How Pearl Harbor Became ‘The Nation’s Chief Pacific Outpost’

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The insistence of a Hawaiian prince cemented the military in the islands decades before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Editor’s Note: The articles in this series are the result of months of research in state and national archives, on Kauai, on the Big Island and in Honolulu, and within the Washingtoniana collection at Martin Luther King Jr. Library and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Key resources include congressional testimony, hearings and historical newspaper collections.

As early as 1907, more than three decades before the pivotal events that catapulted the United States into World War II, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole believed Hawaii was in serious danger of attack by Japan and that the islands were being left defenseless.

While the United States had pushed for possession of Pearl Harbor ever since the time of King David Kalakaua, the Americans had never done anything to fortify the harbor or convert it into a usable Navy base. In Kuhio’s opinion, U.S. indecision and penny-pinching short-sightedness were jeopardizing Hawaii.

For Kuhio, schooled in military tactics from his youth at St. Matthews Hall and a veteran who had seen first-hand the brutality of battle during the Boer War in South Africa, it was not a question of whether an attack would occur, but when.

The prince became an ardent advocate of building up Pearl Harbor, pushing his fellow lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to appropriate money for the work and later engaging in a nationwide letter-writing campaign to build support when the effort appeared to be failing.

The decision to militarize Hawaii would become controversial in modern times, but in Kuhio’s life, it seemed like the only way to protect the islands.

An aerial view of the USS Arizona and USS Missouri Memorials at Ford Island, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Diamond Head, Honolulu and Waikiki are in the distance. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Johans Chavarro/Released)
An aerial view of the USS Arizona and USS Missouri Memorials at Ford Island, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Johans Chavarro/Released)

By this point, five years after his first election as territorial delegate, Prince Kuhio was moving smoothly in the highest political, military and diplomatic circles in Washington. In 1907, all over the world, consulates were buzzing with rumors that Japan intended to attack the United States or its possessions, including Hawaii. These reports were ricocheting around the nation’s capital.

President Teddy Roosevelt was so worried about an assault by Japan that he privately asked Adm. George Dewey, the nation’s top naval officer and a veteran of the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, to evaluate the relative strengths of the Japanese and American fleets to determine how well the U.S. could respond, according to Roosevelt scholars Raymond Esthus and Charles E. Neu.

Kuhio was an insider who knew that Dewey had undertaken the analysis, which showed that while the United States would probably win a match-up if the fleets went to war, the Japanese nonetheless had enough military capability to pose a  significant threat. In 1906, the American Navy was ranked second in the world, after Great Britain, and Japan was ranked fourth, with France ranked third, according to the annual edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships published that year.

Japan and the United States had become engaged in an imperialistic arms race. Both countries were building up their naval defenses for a possible major confrontation as British dominance faded. In addition, the historic friendship between the United States and Japan was becoming an on-again, off-again thing.

War enthusiasts in both countries spent many hours day-dreaming about their glorious destinies. Starting in 1890, American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan had written a series of books and articles promoting the idea that attaining control of the sea would enable a country to be powerful and prosperous at home. This exciting idea set off a feverish naval arms race between the Americans, the Japanese and, in Europe, the Germans, most notably in the person of Kaiser Wilhelm.

“To apologists for empire, few tonics were more invigorating than the elixir of national unity produced by war,” wrote historian Jackson Lears, who chronicled this era in American history.

Mahan and his theories were also hugely popular in Japan, wrote Japanese historian Sadao Asada, noting that “several thousand volumes” of one of Mahan’s books, translated into Japanese in 1896, sold out within days. Top government and military officials studied the volume and urged others to do the same, telling each other that it would allow them to “control the commerce and navigation in the Pacific and gain sufficient power to defeat any enemy,” the historian wrote.

This ideological framework for naval war emerged at the same time that new and terrifying kinds of weapons were being devised that would allow soldiers to attack from the sky, via aerial bombardment, by sea, underwater via submarines that could suddenly strike from the depths of the ocean, and even through the means of unprincipled and grotesque gas attacks that would ravage the lungs of soldiers and civilians alike. On land, rapid-fire machine guns mowed down neat lines of soldiers entering the battlefield.

These armaments were being readied for use around the world, and they would be deployed to horrifying effect within the next decade, in what would come to be called World War I. The question was where hostilities would break out first.

Hawaii At The Center Of War?

In 1907, it looked like this might happen in the vicinity of Hawaii, possibly with the islands serving as ground zero for the conflagration. Mahan’s writings in fact frequently featured Hawaii as a pivot point required for oceanic victory in the Pacific.

Jonah Kuhio Kalanianole, great-uncle of Abigail Kawananakoa
Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole was a territorial delegate to Congress when he became concerned that Japan might attack Hawaii even before World War I. (Hawaii State Archives)

The reports about the possibility of a Japanese attack on American possessions had some foundation in fact.

The Japanese Empire, rapidly modernizing and building up a vast offensive arsenal, decided in 1907 that the United States was its single most important enemy and the country’s officers were quietly engaged in war games in preparation for an eventual showdown, according to Asada, who analyzed military records in Japan that had not been destroyed in the closing days of World War II.

“The year 1907 marked a significant turning point in the history of the Imperial Japanese Navy,” Asada wrote in his 2005 book, “From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States.” In that year, Japan’s highest military authorities — the ministers of the army, navy and high command, decided upon the empire’s core strategic plan and began labeling the United States Japan’s primary “hypothetical enemy.”

Japan had had a long interest in Hawaii, operating a much-bigger consulate in the Hawaiian Kingdom than any other nation. Also, large numbers of Japanese were moving to Hawaii, people who were subjects of Japan, who were newcomers to Hawaii without voting rights and who often faced humiliating racial discrimination in the islands and on the mainland.

This was occurring at a time the once-reclusive country was becoming a forceful and intimidating military power. In 1894, the Japanese army fought China to gain control of Korea, with Japanese troops occupying Seoul. Some 170,000 Japanese settlers flooded into Korea within a few decades, according to historian Jun Uchida.

That same year, Japanese military forces invaded Manchuria, engaging in a pitched and bloody war with the Chinese, which included disputed reports of a massacre at the heavily fortified harbor at Port Arthur, now called Lushun, in northeastern China.

In 1895, Japan invaded and took control of Taiwan.

That same year, more than 100 Japanese settlers in Korea took part in a coup to overthrow Korea’s queen, the Empress Myeongseong, who was perceived as anti-Japanese, by killing her and her ladies-in-waiting in the palace and then burning her body. It was “one of the most egregious acts of violence in the history of modern colonialism,” wrote Uchida, in her book “Brokers of Empire, Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876-1945.”

This was surely a disconcerting event to the royal family in Hawaii as well.

In 1902, Japan signed a mutual defense treaty with Great Britain, and in February 1904, Japan launched a surprise attack on the Imperial Russian Navy without first declaring war, ultimately destroying the fleet. The Russians had invaded the weakening China from the north, coming into conflict with the Japanese. The naval fight became a land battle as well, with more than 100,000 Russian and Japanese soldiers slaughtered, many of them by the still-new method of machine gun fire.

Tensions Mount In US

U. S. President Theodore Roosevelt was invited to broker an armistice between the Russians and Japanese, which was concluded in 1905. But after the negotiations ended, many in Japan grew critical of what they believed to be inadequate compensation for their victory, blaming the Americans for it.

Racial discrimination in Northern California against Japanese settlers in North America exacerbated these tensions. By 1906, Roosevelt feared the insults would inspire a violent reaction in Japan.

“She will get to accept us instead of Russia as the national enemy whom she will ultimately have to fight, and under such circumstances her concentration and continuity of purpose, and the exceedingly formidable character of her army and her navy make it necessary to reckon very seriously with her,” Roosevelt wrote on Oct. 31, 1906, in a letter to Sen. Eugene Hale, chairman of the Senate committee on naval affairs.

House of Representatives chamber
The U.S. House of Representatives central assembly area was an area where Prince Kuhio spent much of his time as a delegate to Congress. (Library of Congress)

The United States, of course, was far from an innocent observer in all this. The United States had moved into the Pacific in 1898 by seizing Hawaii and the Philippines. The takeover in Hawaii had been relatively bloodless, but the devastation was severe in the Philippines, where more than 20,000 Filipinos died trying to defend their independence, and some 4,200 Americans died as well.

It also left the United States without the moral authority to judge other nations.

All this was well outside of Prince Kuhio’s control, but Hawaii’s future was in his hands nonetheless. He had begun pushing for additional fortifications at Pearl Harbor soon after he arrived in Washington in 1903 but was rebuffed year after as competing projects got funding that Pearl Harbor did not.

His efforts to raise the issue in 1907 resulted in Kuhio being given a hearing before the House committee on naval affairs on Jan. 29, 1908, where he made a major presentation about the need to fortify Pearl Harbor.  He carefully assembled large-scale maps and charts and placed them around the committee room so the lawmakers would be able to understand the problems presented at the site and visualize the solutions.

Kuhio’s words that morning made it clear that he was getting angry.

For more than 50 years before the overthrow of the monarchy, he reminded them, American leaders had signaled their intentions to take control of Hawaii, starting in 1842, when President John Tyler warned European nations that the United States would never accept them occupying the Hawaiian Kingdom.

“By the time President McKinley reached the White House, it had become apparent that the danger of the occupation of Hawaii by a foreign power had been shifted from European nations to those of the Orient,” he said.

Now, he told them, the threat was upon them. He urged the committee to call Admiral Dewey to appear before them to tell them privately and in secrecy what he would not be able to “transmit to you in writing,” Kuhio said.

The Spanish-American war had underscored the need for the United States to maintain a naval base in Hawaii to be able to defend itself in the Far East, he said.

“But although this Government annexed the Hawaiian Islands for the particular value of their strategic location, they have permitted almost ten years to pass without turning a sod or laying one foundation stone toward the actual construction of a naval station at Pearl Harbor,” he told them sternly.

He ended his presentation with a plea:

“The development of Pearl Harbor is not a Hawaiian proposition; it is a national need,” he told the committee. “But as my nation gave over its sovereignty to this country ten years ago, we have a right to ask, and we do ask that adequate protection be provided for our islands, so that we could not be captured by a single hostile battleship as could be done today,” he said.

The committee members were shocked to hear that nothing had been done to fortify the islands.

“We are practically defenseless?” one lawmaker asked.

“There is not a gun mounted in the Hawaiian Islands — not one,” responded George McClellan, an aide to Kuhio.

They pitched Pearl Harbor as not just a construction cost but as an opportunity, a deep and wide body of water, large enough to accommodate an entire naval fleet but far enough inland to conceal the vessels from offshore enemies. An adjacent parcel of land, some 600 acres, planted in sugar cane and lantana flower bushes, would be able to hold all the support buildings the harbor and naval base would require.

Pearl Harbor dry dock 1
Prince Kuhio pushed for construction of naval facilities at Pearl Harbor, including a large dry dock. This photo was taken on the day it was completed. (U.S. Pacific Fleet)

The Hawaiian group’s remarks were thoughtfully received. That afternoon, several members of the committee came to see Kuhio on the House floor, to compliment him on a good presentation. No objections were raised.

But within a few days, amid another of Congress’s endlessly recurring spats over spending, Kuhio learned that no money had been appropriated for Pearl Harbor. He sent a cable to Hawaii Gov. Walter Frear with the bad news that the provisions for Pearl Harbor had been excluded from the annual naval appropriation.

Kuhio was undeterred. He decided to go to the top to make his case, telling a reporter at the Honolulu Evening Bulletin on Feb. 14, 1908, that he planned to appeal to Roosevelt himself to add the money to the budget.

He made some headway. Roosevelt agreed with the prince and “helped him get the appropriation onto the floor of Congress,” wrote Kuhio biographer William Henry Beers.

The prince had also initiated a nationwide publicity campaign, writing letters to news organizations and making public appearances to bolster support for the harbor, the Honolulu Advertiser reported on April 8:

“Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, delegate in Congress from Hawaii, is determined in the face of disappointment caused by the cutting of the appropriation for the fortification of Pearl Harbor, that if personal effort can prevent it there shall be no further discrimination against his home islands in the cause of economy,” the Chicago Evening Post reported, while the Portland Journal of Oregon wrote an editorial in support of Kuhio’s proposal.

Things began turning around. In April, Kuhio announced that the Pearl Harbor bill had passed, with an authorization of $2.7 million, according to the Hawaiian Star. Then he prevailed upon the House and Senate naval affairs committees to add another $400,000, raising the total appropriation to $3.1 million, which would be more than $1 billion today.

By August, more than 350 local men were said to be jockeying for construction jobs at Pearl Harbor, ushering in a new area of military contracts and spending. The next year, Congress appropriated another $900,000 for Pearl Harbor.

By November 1909, the multi-service military board “finally confirmed what had been apparent for some time — that Pearl Harbor would be the nation’s chief Pacific outpost,” wrote Roosevelt historian Neu.

Meanwhile, the threat from Japan faded for the moment as a result of a negotiated settlement with Roosevelt, though tensions would recur again in later decades.

What role did Kuhio have in averting a possible conflict at that time?

It’s hard to know. It is possible that the large spending at Pearl Harbor gave the islands protection over the years. The highly fortified Pearl Harbor came to be viewed as almost invulnerable to attack, at least until 1941, when a new technology — carrier-based air power — emerged.

The construction of Pearl Harbor also brought permanent change to Hawaii, with an influx of good-paying jobs and lucrative military contracts.

But it would also change Hawaii in ways they could not have guessed: That war would come in any case, in World War I, ultimately against Japan in World War II, in Korea and in Vietnam; that the mismanagement of these vast facilities would permit the contamination of Hawaii’s soil and water; and that though many lives would be boosted into prosperity because of Pearl Harbor’s presence, other lives would be inalterably damaged.

But those were questions for the future.

At the time, Kuhio’s experience with Pearl Harbor appropriations had shown him once again the need for lawmakers to see Hawaii. Kuhio wanted them to view the islands not just as spots on a map but as an integral part of the nation.

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