production required large numbers of immigrants, making native Hawaiians a minority on their own islands. [Fast p 5-7].

In 1887 American-identified citizens of Hawaii led a revolt that used military force to coerce King David Kalākaua to adopt a new constitution. The Americans were led by Lorrin A. Thurston, a sugar plantation developer and newspaper publisher. The House of Nobles, equivalent to the U.S. Senate, now became elected rather than appointed. But a property qualification requirement prevented poor citizens from voting; that included most descendants of the native Hawaiians. It also denied voting rights to anyone of Asian descent (Japanese and Chinese). It is unlikely that it is a coincidence that in 1887 the Hawaiian government gave the U.S. rights to use Wai Momi, renamed Pearl Harbor, as a naval base.

In the 1890 McKinley tariff put all imported, unprocessed sugar on the duty-free list, after heavy lobbying and campaign contributions by the Sugar Trust, which had consolidated East Coast refiners. This left Hawaiian producers and the Spreckels refinery at a relative disadvantage; prices for their sugar fell 40%. Henry Havemeyer, leader of the Sugar Trust, had contributed substantially both to Republican Congressman McKinley and to Grover Cleveland, who would become the President in 1893, the first Democratic Party nominee to succeed since the Civil War. [Fast 71-72]

In addition, rather than continue to face ruinous competition, Spreckels made a deal with the Sugar Trust to pay for sugar in San Francisco the same price as was paid in New York City. But at that time there was a 2 cent per pound bounty for domestic sugar production. If Hawaii were annexed by the U.S., that bounty would save the Hawaiian growers. The U.S. international policy was one of imperial expansion; the U.S. Minister to Hawaii, John L. Stevens, encouraged Americans in Hawaii to seek annexation. [Fast 72]

Queen Liliukokalani had had enough of Americans by this time. She proposed changing the Hawaiian constitution to disenfranchise them. Although this proposal failed to pass, it served as a pretext for the 1893 revolt against Queen Liliukokalani. U.S. Marines aided the leaders of the pro-American coup. On January 16, 1893 a provisional government was proclaimed and recognized by Minister Stevens, who must have had instructions in advance from the government of the United States. In the last days of the Harrison Presidency a Treaty of Annexation was drawn up; it was signed February 14th, 1893.

But the newly elected President, Grover Cleveland, refused to sign the treaty. He claimed the revolt was illegal and unfair to Queen Liliukokalani. He sent a special investigator to Hawaii who found the natives not in favor of annexation. But he had also been elected partly with large donations from the Sugar Trust, which opposed domestic production of sugar.

Another problem for Spreckels and other planters was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886. Hawaiian cane planters had become used to a system where Chinese were contracted in China to work essentially for food. If Hawaii became part of the United States that pool of nearly free labor would dry up. [Fast 74]

In the end Havemeyer had to sacrifice the Hawaiian pawn to make more meaningful gains. Congressman McKinley was elected President McKinley in the elections of 1896. The Sugar Trusts interests were aligned with the imperialist faction (Theodore Roosevelt being the best known member); war with Spain was provoked in order to gain Cuba and Puerto Rico. Amidst the fever of war, which was declared on April 11, 1898, the idea of annexing Hawaii became unstoppable.

Formal annexation came on August 12, 1898, which gave full U.S. citizenship to citizens of Hawaii even if they were not of European descent. The Territory of Hawaii was not a democracy; a Governor was appointed by the President of the United States. The first appointed Governor was Sanford B. Dole. Dole had served as an appointed Associate Judge of the Supreme Court of Hawaii when it was an independent nation, but turned traitor to become the leader of the 1893 revolution and then President of the Republic that was established. His cousin James Drummond Dole developed the Hawaiian pineapple industry and the Dole Food Company; James did not move to Hawaii until after it had been annexed by the United States.

In 1898 the only Hawaiian export of importance was sugar, valued at $16,614,622 [1902 Encycl. p. 2939]

See also: Japanese Americans, Hawaii, and Democracy [October 25, 2010]

War with Sumatra

“Upon complaint that ship Friendship of Salem had been ambushed and plundered and her crew slaughtered by the sultan of Quallah Battoo on the coast of Sumatra, the President sent U.S. frigate Potomac to retaliate. She did that very successfully, in a one-ship amphibious operation in 1832. But Sumatra had not yet been taken over by the Dutch, and another local sultan, at Mukkee, had to be given the same treatment before American ships could trade safely with Indonesia.” Oxford History p. 443.

American Samoa

In a friendship tour under President Andrew Jackson in the early 1830’s the sloop-of-war Vincennes “rescued American merchant seamen held prisoner by the king of Babelthuap in the Palaus, and burned a Samoan village where American whalers had been murdered [Oxford History p. 443].

Even before the Hawaii grab the U.S. had designs on the Pacific Islands as way stations to trade and conquest of Asia. In 1878 the U.S. “secured” rights to a naval base at the Pago Pago harbor of Tutuila Island, part of Samoa. Britain and Germany were also frantic to get their claws into this island group. in 1889 there was a standoff between German and American military vessels in Apia Harbor in Upolu Island, but a hurricane swept in and wrecked both sides ships. Later that year at the Berlin Conference the three imperialist rivals agreed to a joint protectorate of the Samoan Islands. That did not work out well so in 1899 the islands were split at the 171 meridian between Germany and the U.S., with Great Britain offered compensation elsewhere.


Guam was captured from Spain early in the Spanish-American war, granted to U.S. in treaty of 1898. Of course Spain’s colonization of Guam was an immoral act of aggression and Spain had no right to turn over the island to the United States. Japan captured and ruled the island from 1941 until 1944. Residents of Guam were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1952. In 1968 the people of Guam were given the right to elect their governor. A drive for commonwealth status has failed so far (2007), so Guam remains an “unincorporated territory” of the U.S. empire.

Caroline Islands U.S. Trusteeship (Includes Marshall Islands, Mariana Islands) or
“Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands”

These islands had been granted to Japan after World War I in return for Japan’s declaration of war against Germany. In 1947 the U.N., which was controlled by imperialist nations such as Great Britain, France, and the U.S., gave the “Trusteeship” of these militarily strategic islands to the United States.

One of the Marshall Islands is Bikini Atoll, which was used for 20 U.S. atomic weapons tests between 1946 and 1958. The Republic of the Marshall Islands was granted sovereignty in 1986. However, to obtain “independence” the government of the Marshall Islands had to agree to a mutual defense treaty with the United States and continued U.S. military use of the Kwajalein Atoll missile testing range.

Most of the “Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands” has been turned into three “Compact of Free Association” nations. In 1978 the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) was set up within the empire of the U.S.

Other Pacific Island Possessions of the U.S. Including:
Kure, Midway, Wake, Kingman Reef, Palmyra, Howland, Baker Jarvis

Kure is administered as part of Hawaii. Midway was uninhabited when discovered and annexed by the United States under the Guano Islands act of 1856. Wake Island was uninhabited when annexed by the US in 1899; it was captured by Japan during World War II. Kingman Reef is uninhabitable, being barely above the high tide line, but was annexed by the U.S. in 1922. Palmyra Atoll was and is uninhabited. It was annexed as a guano island in 1859, then became part of Hawaii and became part of the US when Hawaii was annexed. Howland Island is uninhabited and was annexed as a guano island in 1857. Baker Island was also annexed as a guano island in 1857, as was Jarvis Island.

Learn More links:

A Brief History of the Democratic Party
A Brief History of the Republican Party
Hawaii state government (official page)
Hawaiian sovereignty movement site
History of Hawaii at Wikipedia

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