Alaska, Hawaii Statehood

Good morning, it’s Friday, July 7, 2017. Last night, the Washington Nationals’ brass did something you don’t see every day. They initiated a three-hour rain delay even though it wasn’t raining at game time — and wouldn’t for another two hours. Even then, what came from the skies was a drizzle.

Naturally, the team blamed the weather forecasters, but by the time of the first pitch, the young woman tapped to sing the “Star Bangled Banner” had gone home, along with most of the fans. Although it seems unfair to blame the capital city for such ineptness, the thought does occur: it’s as if the Senate owned a baseball team. But I digress.

Fifty-nine years ago today, Alaska was designated for statehood. Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill making it official, but the president used the occasion to vent his dissatisfaction with Capitol Hill. So what irked Ike?

On July 7, 1958, President Eisenhower did not hide his displeasure, even while formally signing the paperwork putting Alaska on the road to becoming the 49th state in the union. He found it inexcusable that Hawaii was still waiting at the altar. In Ike’s mind — and he wasn’t alone — this was supposed to be a joint deal.

“While I am pleased with the action of Congress admitting Alaska, I am extremely disturbed over reports that no action is contemplated by the current Congress on pending legislation to admit Hawaii as a State,” said Eisenhower’s written statement. “My messages to Congress urging enactment of statehood legislation have particularly referred to the qualifications of Hawaii, as well as Alaska, and I personally believe that Hawaii is qualified for statehood equally with Alaska.”

Actually, Eisenhower believed Hawaii had a stronger case than Alaska — and the former five-star general said why: “The thousands of loyal, patriotic Americans in Hawaii who suffered the ravages of World War II with us and who experienced that first disastrous attack upon Pearl Harbor must not be forgotten.”

Eisenhower’s appeals for island statehood began in 1953, two weeks after his inauguration, and were incorporated into four succeeding State of the Union addresses. Despite Eisenhower’s pique at the Alaska signing ceremony, his words did not go unheeded: even then, opposition to Hawaii’s admittance was collapsing in Congress. Alaska’s success signaled a tacit tradeoff for Hawaii statehood the following year.

Partisan considerations played a role in these negotiations, just as they do today in the long-simmering debate over Washington D.C.’s desire for full representation. Alaskans, too, had to overcome Republican concerns about more Democrats coming to Congress. This was not Lisa Murkowski or Sarah Palin’s Alaska, but an Alaska with an all-Democratic congressional delegation. Also, Republicans noted that without any real industry, Alaska would become a ward of the federal government.

Meanwhile, Southern Democrats worried that Alaska’s delegation in the Senate — expected to be pro-civil rights — would dilute their power. For similar reasons, the Dixiecrats were lukewarm to the idea of statehood for Asian-majority Hawaii.

Those concerns eventually eroded in the fact of the inexorable logic of adding them: Both places were, in every sense that mattered, already part of the social and economic fabric of this country.

And in time — by 1959, in fact — it all worked out. Aloha!

Carl M. Cannon

Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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