The ethnic history of the Hawaiian Islands is thought to go back approximately to the eighth century A.D., when Polynesians in long-distance canoes made their incredible voyages over hundreds of miles of open sea, probably from the Marquesas and Society Islands, to discover and settle the archipelago. Four hundred years later, still more Polynesians came from Tahiti. When Captain Cook's ships first came upon the Islands in 1778, some 300,000 natives lived there. Seventy-five years later, after ample exposure to white man's culture and his diseases (starting with syphilis carried by men off Cook's Resolution and Discovery), only 71,000 natives remained. In 1872., the combined count of native Hawaiians and haoles (Caucasians) in the Islands was 56,897, the lowest population count on record. By the mid-1960s, according to one count, only 9,741 Hawaiians of pure native ancestry remained.
Nevertheless, the ethnic history of Hawaii is considered a model of successful mingling of the world's races -- as one Hawaii politician put it in an interview, "the salvation light of civilization." In 1970 the state statistician, Robert Schmitt, listed the nonmilitary population of the Islands this way:
Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian 21.1%
Other races and mixtures 10.6%
Of this unique aggregate of peoples, all save the Caucasians and native Hawaiians are descended from some 400,000 foreign-born laborers who had been brought to Hawaii during the preceding century to man the great sugar and pineapple plantations. In order of introduction, these were Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Korean, Spanish, and Filipino. At first the native Hawaiians and the haoles considered them all "foreigners." But the weight of numbers -- and thereby the future -- rested with the newcomers.
As early as the 1920s, when the old plantation system still held full sway, it was easy to travel to Hawaii and come away convinced that the ultimate melting pot had been discovered. William Allen White did just that in 1925, reporting after a conference he had attended in Honolulu that Hawaii was the one place in the world where "the so-called race problem is [not] acute," where the eyes of the men of the "brown, black and the yellow [races] of the earth and their mulattoes are [not] looking with suspicion and rage and bitterness into the blue eyes of the men of the northern ruling race of today," and where "race antipathies have disappeared because...race injustices are not in vogue."
White was fundamentally wrong. It was true that actual laws of racial discrimination did not exist in the Islands. Both the earlier traders and the missionaries -- the former out of a profit motive, the latter because of Christian belief -- had treated native Hawaiians with some deference and respect. Plantation life, however arduous, did include an opportunity for the schooling of children, thus giving them the keys for their future emancipation. But the haole still dominated Hawaii as a preferred race, straight up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Hawaii of the pre-World War II era was a Hawaii of many social divisions with a superficial frosting of aloha. Americans of Japanese ancestry were considered locally and nationally as an alien people. The Hawaiian people -- that marvelous, extraordinary Polynesian society which suffered so much, so patiently, at the hands of the Caucasian -- were innocent victims of misguided benevolent paternalism which treated them as valuable children to be used primarily for entertaining tourists or to put away out of sight on poor quality houselots called homesteads....
The Chinese people were no better off than those of Japanese ancestry, and our newly arrived Filipinos were at the bottom of the ladder of social acceptance.
All of this was broken, decisively, by two events surrounding World War II. The first was in regard to the Japanese, who were immediately thrown under a dark cloud of suspicion by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Several hundreds were placed in internment camps, and all were subject to ugly slurs about their patriotism. Then they proceeded to demonstrate their patriotism beyond any shadow of doubt. Not a single act of wartime sabotage by a Japanese was ever reported in the Islands. The Japanese community led in the purchase of war bonds and gave freely to the blood bank. And as soon as Japanese military enlistments were permitted, the all-Japanese looth Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were formed. Off they went to Italy and France, to fight with great valor and suffer cruel losses.