Known as “the Man of the Pacific,” Hiram Fong served nearly two decades as one of Hawaii’s first
U.S. Senators, acting as a surrogate representative for Asian-American constituents at home and as an ambassador of American policies to Asian people abroad. Several path-breaking aspects distinguished Fong’s career. He was the first person of Chinese descent elected to Congress, the first Asian Pacific American elected to the Senate, the first Chinese-American candidate for the presidency, and he remains the only Republican Senator ever elected from Hawaii.1 While serving in the minority for his entire tenure, Fong supported expanding civil rights programs and liberalizing immigration policies. Simultaneously, he staunchly defended President Richard M. Nixon’s Vietnam policies and traveled extensively in Asian nations, calling attention to the growing influence of Asian Americans in the post-war United States. During his time in the Senate, Fong believed himself to be a spokesman for Asian Americans across the country. “I feel sometimes they think I am their senator,” he explained.
“I try to interpret America to them and to interpret them to America.”2
Hiram L. Fong was born Yau Leong Fong on October 15, 1906, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to poor Chinese immigrants, Sau Howe Fong and Lum Shee Fong.3 His father, Sau Howe, worked at the local fertilizer plant while his mother worked as a housekeeper. Hiram was the seventh child and the fifth son of 13 children.4 He grew up in Kalihi and picked beans, shined shoes, sold newspapers, caught fish, and caddied for golfers to supplement his family’s earnings.5 Fong attended Kalihi-waena Elementary School. He briefly attended St. Louis College and then graduated from McKinley High School in 1924. At his brother’s encouragement, Fong took the federal civil service exam while still a high school senior. Unable to afford college, he worked at the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard as a clerk for three years, staying on a year longer than first planned after he became the family breadwinner following his father’s death in 1926. In 1927 he left the position with the understanding he would be hired back should he fail out of the University of Hawaii.6
Fong need not have worried, as he breezed through college in three years, taking summer courses to accelerate his studies. He first adopted the name “Hiram” around this time, primarily in his work as editor of the student newspaper Ka Leo, though he didn’t legally change his name until 1942.7 During college, Fong developed ties with the Republican Party while serving in 1926 as a paid orator for George Frederick Wright’s successful mayoral campaign in Honolulu. After Fong graduated from college with honors in 1930, Mayor Wright appointed him to a clerkship in the city’s public works department. Most of his time was spent assisting Wright in his biennial campaigns.8 After a few years, Fong applied to Harvard Law School and, after being accepted, took out a life insurance policy to ensure his creditors would not go empty-handed should the worst occur. “I figured if I flunked out the first year,” he recalled, “I would not owe anyone any money.”9
Fong returned to Honolulu each summer to work for Wright to afford tuition. After obtaining his law degree in 1935, he returned to Honolulu permanently, passing the bar and accepting the Honolulu attorney general’s office position that Mayor Wright had promised. But the work and pay underwhelmed Fong, “I felt, gee whiz, with all my education, is this all I am going to wind up doing?”10 In 1938 Fong married teacher and longtime sweetheart Ellyn Lo, with whom he eventually had four children, Hiram Jr., Rodney, Merie-Ellen, and Marvin Allan.
A month after the marriage, Fong’s mentor George Wright passed away. After three years of struggling to maintain interest in his work, Fong planned to leave his city job and start his own private practice. Hoping to gain public attention to kick-start his practice, Fong turned to his passion: politics. “So I thought, well I’d better get out … and since I [was] going to get out, I’d better run for office,” he recalled.11 Fong entered the race for one of six territorial house seats in a district encompassing much of the island of Oahu north of Honolulu. He easily won the 1938 Republican primary campaigning on a theme of “local boy makes good” and was swept into office with a surprisingly high vote total for a political newcomer, the second most votes in the district.12 He resigned from the attorney general’s office and opened his own practice.
Drawing on his popularity, Fong asserted his political independence both within the Republican Party and from the “Big Five,” the five largest sugar companies with stakes in Hawaiian production. This rankled the establishment and led to a failed attempt to declare his election illegal on the basis that he was employed by the territorial government. Over Republican speaker Roy A. Vitousek’s opposition, the legislature seated him by a vote of 27 to 2.13 The incident only increased his fame and gained him support from organized labor, bolstering both his political position and his law practice. He easily won re-election in 1940.
Just as Fong began to establish himself in the territorial legislature, war erupted in December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He joined the U.S. Army Air Force as a judge advocate in Honolulu in 1942. A first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, Fong was promoted to captain shortly after being activated as a full-time officer. He initially retained his seat in the territorial legislature, but new War Department regulations prevented active-duty officers from seeking elected office and forced his withdrawal in the 1942 election. The War Department granted Fong permission to run for the legislature in 1944 with the caveat that he could not campaign. His wife Ellyn gamely stumped on his behalf, and Hiram easily won enough votes to regain his seat. He was honorably discharged in February 1945, just days before the new session convened.14
Back in the legislature, Fong made a name for himself as a dealmaker willing to upend traditional party dynamics.15 When his ally Manuel Paschoal stepped aside as speaker in 1948, Fong engineered the “Kauai Inn Agreement,” meeting early with 10 Republican colleagues to strike an accord selecting him as the presiding officer. He then demanded an early caucus to ensure his election as speaker before votes could be discussed.16 Fong served as vice president of the territorial constitutional convention the following year. In 1953 he relied on Democratic votes in a coalition that preserved his speakership. He narrowly lost re-election to the legislature a year later in the Hawaii Democratic revolution of 1954 with the advent of the closed primary in the territory.17
“The people have thrown me out. I’m a private citizen now, so I’m taking things easy,” Fong said, doing anything but. “I’ve been retired and I’ll stay retired. I don’t want people to think I’m a bad loser.”18 To that end, Fong recused himself from politics for five years and turned his attention to his business ventures. He set up the financial services firm Finance Factors Ltd., in 1954 in Wailuku, Maui, to operate alongside his Honolulu legal practice. He diversified his business interests, setting up Finance Realty, Finance Investment, and Finance Home Builders Ltd.19 In the summer of 1959, however, the prospect of imminent statehood drew him out of self- imposed retirement.
Hawaii had to fill three congressional seats, two Senators and one Representative, simultaneously. Fong entered the race for Senate seat “A,” running against Democrat Frank Fasi. Fong’s years away from politics had made him a millionaire, and while his entrepreneurial acumen endeared him to the business community, he also had retained support from Chinese Americans and labor organizations such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). The ILWU’s support for a Republican was unusual, but largely attributable to both Fong’s personal business practices supporting his unionized employees and the union’s distaste for Fasi, who was a virulent anti-communist. Voters embraced Fong’s rags-to-riches story, and he won 53 percent of the vote against Fasi in an election that saw significant Republican gains in state elections as well.20
Before the election, Fong was neither certain of victory nor how he would be received in Washington, DC. “I was quite fearful—you know, being the first person from Hawaii, and not being a Caucasian,” he admitted. “I wondered whether I would be considered too provincial, or too partisan.”21
Instead, the Republican Party establishment embraced both Fong and his independent streak. Vice President Richard Nixon met Fong and his family at the airport, launching a long friendship that would last through Nixon’s presidency. Senate Republicans held a party in Fong’s honor after the new Hawaiian delegation was sworn in on August 24, 1959.22 At that ceremony, Fong won a coin toss for the role of senior Senator over Oren Long. The pair then drew lots to determine the length of each Senator’s term; Fong secured the longer term, putting off a re-election campaign until 1964.23 He earned seats on three committees: Post Office and Civil Service; Public Works; and Interior and Insular Affairs. He joined the Judiciary Committee in the 87th Congress (1961–1963) and the Appropriations Committee in the 91st Congress (1969–1971). He also served on the permanent Select Committee on Aging after the 88th Congress (1963–1965) and retired as that panel’s Ranking Member.
Fong requested and was granted placement on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health,
Education, Welfare and Related Agencies, seeking to check the power of the very unions that had helped launch his Senate career. “I believe labor legislation is essential for our nation as well as for democracy in both unions and business,” he said. “Both will have to conform to the laws of the land.”24 His voting record offered a muddier picture. Fong typically took the business side of consumer and labor issues, drawing heavily on his financial background, but liberal Senators counted on Fong’s labor connections for his vote on key issues.
While, in the abstract, he frequently condemned communism, he also never turned away known communist leaders from the ILWU, saying of them, “From my viewpoint, knowing these people, I think what they were doing was that they were just protesting the rule [of] the people in control.”25 He had a long relationship with ILWU leader Jack Hall. “Whenever he wanted legislation, I would see that it would pass,” Fong recalled, before clarifying, “as long as it was good legislation.”26
Hawaii’s unions relied on Fong as a go-between with Richard Nixon during his failed 1960 presidential campaign, and they routinely backed the Senator whose advocacy for foreign assistance translated into a steady stream of business through Hawaiian harbors. Scores of shipping containers filled with food supplies and materials set off for ports around the globe, creating work for unionized stevedores and dockhands.27
Despite committee appointments oriented toward Hawaiian interests, Fong devoted much of his attention to international affairs, immigration, and defense policy. Between the first and second sessions of the 86th Congress (1959–1961), he undertook a self-funded tour of 13 Asian nations. Fong returned to dispute Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s assertion that America’s prestige had fallen abroad. “I did not find the ‘ugly American’ on my tour,” he insisted, “and I feel we are winning the battle for the minds of people in neutral and free countries of Asia.”28
Fong urged the use of soft power—exercising economic and cultural influence to improve relations—in Asia whenever possible to combat international communism, an ideology which he described as “the wrong concept of man and the universe.”29 Fong focused on engaging Asian nations with the twin lures of democracy and capitalism. He pressed for continued foreign aid, but disputed China’s proposed acceptance into the United Nations, saying the nation still had to prove itself a “good boy.”30 Nevertheless, Fong supported President Nixon’s diplomatic talks with China and joined a congressional delegation to the People’s Republic of China in 1974. He also prided himself on a friendship with the Republic of China President Chiang Kai-shek, whose funeral he attended the following year.31 Speaking about strengthening ties with China and other Asian nations, Fong said late in his career, “America is a two-ocean Nation. We need a friendly Asia-Pacific community, just as much as we need a friendly Atlantic community.”32
Fong was an early and ardent supporter of the Vietnam War during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s
administration, and he maintained that support during the Nixon administration in spite of the conflict’s increasing unpopularity among his Hawaiian constituents. He routinely opposed efforts to restrict funding for the war and frequently defended the Nixon administration.33 Fong labeled congressional efforts to diminish the U.S. commitment to Vietnam “hypocrisy” and insisted military action was necessary to combat North Vietnam’s aggression against democratic allies.34
In line with his interest in Asia, he also urged passage of President Johnson’s immigration reform in 1965. Fong’s approach reflected his belief in soft power. He pointed to how America inspired nations in Asia and around the world. “Our tenets, regardless of race, creed or color, have inspired freedom-loving people everywhere to look to America as a beacon in their struggle to win freedom and independence,” Fong said. “Our opportunity is to live up to their ideals.”35 The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 notably discarded an outdated formula that set racial quotas from Asian nations, which scholars have credited with a dramatic rise in immigration by Asian professionals.36
Immigration and aid for refugees remained prominent concerns for Fong. In 1971 he introduced 75 private bills, more than any Senator that year, mostly for immigration relief.37 The Senator endeavored to relieve the plight of refugees from both communist China and the Indochinese conflicts, cosponsoring several bills before securing passage of the Indochina Refugee Children Assistance Act of 1975. Complementing his views on immigration reform, Fong urged both new and established Chinese Americans to integrate more fully into U.S. society.38
Senator Fong took seriously his role as a surrogate representative for Chinese Americans and as a link between Asia and the western nations. He followed up on Hawaiian Delegate John Burns’s work to establish the East-West Center in Honolulu and then fought from his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee for larger expenditures supporting it. Fong pressured colleagues for more funding, saying about the center, “Wherever men can face one another as peers and exchange their considered views on the vital issues of their lives, the constructive potentialities for cooperative peace increase dramatically.”39
Fong extended that philosophy beyond diplomacy and immigration to civil rights. Though a hawkish supporter of the war in Vietnam, Fong often voted for social legislation that aligned him with Democrats and moderate Republicans. He cast votes for much of President Johnson’s Great Society legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the establishment of Medicare in 1965. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970. Fong also contributed substantially to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, writing an amendment providing for poll watchers to guarantee the safety and fairness of elections.40
Hawaiian issues, of course, ranked high on Fong’s agenda, and he counted the establishment of the East-West Center and securing funding for federal highways on the islands among his greatest achievements in Congress. One of his first successful bills established the Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui, carving it out from land that had been part of the Hawaii National Park established in 1916, and creating additional jobs in the process. From his seat on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, Fong tended to the interests of Hawaii’s thousands of civil servants. In 1960 and 1962 he drafted legislation raising wages for federal employees. Working from his position on the Public Works Committee, Fong lent his influence to Hawaiian groups seeking federal grants for public works such as dams and harbor improvements. In part for his attention to matters back home, Hawaiian Republicans embraced Fong, even nominating him as a “favorite son” candidate for president at the Republican National Convention in 1964.41
Fong’s electoral resilience was fully displayed in 1964. Despite a very unfavorable climate for Republicans, Fong, in his re-election bid, comfortably defeated incumbent Democratic Representative Thomas P. Gill, who was supported by Hawaii’s other Senator, Daniel K. Inouye, with 53 to 46 percent of the vote. Like the rest of the country, Hawaii elected Lyndon B. Johnson by a landslide over Fong’s Senate colleague and GOP nominee, Barry Goldwater. According to some sources, Fong set a senatorial election record nationally by running 32 percent ahead of Goldwater.42
Fong had a contentious relationship with Inouye, who had served as a U.S. Representative before becoming the junior Senator from Hawaii. Their enmity originated in territorial politics when Inouye and John Burns headed the increasingly dominant state Democratic Party. Though both Fong and Inouye endeavored to tie Hawaiian industry and jobs to federal spending, their relationship in the normally collegial Senate was often frosty. That tension was exacerbated by Inouye’s support in the 1970 Senate election for Fong’s opponent, television station owner Cecil Heftel. Fong’s continued support for President Nixon’s policies, particularly his Vietnam strategy, began to frustrate Hawaiian constituents. He refused to debate Heftel, however, relying on his seniority, experience, and name recognition to make his case against the political newcomer. Fong ultimately prevailed with 52 percent of the vote, his narrowest margin of victory to date.43
Barely into his third term, Fong’s office faced an unexpected scandal. Robert Carson, a longtime legislative assistant to the Senator, was indicted on charges of bribery, perjury, and conspiracy on January 13, 1971. Allegedly, Carson had attempted to bribe Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst to intercede in a grand jury investigation. While Fong himself remained blameless, rumors flew of an inciting feud between the Senator’s office and the attorney general over an appointment to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Fong prided himself on placing Hawaiians on the federal bench to increase Hawaiian influence. Kleindienst wanted and found someone from his home state of Arizona for the position, and several sources speculated that this competition was at the root of Kleindienst’s accusations against Fong’s aide Carson. Fong stood by his aide during the trial and appeal process in which Carson was convicted. No accusations or charges were leveled at Fong, but the scandal rocked an otherwise peaceful and focused office.44
Following the bruising 1970 campaign and the Carson scandal, Fong declined to run again in 1976, citing a growing workload and desire to spend more time with his family and friends. At the time of his retirement from the Senate in January 1977, he served as Ranking Member on six committees.45 Fong returned to his law firm, his plantation on Oahu, and various businesses as chairman of Finance Enterprises Ltd. Fong worked well into his 90s, vowing to “die with my boots on.”46
Fong died of kidney failure on August 18, 2004, in Kahaluu, Hawaii.47 His body lay in state in the Hawaiian capitol building in Honolulu before his interment in the city’s Nuuanu Memorial Park and Mortuary.48
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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