Gateway State explores the development of Hawai’i as a model for liberal multiculturalism and a tool of American global power in the era of decolonization. The establishment of Hawaii statehood in 1959 was a watershed moment, not only in the ways Americans defined their nation’s role on the international stage but also in the ways they understood the problems of social difference at home. Hawaii’s remarkable transition from territory to state heralded the emergence of postwar multiculturalism, which was a response both to independence movements abroad and to the limits of civil rights in the US.
Once a racially problematic overseas colony, by the 1960s, Hawaii had come to symbolize John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. This was a more inclusive idea of who counted as American at home and what areas of the world were considered to be within the US sphere of influence. Statehood advocates argued that Hawaii and its majority Asian population could serve as a bridge to Cold War Asia — and as a global showcase of American democracy and racial harmony. Business leaders and policymakers worked to institutionalize and sell this ideal by capitalizing on Hawaii’s diversity.
Asian Americans in Hawaii never lost a perceived connection to Asia. Instead, their ethnic difference became a marketable resource to help other Americans navigate a decolonizing world.