Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, March 18, 1999

Burns won
statehood victory

Last of three articles

Tuesday: The Farringtons, fighters for statehood
Last Thursday: Campaigners for Hawaii's statehood


JOHN A. Burns, later Hawaii's second elected governor, was the delegate to Congress who won the final statehood victory for the Territory of Hawaii.

The winning margins in the U.S. Senate and House 40 years ago last week were so lopsided -- 76-15 and 323-89 -- the uninformed may think winning was a cinch. Far from it. Considerable political bravery on the part of Burns went into making it possible.

Burns had to agree before he faced re-election in 1958 that Hawaii, which for over two decades had counted on becoming the 49th state, would step back, let Alaska be No. 49, and hope to enter the Union as the 50th.

Hawaii deserved to be 49. We were more populous than Alaska, had made tremendous sacrifices in World War II and the Korean War, had a stronger economy, had a much better developed government and had a much-praised standby state constitution.

Even Alaska conceded we should go first. But the national politics of the moment had Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and a Republican in the White House.

The earlier common assumption had been that Hawaii might send Republicans in Congress while Alaska would send Democrats. This led to a fear that President Eisenhower might sign a Hawaii bill but veto a bill for Alaska.

To assure against this, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn decided to pass an Alaska bill first, see if Ike would sign it, and then let Hawaii come in as No. 50 if he did.

They would move Alaska in 1958 but delay Hawaii until the next Congress. Assent would leave Burns out on a limb in his 1958 re-election race. But he signed on.

Party politics was not alone in delaying statehood. The issue of communism here had been raised by the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was a convenient cover for those with ethnic prejudices concerned that Hawaii would bring into the Union for the first time a state dominated by non-Caucasians.

It also was a refuge for Southerners concerned about losing filibuster effectiveness if pro-civil rights votes were added to the Senate.

We did have communists in our labor movement. But Burns was proved right in his faith that their leaders put advancement of labor locally far above any international goals.

Burns worked to bring the ILWU and Hawaii's Japanese voters together in the Democratic Party. He had credentials with the Japanese community because of his work as a Honolulu police captain in World War II to build bridges over the distrust created by the Pearl Harbor attack. His political support was bulwarked by young Nisei veterans who had given their all in heroic World War II combat to prove their loyalty to America.

The ILWU-Nisei alliance won stunningly in 1954. It captured both houses of the Legislature. This ended 50 years of GOP domination. Burns lost narrowly for delegate to Congress, but came back to win in 1956.

Unlike delegates Joe and Betty Farrington, who preceded him, he had no personal wealth to spend cultivating contacts in Washington to favor statehood. But a lot of that had been done already.

He did become close to both House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, the two Texans who were calling the tune in Congress. They offered him the Alaska-first deal and said hats off for his political selflessness when he accepted.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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