McKinley saw importance of Hawaii

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

One hundred and twenty years ago today, on July 10, 1897, President William McKinley sent this coded message to America’s new minister for Hawaii, Harold M. Sewall: “If Japan resorted to force, as President he would declare an American protectorate over the islands.”

Why would an American president in the last decade of the 1800s, whose election focused on the economy, worry about Japanese control of the Hawaiian Islands?

I have read many books on McKinley to study for my performances as our nation’s 25th president, who was born in Niles. One of these books was written by Scott Miller, titled, “The President and the Assassin,” and provides in more detail the answer to this question.

Even though McKinley was still learning his way around the White House in the first few months of his presidency in 1897, he recognized Hawaii’s pivotal role in the health of the U.S. economy.

Undisputed access to Hawaii’s wonderful anchorage at Pearl Harbor would allow American merchant ships to refuel and refurbish along the way to the new trade market of vast wealth, China. In short, Hawaii was to be a stepping stone for American commerce, one that McKinley must protect from other powers, especially Japan.

After two-and-a-half decades of isolation, the Japanese leaders would embark on aggressive territorial expansion. Japan would take by force three foreign territories – Taiwan in 1895 – and would then pursuing both Korea and southern Manchuria.

Meeting with Sen. George Hoar, McKinley said, “We cannot let those islands go to Japan who has her eye on them. Her people are crowding in there. I am satisfied they do not go there voluntarily, as ordinary immigrants, but that Japan is pressing them in there, in order to get possession.”

McKinley’s cabinet would also lobby that Pearl Harbor could become an important military base in case war with Spain would occur and our navy would need to travel across the Pacific to the Spanish occupied Philippines. McKinley also predicted that Japan being a warlike nation would most likely attack our nation someday. He would recognize this concern some 44 years before that day which will live in infamy, Dec. 7, 1941.

One month before, in June of 1897, McKinley would order a treaty to annex Hawaii that was submitted to the Senate. Congress defeated the measure after the Hawaiian Princess Ka’iulani and others would lead an effort to allow her nation into further trade pacts with the United States to protect American business interests rather than outright annexation.

Once the War with Spain broke out in 1897, the annexation would then finally get approved by Congress and the islands that would eventually become our 50th state would fall under American military control.

China on the other hand would begin to build its economy with products from America, including half of all U.S. cotton exports and, according to cotton spinners from letters sent to their congressmen in South Carolina, who would write that China saved their industry. Standard Oil found in China a huge market for its kerosene, just as demand was starting to shrink at home with the spread of the new electric light bulb. At 400 million people, China’s population in 1897 matched all of Europe and was five times larger than the United States. Dynasties such as Forbes, Delano, and Astor families were born in China.

McKinley considered America and its export trade would make it the industrial leader of all nations for the 20th century and predicted China would follow in future centuries.

Mike Wilson is the director of SCOPE Senior Services of Trumbull County and has traveled around the nation performing as William McKinley for the past 25 years.



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