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After Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Spent Three Years Under Martial Law

August 22, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

The night of December 7, 1941 was a panicked one in Hawaii. In the wake of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaiian civilians struggled to understand what had just happened—and to make sense of the announcement that their island was now under martial law.

As military and FBI agents rounded up suspected spies and “suspicious persons,” the army imposed a strict curfew. Habeas corpus was suspended, the military took control of labor, and trial by jury was temporarily abolished. More than 2,000 people were arrested in the first 48 hours alone. Hawaii would remain under military rule for almost three years.

“The Army’s readiness to take over every detail of government in Hawaii only hours after the Pearl Harbor attack was in startling contrast to its lack of military preparedness to deal with the onslaught by Japan’s air fleet,”, a Hawaiian civilian protested his arrest and prosecution by the military commission for a minor offense during martial law. He won: In the majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote that, “Our system of government clearly is the antithesis of total military rule …This supremacy of the civil over the military is one of our great heritages.”

Though the case is little remembered today, it was a reminder that Hawaiian civilians had sacrificed their freedoms during the war—demonstrating a loyalty that would become a critical argument for statehood 13 years later, when Hawaii was admitted into the union as the 50th state.

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