It is safe to say that Japanese thronging the malls in Honolulu and scooping up apartments thanks to the mighty yen probably don’t give much thought to how Hawaii became part of the United States, but they know about Pearl Harbor.

Pacific Gibraltar: U.S.-Japanese Rivalry Over the Annexation of Hawaii, 1885-1898, by William Michael Morgan. Naval Institute Press, 2011, 330 pp., $34.95 (hardcover)

Similarly, as evident in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the U.S. mass media frequently invoked Pearl Harbor, it remains the iconic association with this island paradise in the American mind.

William Morgan draws our attention to the U.S.-Japanese rivalry over Hawaii at the end of the 19th century and, in doing so, tries to set the record straight about U.S. annexation and bilateral polarization.

In 1897, the U.S. and Japan faced off over the impending annexation of Hawaii by the U.S. Japan even dispatched warships to avert what had become inevitable after more than two decades of maneuvering by U.S. nationals in the islands and vacillations in Washington. For the U.S., Hawaii was just too strategically valuable, and vulnerable, to allow continued independence since it was also coveted by Japan, the emerging rival in the Pacific with the most to gain from securing the islands. Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, authorized the use of force against potential Japanese landing parties, and drafting the nation’s first war plans against Japan. The saber-rattling in 1897 galvanized Congress into action and generated enough votes to pass a joint resolution authorizing annexation of Hawaii in 1898.

Morgan blames the Japanese for provoking the crisis that prompted pre-emptive annexation. By pushing for voting rights for its nationals in Hawaii, Tokyo threatened the interests of the resident white oligarchy and also threatened growing U.S. strategic interests in the Pacific. The oligarchs responded by nixing the extension of voting rights and curtailing the influx of Japanese to Hawaii. It seems, in retrospect, that Japan’s desire for securing suffrage was reasonable while shutting the doors to immigration was discriminatory. Morgan suggests, however, that in the prevailing context of imperialism, power diplomacy and widespread racism, the actions of U.S. nationals and their government were understandable.

By this time, moreover, Japan was no innocent. Tokyo was eager to join the club of dominant imperial powers, and imposed unequal treaties on China after its victorious war in 1895, but found an inhospitable reception to its ambitions, most notably when Germany, France and Russia forced it to retrocede the Kwantung Peninsula to China. The subsequent rebuff in Hawaii reinforced Japan’s disquiet about the “whites only” club that dominated world affairs, but soon thereafter it accepted the Anglo-American initiative for an Open Door in China and in 1902 scored a diplomatic coup with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. This facilitated victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and subsequent annexation of Korea and a growing presence in Manchuria. Here was the flip side of Pan Asian solidarity.

The author shows how the move towards U.S. annexation became inexorable in the preceding two decades as a result of political and economic developments in Hawaii, evolving naval technology and strategy, and the rise of Japan. “Pacific Gilbraltar” covers the range of relevant historical controversies, including the revolution of 1893, the restoration fiasco and the immigration uproar while provocatively taking issue with the 1993 Congressional Apology Resolution.

In 1891 Queen Lili’uokalani assumed a throne that had been undermined by white settlers who forced her predecessor to adopt what is evocatively called the “Bayonet Constitution.” In 1893 she tried to proclaim a new Constitution reasserting indigenous sovereignty, but this was intolerable to local whites who promptly ousted her with the connivance of U.S. officials.

Morgan, however, rejects assertions in that resolution that the U.S. government conspired with white rebels to overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom. He further explains that the landing of U.S. troops was “to position themselves ashore to maintain public order if needed,” disputing assertions that the landing was an act designed to intimidate royalists and support the coup.

Even if one accepts the U.S. official position at face value, could the landing of U.S. troops at that time be anything other than intimidating to royalists? Certainly it would not have taken any great leap of imagination by the royalists to suspect that the “public order” the troops were sent to maintain was not one in the queen’s interests. This was, after all, the age of gunboat diplomacy.

Morgan’s reading of the archival evidence is also dubious where he acknowledges that the U.S. minister to Hawaii had “close and highly improper” interaction with white rebels, but maintains this does not constitute conspiracy. One doubts he will convince anyone on the other side of this argument.

While readers might find such exonerating interpretations stretch credulity, this is a fascinating account of Hawaii in the age of imperialism and the onset of U.S. interventionism. One learns a great deal about the role of Hawaii at the crossroads of the U.S.-Japan collision course and the relevant intrigues and machinations in Washington and Honolulu.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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