University of Hawai'i at Manoa



Tom Coffman

Once upon a time, there was a small group of ambitious men who were driven by a desire to abruptly increase America’s power and wealth. After formulating a plan of national expansion, they were stirred to action by an event involving the violent death of a large number of Americans. In the aftermath, they maneuvered a weak-minded president to the brink of war, and then distorted intelligence to smooth the transition into battle.

“American forces, with their advanced firepower, quickly slaughtered tens of thousands of people. The conventional phase of combat was brief, as promised, but an ensuing insurgency was prolonged and deadly. What had been portrayed as a war of liberation became a war of hostile occupation.”

I grew up in a small town in Kansas believing the Spanish-American War had something to do with Teddy Roosevelt riding up a hill. If I had even a faint glimmering that there had been a Philippine-American War, it was about American horsemen running down turbaned insurgents who were on foot, swing knives.

I learned about the Philippine-American War on a trip to Manila, when I wandered into a museum that had a succession of diorama. One showed American cavalrymen moving down people with six shooters and gatling guns. Thereafter I went to the Metropolitan bookstore and bought a sackful of books about this event. It dawned on me that because of coinciding dates, there must surely be some connection to America’s annexation of Hawaii.

I must say that when I began to research this, Belinda Aquino was the only person I found who had a deep, clear-minded understanding that annexation was intimately tied with the Philippines.

She helped me see that Hawaii is a transitional hub to a Pacific-wide and ultimately global story. Hawaii was and is, the single most important overseas land space in the American design, the base for projecting American power into, and dominating, the second of the American oceans.

If we can digest that fact, then our historical research and dialogue and such gatherings as today take on a new level of meaning.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that American overseas expansionism began with the doctrine of James Monroe asserting a special privilege and control over the Americas. It is well known that President John Tyler in essence extended the Monroe doctrine to the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1842 – asserting a special American right, and warning all other nations to avoid any serious involvement with Hawaii.

Thereafter the American Civil War diverted the energy and attention of American expansionism, but in the long slow recovery an agenda was formulated by a nucleus of people in Washington, D.C., who represented the thoughts and interests of enormously influential forces in this country.

By name, these individuals were:

• Theodore Roosevelt, originally a writer, adventurer and promoter of war who is remembered now as an enemy of corruption and a savior of forests;

• Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, the most influential writer of his day, a close Roosevelt friend;

• The third was the senator from the great sea-going state of Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge, along with such lesser lights as Admiral George Dewey and Dr. Leonard Wood.

During the nondescript administration of Benjamin Harrison, they lunched together at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C. and they asked, “How can we be a first-rate nation if we are a second-rate military power?” In reaction to such events as the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, which they had supported, and which President Harrison indirectly supported, and which the American Navy supported directly, they began to formulate the answer to their question.

Number one: Become a first-tier naval power. In Roosevelt’s own words: “We built modern cruisers to start with – the people who felt that battleships were wicked compromising their misguided consciences say that the cruisers could be used to protect our commerce. Then we built more powerful fighting vessels, and as there was a section of the public which regarded battleships as immorally suggestive of violence, we called them armored cruisers. There still remained a public, as old as Jefferson, that thought our problem to be one of coastal defense, an attitude as sensible as a prizefighter who expected to win by merely parrying instead of hitting. We provided for the battleships under the name of “coastal defense battleships.” There remained a lingering remnant of public opinion that clung to the coastal defense theory, and we met this in beautiful fashion by financing what we called “sea-going coastal defense battleships” – the fact that the name was a contradiction in terms being of small consequence.

Next on the agenda was control of the sea lanes to Latin America and Asia, specifically (a) control of the Caribbean ocean; (b) construction of a canal across the isthmus of North and South America, allowing the American navy to fight wars in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans simultaneously if need be; and (c) the heart of the matter in terms of strategic projection of power across the sea lanes to Asia: Acquisition of Pearl Harbor.

You may have been told that the object of American desire was sugar cane and Hawaii’s potential as a curiosity for adventurous travelers. All of my research says this is not the case, that the overriding goal of America was to secure the only harbor in the northern Pacific with a narrow, easily defended mouth and large inner lochs capable of housing a large fleet of ships beyond the reach of enemy naval guns.

The scout who made this assessment, and archived it in 1873, was Major Schofield, for whom a famous set of barracks in Hawaii was to be named.

The problem with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy was timing: No sooner had it occurred than America changed from the Harrison Administration to Grover Cleveland, who famously had qualms about the taking of a small, defenseless land of innocent people who did not want to be part of the United States.

As Cleveland fretted over what to do, Hawaii fell under a repressive government masquerading as a Republic under the leadership of Sanford Dole.

The progression of expansionist history went into a four-year stall, from early 1893 to 1897, when yet another obscure figure of enormous historical importance, Republican William McKinley, was elected president.

Against the advice of practically everyone that young Teddy Roosevelt would try to run everything, McKinley yielded to Roosevelt’s campaign to be assistant secretary of the navy, closely advised by the widely read Alfred Thayer Mahan, now famous for his treatise on the importance of Sea Power.

It is important to point out that the most frequent and intense correspondence between Roosevelt and Mahan was about the importance of taking over Hawaii.

Roosevelt was restless. He wrote: “What this country needs is a war – any little war will do.” I think the entire country was restless. In the famous terms of historian Charles Beard, it had reached the limit of the frontier. It wallowed in economic depression brought on chiefly by massive overproduction and a lack of adequate overseas markets.

In the Darwinian vocabulary of the day, such places as Hawaii and the Philippines were described as “ripe fruit,” ready for the plucking. The Philippines was well into its fourth century of colonial rule by the one-time great colonial power, Spain. More and more Filipinos were demanding independence, and Spain was less and less capable of imposing its will. Spain’s colony in Cuba was also a pressing problem, particularly because the leaders of the Cuban insurrection could easily run into the press in New York to stir up anti-Spanish sentiment in America.

It was in this context that Theodore Roosevelt, in virtual control of the Navy, began to unfold his plot to engage slumbering America in a war with Spain. With the support of Senator Cabot Lodge, he supervised the naval buildup. He assigned his friend Admiral Dewey to head the Navy in the Western Pacific and gave him specific orders to strike the Spanish in Manila Harbor in the event of war. He wrote, “”Whenever I was left as Acting Secretary (of the Navy), I did everything in my power to put us in readiness. I knew that in the event of war Dewey could be slipped like a wolf-hound from a leash, I was sure that if he were given half a chance he would strike instantly and with telling effect.”

USS Maine was dispatched to Havana Harbor in a show of force. And there, one warm night, as the captain was writing a note to his wife, the Maine blew up, killing 266 American men.

Was Spain to blame? Who in their right mind would think they would be so foolish? Unabashed Theodore wrote: “A number of peace at any price men of course promptly assumed the position that she had blown herself up, but investigation showed that the explosion as from the outside.” In fact the beams of the Maine’s wreckage twisted not inwards (as from a bomb) but outward, the historical clue to the real explanation. An explosion in the boiler room resulting from internal combustion.

Truth was trampled in the rush to war. Spain became a fearsome and deadly foe. In the words of Roosevelt, “We attributed to this feeble nation plans of offensive warfare which it never dreamed of making.” Immediately the Dole government in Hawaii pleaded for annexation lest Hawaii be invaded by Spain. “When the Maine was blown up in Havana harbor,” Roosevelt wrote, “war became inevitable.”

President McKinley, keeping up with the crowd, swung behind a war resolution, and for the first time since its horrific Civil War, the breech between North and South seemed to heal. All of Congress joined in singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Brooks Brothers to make six tailored uniforms, in which he was dramatically photographed. He resigned to become the executive officer to an old Indian fighter, Dr. Leonard Wood, a friend from the lunch group at the Metropolitan Club. He raced off to assemble boys from the Ivy League and rowdies from his young days in the West and called them The Rough Riders (as in the Roosevelt High School Rough Riders).

As previously ordered by Roosevelt, Dewey sailed from Hong Kong into Manila Harbor. The Spanish fleet at anchor, the Yankee sailors shouted, “Remember the Maine!” By noon, they had sunk the entire decrepit fleet suffering only one noncombatant casualty. Not knowing what to do next, they anchored and went ashore, where they were greeted by Filipino insurgents who believed they had come as liberators.

In Hawaii, the small haole elite sensed their own ship was finally arriving. Roosevelt had met with Lorrin Thurston, architect of the Hawaiian monarchy overthrow, the dominant figure in the annexation strategy. With support of the Philippine effort in mind, Roosevelt arranged for the Hawaii government to quietly buy up all the available coal in Hawaii and stockpile it next to Honolulu harbor. Four square blocks were piled eight feet high with coal to fuel the trans-Pacific voyages of troop ships.

An American expeditionary force was organized on the West Coast to support Commodore Dewey in the Philippines. The annexationists of Hawaii fought over the honor of greeting and hosting the American ship. Finally, a committee of One hundred was formed, made up of Hawaii’s most prominent white people.

Thousands of American troops, for the first time, came ashore in the mid-Pacific paradise. They were honored with a luau, bananas, beer. They camped in Kapiolani Park, forming a village of tents around the famous landmark Leahi.

A large contingent stayed on to fortify, for the first time, the Hawaiian Islands, while thousands sailed on to Manila.

The commander of their force queried President McKinley: “What were they to do? Secure Manila? Or all of the Philippine Islands?

The rest was history.

Tom Coffman is an independent researcher, writer and filmmaker. His Nation Within -- in PBS documentary film and a 400-page book -- developed a new understanding of the centrality of Hawaii to America's design on the Pacific. In the process, the nation of Hawaii was destroyed in 1898; the Spanish empire was commandeered, to the disastrous long-term interests of both the Philippines and the U.S. Coffman is also the author of the much-acclaimed Catch the Wave and other publications including America's Island Edge..