On the near-cloudless Monday morning of May 3, 1915, the steamer Sierra floated on an untroubled sea off the coast of Honolulu, the lush capital of the Territory of Hawaii. On deck, 125 people outfitted in white linen suits and dresses—among them 48 Members of Congress—polished off breakfast and prepared to disembark for what most hoped would be a tropical vacation. From the harbor, five launches sailed out to meet them, carrying a welcoming committee comprised of the Royal Hawaiian band, lei greeters, the mayor of Honolulu, the leadership of the territorial legislature, and Hawaiian Delegate Jonah “Prince Kuhio” Kalanianaole.
The welcoming committee had planned a three-week tour of the Hawaiian Islands for the Members with the hope of securing from Congress various economic concessions for their territory. Only five days later, however, the RMS Lusitania, a separate ocean liner sailing in contested waters half a world away, was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Nearly 1,200 civilians died when the Lusitania sank, including 128 Americans. In the wake of the attack, Congress turned away from the Pacific and towards the explosive crisis in the North Atlantic. The threat of global conflict—and America’s entry into World War I—had come to Congress’s doorstep.
Weeks before the Lusitania went down, Kuhio, whose childhood nickname “Prince Cupid” followed him to Congress, sailed home to Honolulu in order to prepare for the arrival of the congressional delegation, leaving his secretary, J.R. Desha, behind to accompany the party on its lengthy journey from Chicago to Hawaii by way of San Francisco. As Kuhio approached the Sierra on that morning in early May he searched the faces on the railing for a familiar bearded visage. “Hello there Uncle Joe, aloha oe,” he shouted to the upper deck.
“Hello Cupid,” Illinois Representative Joe Cannon replied, casually leaning over the railing, a cigar stub tucked in his mouth. “Back to your islands, eh?”
As a statutory representative—Kuhio’s Delegate position was created by federal statute rather than articulated in the Constitution—Kuhio had little influence in the House but he developed non-traditional ways to push his legislative interests. At his exotically decorated penthouse apartment, the “Bird’s Nest,” in downtown DC, Kuhio hosted lavish dinners where he charmed, lobbied, and educated his fellow Members of Congress on issues vital to Hawaii. Sponsored trips like these to Hawaii, however, promised to give Kuhio a captive audience and an even larger source of leverage for his legislative agenda.
As only the second Delegate from the Territory of Hawaii, the Prince quickly realized that his role on Capitol Hill was more diplomatic than legislative. Though he could introduce bills and sit on committees, Kuhio could not vote on the House Floor, meaning he had little negotiating leverage. An early attempt to repair lighthouses in Hawaii, for instance, ran into confounding bureaucratic tangles, and the experience convinced Kuhio that his colleagues simply didn’t know enough about Hawaii to consider its needs.
Like the United States’ other overseas territories at the turn of the century, Hawaii had been snapped up in a flurry of annexations following the Spanish-American War in 1898, and American officials had been visiting Hawaii ever since. Small delegations of U.S. politicians, administrators, and academics travelled to the new insular possessions to inspect conditions and prepare Organic Acts in Congress to create territorial governments. As the Honolulu Star-Bulletin observed, “There are peculiar problems here which are much easier of solution after personal inspection even if for a few days only.” In 1902, three Senators from the Committee on Pacific Islands and Porto Rico briefly toured the islands and held informal hearings on the general conditions there. In 1905, Hawaii served as a pit stop for a much larger congressional delegation on its way to Japan and the Philippines. Members were eager to travel abroad, though most viewed that particular delegation trip as a vacation. (The number of prospective attendees dropped from 48 to 23 once daily hearings in the Philippines were announced.) Still, the trip drew considerable press attention for including First Daughter and gossip column sensation Alice Roosevelt. Kuhio noticed the level of interest, and in 1907 he began arranging delegations of his own.
The nearly 50-man 1915 delegation, using a $15,000 disbursement from the Hawaiian territorial legislature, represented the largest group of Congressmen to visit the islands at that time. Kuhio had written to every single Member of Congress, inviting them to be guests of the territory ahead of the 64th Congress (1915–1917) scheduled to open later that December. The party featured some of the most powerful men in the House of Representatives, including Republican Leader James Mann who, like former Speaker Cannon, hailed from Illinois. Politicos buzzed on the mainland that Republicans had a good shot at taking back the House in the upcoming 1916 elections, and Kuhio—a Republican himself—was eager to make good with the potential new House leadership. Mann gave Kuhio every reason to be encouraged as he bounced along to the Royal Hawaiian band, “These islands may be assured of a continuance of prosperity.”
Laden with leis, regaled with patriotic music, and awash in florid greetings, the congressional guests at one point gave three cheers for Kuhio and sang a rousing rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” A fleet of cars whisked some Members off to their hotels to prepare for the evening’s Governor’s Ball at ‘Iolani Palace. Other Members and their families donned bathing costumes and enjoyed the sand and surf at Waikiki Beach. Several Members were visiting Hawaii for the second time, including Cannon, who insisted this visit was primarily a “pleasure trip.” Another returning Member, Clarence Miller of Minnesota, brought a massive moving picture machine to record the trip. “This tour is a great idea,” Miller enthused. “They know something about Hawaii in Congress, but not nearly as much as they should know. Everybody’ll learn something this time. Something they won’t forget, either.”
The silent footage below features former Speaker of the House Joe Cannon touring and giving a speech on the Islands.
Kuhio and the territorial legislature set an exhausting schedule for the congressional visitors. A ferry ride to the island of Maui featured a tour of the harbor, the lighthouse, and a cannery. The itinerary also included stops at schools, public utilities, clubs, and private residences—places the organizers hoped would help the island secure funding for harbor and infrastructure improvements and lead to the repeal of a sugar tariff they felt had hamstrung Hawaii’s economy. The Congressmen were also treated to a fake “volcanic eruption” produced with the aid of dozens of oil barrels.
Members gradually absorbed their island education. Representative Albert Johnson of Washington met with the inspector in charge of immigration to the island, claiming the issue was of “keen interest” given his strong stance against immigration from Asian nations. Virginia Representative Carter Glass and North Carolina Senator Lee S. Overman voiced their hopes for a thorough education in the Hawaiian sugar trade. Representative Joshua Alexander of Missouri spoke at length about his hopes for a resolution to the Islands’ transportation woes with the mainland. Representative Swagar Sherley of Kentucky, a prominent member of the Appropriations Committee, however, had a different focus in mind. “The military and naval end of congressional appropriations will occupy much of my visit to Hawaii,” he said, specifically referencing Pearl Harbor and the installations on the island of Oahu.
When the German navy torpedoed the Lusitania on May 7, the majority of the congressional delegation in Hawaii remained oblivious, celebrating Joe Cannon’s 79th birthday during their final night on the island of Maui. The few Congressmen remaining in Honolulu, however, quickly learned the news over the wire. This wasn’t the first time Germany targeted ships carrying American citizens: the day the delegation arrived in Oahu, news of the Germans torpedoing the American oil-tank steamer, Gulflight, blazed across the front page of Honolulu’s Star-Bulletin newspaper. Germany’s attacks threatened the U.S. policy of neutrality in the Great War ravaging the European continent, and many expected an extra session to be called before the scheduled start of the 64th Congress that winter. Following the Lusitania, the delegation looked out at Hawaii, this American bulwark in the Pacific, and questioned whether the nation was ready for war.
America’s eye had originally fallen on the Hawaiian Islands for two reasons: its blossoming sugar industry and its strategic position in the Pacific. But it was the latter factor that ensured continued American attention. United States naval forces used the islands as a refueling station during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the prospect of a U.S. naval base in the territory had been key to its annexation. Despite Kuhio’s best efforts to focus Washington’s attentions on updating infrastructure and supporting the sugar economy on the islands, most Members of Congress imagined the territory first and foremost as a military asset. The threat of armed conflict overseas only heightened interest in the islands’ burgeoning defense capabilities.
Mainland journalists mostly ignored the congressional delegation in Hawaii at first, but the sinking of the Lusitania suddenly piqued everyone’s interest. “As far as the defense of the Pacific Coast is concerned, the Hawaiian Islands are the most important place in the Pacific and, in my estimation, should be strongly fortified,” Representative Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri said upon returning home early. He urged $15 million in funding to upgrade the islands’ fortifications. Back in Hawaii, several Congressmen gave up the Kauai leg of the trip to focus on Oahu’s defense projects. Tennessee Representative Richard Wilson Austin declared himself a “strong friend of every industry touching the Hawaiian Islands” in a speech before Honolulu’s Ad Club but spent most of his remarks recommending defense spending. Kuhio held a lavish farewell party for the few remaining Congressmen who had not already sailed on to the Philippines or Mongolia or returned to the mainland, but even the Honolulu papers relegated the event to the gossip columns. On the final day of the tour, the Hawaiian Gazette featured a pull-quote from Representative James Frear of Wisconsin, stating in part that “Pearl Harbor is not a local project. The development of Pearl Harbor is of national concern.” Luaus had given way, completely, to the Lusitania.
When the 64th Congress convened in December 1915 (the extra session Members had predicted never happened), Congressmen who had visited Hawaii with Kuhio voiced unexpected pleasure at the “Americanization” of the islands. However, despite promises from Representatives Glass and William Rodenberg of Illinois, among others, Congress ignored Hawaii’s tariff issues. Instead, Members packed Congress’ calendar with a flurry of resolutions reforming control of the islands’ harbors and appropriating funds for military roads and upgraded defensive installations, including $700,000 for Pearl Harbor alone.
Contrary to the expectations of House Republicans and much of the Hawaiian press, Democrats held onto a narrow majority in the 65th Congress (1917–1919). The conflict in Europe intensified in the intervening years. On April 6, 1917, Members acted on President Wilson’s request to declare war on Germany by a vote of 373 to 50. Hawaii remained primarily a refueling station for the duration of the conflict, but a second congressional delegation toured the islands in 1919 which led to further defense appropriations for the expansion of Pearl Harbor.
Twenty-two years later a surprise attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into World War II. The bombing raids outraged Americans on the mainland, and spurred recognition of the Hawaiian Islands as fundamentally American—a dramatic shift in perspective that put Hawaii on the path to statehood.
At the outset of Kuhio’s tour in 1915, a reporter from the Star-Bulletin asked Cannon, “How is Hawaii thought of in [Congress]? Is it just a dot on the map, or do the lawmakers really know something about us?”
“Well,” Cannon mused, “they do and they don’t. We hear a good deal about Hawaiian defense, and from a military standpoint the islands are pretty much in the limelight.” Despite sand, surf, and Kuhio’s best efforts, that limelight only grew brighter as America moved ever closer to intervening in the Great War.
Sources: Christian Science Monitor, 14 May 1915, 26 May 1915; The Garden Island (Kauai), 4 May 1915; Hawaiian Gazette, 21 May 1915; Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 3 May 1915, 4 May 1915, 5 May 1915, 6 May 1915, 7 May 1915, 8 May 1915, 10 May 1915, 11 May 1915, 12 May 1915, 15 May 1915; Indianapolis Star, 9 May 1915; Los Angeles Times, 15 May 1915, 27 May 1915; Maui News, 8 May 1915; New York Times, 16 May 1915; San Francisco Chronicle, 28 April 1915; Washington Post, 16 June 1915, 21 June 1915; Lori Kamae, The Empty Throne (Honolulu: TopGallant Publishing Co. Ltd., 1980); Roderick O. Matheson, Congressional Visit to Hawaii (Honolulu: The Advertiser Press, 1915).Follow @USHouseHistory