The Long “Deep State” Plot to Annex the Hawaiian Kingdom

In recent years the term “deep state” has entered the mainstream. It used to be used only by leftist critical historians or people dismissed as “conspiracy nuts” because they think that powerful people sometimes make secret plans to change circumstances in their favor. Since the 2016 US presidential election the term has moved into common usage. Nowadays everyone uses the term to refer to the unelected elements of the government—military, security agencies, national police agencies, government ministries and departments, and other institutions—manipulating the media, the public, and elected bodies to carry out their plans. The connotation of the term “deep state” is no longer as sinister as it used to be because now, with a large segment of population so disdainful of the elected legislature and executive, the deep state is seen almost as the last resort for saving Western civilization.

The historian Stephen Cohen has stated his belief that the sharp divisions in the 2016 election were the product of a factional war within “the intelligence community,” one that created a phenomenon of bizarre political theater in which people vied for support of the population through the mass media focus on investigations into the two presidential candidates—Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, and Donald Trump after the campaign.[1]

With this new awareness of the deep state, the American public should be trying to gain a better understanding of what it is, how it operates, how long it has operated, and whether it’s just a new label for a very old phenomenon. I propose here that the long process by which the Hawaiian Kingdom came under US control in the late 19th century is an unrecognized example of a deep state operation at the dawn of the American Empire, but I add that the term “deep state” shouldn’t be used to create an impression that there has been a shocking new development in the exercise of power. Powerful elements of present and past civilizations have always accepted democratic or popular rule as long as it didn’t threaten their interests. When it threatens their interests and cannot be altered, they resort to clandestine methods.

Iolani Palace, Honolulu. August 2019.

As early as 1841, the newspaper Polynesian, printed in Honolulu, advocated that the US should establish a naval base in Hawaii for protection of American citizens engaged in the whaling industry.[2] The British-born Hawaiian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Robert Crichton Wyllie, not a supporter of annexation, noted that the “tide of events” was nonetheless rushing in that direction. The US was increasingly the dominant force in trade and thus strategic military considerations, and a new force was the second generation offspring of American missionaries who didn’t follow their fathers into careers in the church. They had become a force in economics and politics. Meanwhile, the native Hawaiian population was decreasing while migrant workers were being brought to the islands, and many foreigners had become naturalized Hawaiian citizens. The Hawaiian monarchy had held onto power and avoided colonization by deftly turning itself into a Western-style constitutional monarchy, with many loyal foreigners like Robert Crichton Wyllie playing an influential role in government.

In 1853, the king, Kamehameha III, was under pressure from foreign residents to sign a treaty of annexation with the United States to protect them from rumored insurrections. Being very aware of the threats of foreign domination, the king was actually favorable toward American annexation, if the terms were right, and he entered into serious negotiations over the next two years with an American government representative. But the kingdom was unable to achieve assurances that Hawaii would become a state rather than a territory, and that slavery would be illegal. Kamehameha III died suddenly only days before he was to sign the treaty. His successor, Kamehameha IV, had had some first-hand experience of American racism during a visit in 1849, and this prompted him to end all negotiations for annexation. It was said afterwards that the whole process had been for naught in any case because the US president was not prepared to consider the matter, especially with the terms required by the Hawaiian monarch.[3]

While political leaders in both countries lost interest in annexation in the 1850s, the circumstances that created the situation were still there, and in fact they became more pronounced. After the Civil War, the US looked westward, engaged in the Indian Wars, settled the former Spanish and Mexican territories in the southwest, and completed its westward expansion. Throughout this process, business leaders and military planners were looking ahead to the next stage when the US would want to expand markets and control resources across the Pacific and in Latin America. However, they knew this would be a hard sell politically. The failure of the annexation effort in the 1850s was duly noted. The United States was founded on the idea that it would not be an empire like the one it broke free of in the War of Independence. Indeed, in the late 1890s, when the question was finally put on the political agenda by Teddy Roosevelt, it was vehemently opposed by the Democratic Party and about half of the population. The press debated the issue furiously, and unlike today, foreign policy was a major concern of the citizenry. However, in Congress there was now enough support for the annexation of Hawaii, even though it was recognized in Congressional debates as a blatant illegal act under international law. The vote to annex the Republic of Hawaii, which itself had illegally overthrown the Kingdom of Hawaii, passed in the House of Representatives with 209 votes in favor and 91 opposed, and in the Senate on June 15, 1898 with 42 in favor, 21 opposed, and 26 not voting.[4] This was possible only with the Republic of Hawaii, the dubiously “legitimate” government of the Hawaiian Islands, consenting to be annexed.

But consider the situation twenty-six years earlier. If you were the US Secretary of War in 1872, and you believed the US must eventually have control of the Hawaiian Islands, how would you move toward achieving this goal while it was politically impossible and illegal under international law? You would have to plan a “deep state” operation, even though such a term was not in use at the time. Government officials just naturally hatched plans in a layered, long con of staged events that would appear to be a progression of “stuff just happening.” The result of gradual steps and deliberately guided events would be a situation in which the political establishment was forced to accept the inevitability of taking action that was previously too outrageous to contemplate. Another example of this process is described by historian Greg Poulgrain. He describes how CIA director Allen Dulles turned Indonesia into an American-controlled dictatorship in a long con that lasted from the 1930s to 1960s, beyond the awareness of the public, presidents and members of Congress.[5]

In 1872, Major General John M. Schofield (namesake: US Army installation Schofield Barracks on O’ahu) was sent by the Secretary of War, William Belknap, on a secret mission to visit the Hawaiian Islands to learn about the defense capabilities of various ports. Schofield submitted a confidential report to the secretary advocating securing the exclusive use of Pearl Harbor through a reciprocity treaty with the Kingdom of Hawaii, which at the time had become a fully independent nation with a deep interest in remaining neutral amid the power plays of the great empires and powerful nations of the day—Russia, France, Britain, Holland, Japan and the United States. Belknap and others in Washington would have known that an exclusive deal for the use of Pearl Harbor in military operations would have been highly unlikely, considering the failure of the annexation negotiation in the 1850s and the present attitude of both governments in Honolulu and Washington. The kingdom had no interest in being turned into the sort of military target that the islands eventually became in December 1941, and the US had no interest in annexing or invading distant foreign nations.

However, during the reign of King Kalakaua, the United States was granted exclusive rights to enter Pearl Harbor to establish “a coaling and repair station” as part of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875. This trade pact would not allow for the use of Hawaiian ports in acts of war against a third party, such as was the case in 1898 in the war on Spanish colonies and former colonies in Guam and the Philippines. The treaty led to a boom in sugar exports (a 722% increase between 1874 and 1890), but it increased dependence on the American market and raised anxiety about eventual loss of sovereignty to the United States.[6]

In 1893, just after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, Schofield was among the many who encouraged annexation of Hawaii. The group of conspirators who overthrew the kingdom and made up The Republic of Hawaii government consisted mostly of American-descended oligarchs who wanted their nation to be annexed. It was a uniquely unpatriotic government. They overthrew a government with the express purpose of being annexed by specific foreign power at some future time. Furthermore, the overthrow was assisted by the American ambassador who deployed the sailors from an American naval vessel that was conveniently in Honolulu at the time. The overthrow had no support from a popular revolution against the monarchy, so it could claim no legitimacy in that sense. In fact, the problem for the usurpers was the deep-rooted support for the monarchy among the native Hawaiian population and much of the settler population. For the sake of thinking of themselves as honorable fighters against the despotism of monarchs, the conspirators erroneously likened themselves to radical leftist Jacobin revolutionaries with the choice of their name: the Committee for Public Safety that, in the case of the French Revolution, put thousands of necks under the guillotine blade. But this was an insurrection by a small group of oligarchs, not a popular revolution. Their role in the insurrection was that of capitalist reactionaries, not leaders of a popular liberation movement. They actually feared and disdained native Hawaiian support for the monarchy, and had no interest in extending the voter franchise to plantation laborers and all citizens.[7], [8]

Since talk of the strategic value of Pearl Harbor and US annexation had been in the air for decades, it is not a stretch to believe that this whole affair was an unrecognized “deep state” conspiracy; that is, it was planned by unelected elements of the US government and Hawaiian oligarchs with American ancestry who were attempting to manipulate the elected elements of the US government. The US Congress and the president could not allow for a direct American takeover of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Such an act would have outraged both international and domestic opinion, so this two-stage, long game plan was the only way to proceed. It might have had setbacks, and it might have failed, but if the conspirators persisted, it would prevail when the political climate in Washington changed.

Democratic President Grover Cleveland (president twice, 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) was against overseas expansion, and had seen the overthrow of the kingdom as an illegitimate use of American power. He wanted the Hawaiian monarch restored to her throne, but negotiations dragged on until Republican President McKinley came to power in 1897. McKinley led America into the Spanish-American War which was fought on the premise of helping The Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba gain their independence from Spain, but once Spain was defeated, this war was followed by wars between independence fighters and US forces that eventually turned these new nations into US territories, or a state subject to American control in the case of Cuba. The annexation of Hawaii passed by a wide margin in Congress because of the need to use Pearl Harbor to project naval power across the Pacific. It must be noted that the era of annexation and territorial expansion ended as soon as the US government, plutocrats and the general public learned how messy it was to be responsible for governing distant lands. Afterwards, the preferred method was the installation of friendly regimes that were nominally sovereign but compliant with American interests—”cops on the beat,” as Richard Nixon referred to them.

It is impossible to prove there was collusion between American military officials and the Hawaiian oligarchs to create the Republic of Hawaii as a holding pattern for eventual annexation. Yet the critical unanswered question is why the USS Boston was conveniently available right at the time of an insurrection against the government. Conspirators wouldn’t have left a written record or admitted to a plot. However, the short-lived Republic of Hawaii looks exactly like what Schofield and Belknap would have planned in the early 1870s. During this same period, in a similar manner, Belknap manipulated the US government into breaking its treaty with the Sioux and waging war on them after gold was discovered in the South Dakota Black Hills.[9] The manipulation of politics in Hawaii that established the Republic created a convenient holding pattern, with an ambiguity about the legitimacy of the pro-annexation government. Was it de jure or only de facto? Did it have recognition by other nations that would give it legitimacy? For five years, foreign nations waited for the ambiguous situation to resolve itself. A few reluctantly giving “diplomatic letters of recognition” to the Republic in order to conduct business, but none entered into full treaty discussions. Everyone in the diplomatic community must have known what the game plan was. Definitive answers weren’t needed because enough ambiguity had been created to make the question of annexation palatable in Washington. The passage of time made everyone forget about the illegality of the overthrow of the government of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Because this process leading toward annexation happened slowly over decades during the coming and going of elected officials, it is one of many illustrations of “deep state” actors and private interests achieving their goals by manipulating and working around the constitutionally-appointed “deciders” over long periods of time. As Henry Kissinger said long ago, “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.”[10] Because it happens over a long time span, these plans are difficult for the public to perceive. As such, the deep state should not really be seen as a shocking devolution of a once-healthy democracy. It is not a matter of the tail ironically wagging the dog. The elected deciders were never the dog. They have always been the tail. A truly shocking development would be the absence of “deep state” elements acting as they always do and the presence of democratic institutions functioning as we presume they should in times when their power is most contested.

This discussion of 19th century history may seem ancient and irrelevant to some in the early 21st century, but it provides an informative comparison with the contemporary expansion of NATO and its vilification of Russia. The process has been going on since the late 1990s when president Boris Yeltsin belatedly woke up at the time of the NATO attack on Serbia. A series of interventions has been going on throughout the time of four American presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump), up to the latest interference in Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia. It remains to be seen what the final reaction of the deciders will be when this vilification campaign approaches its goal, whatever it may be. The overthrow and annexation of Hawaii were outrageous breaches of international law, but at least the goal was plainly visible. The same cannot be said of a campaign that constantly antagonizes a large nation in possession of 7,000 nuclear warheads.   


[1] Abby Martin, “Empire Files: US-Russia Relations in ‘Most Dangerous Moment,’” Telesur, January 19, 2017, 05:00~. Interview with Stephen F. Cohen. See also Stephen F. Cohen, War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2019). This book is based on a series of interviews with Stephen Cohen on John Batchelor’s Podcast, one example of which is Dissent and the New Cold War, March 29, 2017.

[2] This quote from the Polynesian is unsourced as but is quoted on this Wikipedia page:

[3] William De Witt Alexander, “Uncompleted Treaty of Annexation of 1854,” Papers of the Hawaiian Historical Society. Hawaiian Historical Society, 1897.

[4] Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2016).

[5] Ian Curtin and Greg Poulgrain, “The CIA’s Involvement in Indonesia and the Assassinations of JFK and Dag Hammarskjold,” Global Research, July 22, 2016.

[6] Ralph Simpson Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom 1874–1893, The Kalakaua Dynasty (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press,1967).

[7] Gavan Daws, Shoal Of Time: A History Of The Hawaiian Islands, Chapter 7 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968).

[8] “U.S. Commits “Acts of War” against the Hawaiian Kingdom,” Hawaiian Kingdom Blog, January 17, 2018, See these sources (notes 7 and 8) for a thorough discussion of Hawaii in the 1890s.

[9] Jeffrey Ostler, The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 60-62.

[10] Greg Grandin, “About That Kissinger Quote Neil Gorsuch Likes,” The Nation, February 7, 2018.

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