Martial Law

As the smoke still rose over the devastated Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, at 3:30 P.M. on December 7, 1941, Hawai'i's governor Joseph Poindexter turned over the territory's government to the military and thereby surrendered civil liberties and a democratic form of government. Lieutenant General Walter Short following the governor's proclamation affirmed, “I have this day assumed the position of military governor of Hawaii, and have taken charge of the government …” (Anthony, 5). Short then informed President Franklin Roosevelt of that declaration of martial law in Hawai'i and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus of which the president approved. The writ of habeas corpus is one of the fundamental rights of citizenship in which persons must be informed of the charges against them and given the right to a trial before a judge or jury.

Martial law meant the military governor alone controlled the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of the government. He issued general orders that regulated conduct, and his military police and courts enforced his regulations. The military controlled all aspects of peoples' daily lives, including their livelihoods, leisure time, and even their movement. The military regulated the prices and sale of food, gasoline, liquor, firearms, instituted press censorship, decreed curfews and blackouts, froze wages and employment, and controlled the hours of work, collection of garbage, speed limits, parking, bowling alleys, the water supply and its chlorination, and restaurants, bars, and places of amusement. In short, the military ruled over all aspects of life in the islands.

When he turned over the reigns of government to the military on December 7, Hawai'i's governor was under the impression that the duration of martial law would be brief, only for the duration of the emergency set off by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, perhaps a few days or weeks. Clearly, by the Battle of Midway in June 4–5, 1942, in which its Navy was destroyed, Japan no longer posed a danger to Hawai'i, and thus the emergency was past. But Lieutenant General Delos Emmons, who replaced Short as military governor, refused to relinquish his powers and extended martial law to October 24, 1944, when it ended with a proclamation from President Roosevelt.

On February 24, 1944, Duncan, a civilian worker at Pearl Harbor, got into a quarrel with two marine sentries stationed at the gate. He was arrested, taken into custody, and was convicted of assault and battery against military personnel by a provost court. He was sentenced to six months in the Honolulu county jail. Duncan appealed to the U.S. district court in Hawai'i for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming his trial under military rule was unconstitutional. Further, by 1944, Duncan contended, there was no “military necessity” for martial law in Hawai'i, nor was it imperative to try a civilian before a military court. Duncan's petition was served on the sheriff of the City and County of Honolulu, Duke Kahanamoku, and thus the case is known as Duncan v. Kahanamoku. The case was one of two heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging martial law in Hawai'i.

The Supreme Court heard and decided Duncan v. Kahanamoku after end of martial law effective October 24, 1944. In a divided opinion rendered in 1946, the court declared that the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights apply in the Territory of Hawai'i as well as elsewhere in the United States, and the military commander is not exempt from U.S. law but is subject to it even under martial law. The lawfulness of military rule must be decided on the basis of its necessity for the public safety. Duncan v. Kahanamoku (1946) effectively closed the chapter on Hawai'i under martial law, an extraordinary measure in U.S. history, and more broadly it affirmed the principles of democracy and the application of the U.S. Constitution even during times of war.

It did not, however, end the debate over who instituted martial law in the territory. The army tried to wash its hands of responsibility for what can only be seen as an antidemocratic act, while the governor who surrendered his powers to the military might have had his legacy in mind when he blamed the military. On March 25, 1946, the secretary of war submitted for insertion in the Congressional Record his defense of the military's actions: “The Army did not in any sense oust or overthrow the civil government of the Territory,” the secretary claimed. “The civil authorities of the Territory continued for the most part to function as before, their authority supported and assured by martial law.” From his perspective, Governor Poindexter recalled December 7 when General Short requested of him a declaration of martial law and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus: “During the conference I put this question to Gen. Short: ‘As commanding general, charged with the defense of these islands, do you consider it absolutely essential to the defense of these islands that martial law be declared and the privilege of the writ of habeas

corpus be suspended?' He answered emphatically: ‘I do.' I then told him that I was reluctant to do as he requested, that I was a civilian unversed in military matters but he was a soldier charged with the duty of safeguarding Hawaii from the enemy, and that I must yield to his judgment as to what measures should be taken in discharging this duty” (Anthony, 8, 97).

In reality, the military had long planned for martial law in the islands. Army and Navy intelligence since at least World War I, when Japan was an ally of the United States, investigated Japanese Americans in Hawai'i. For the military, the “Japanese problem” involved their numbers, Buddhist temples and Japanese-language schools, and their labor militancy especially after the 1920 strike of Filipino and Japanese American sugar plantation workers on the island of O'ahu. The strike, they believed, was orchestrated by Japan as part of its campaign for global dominance against white supremacy. In Hawai'i, the military strategists held that Japan connived to control the economic and political life of the territory under the cover of democracy and civil liberties. Military rule was the only sure way to combat that peaceful invasion and subversion.

The Summerall report of 1922 summarized the military's concerns over the islands' “Japanese problem.” A year earlier, the army's War Plans Division (WPD) considered the defense of Hawai'i in a document drawn up in 1921 and revised in 1923 called the Orange War Plan (Japan was assigned the color orange). The plan proposed the declaration of martial law, internment of enemy aliens and civilians deemed security risks, and restrictions on labor, movement, and the press and public information. John DeWitt, the acting chief of staff in the WPD who detailed the Orange War Plan, was a colonel at the time. He would later become the general in charge of the U.S. West Coast, and the commander responsible for implementing President Roosevelt's EO 9066. DeWitt argued for the Orange War Plan's martial law or “the establishment of complete military control over the Hawaiian Islands, including its people, supplies, material, etc.” on the grounds of “military necessity” (Okihiro, 124).

Martial law, accordingly, governed Hawai'i for most of the war years not because of Pearl Harbor but because of military strategies laid during the 1920s.

Gary Y. Okihiro


Anthony, J. Garner. Hawaii under Army Rule. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1955, 1975.

Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.