Continuing week two of this Statehood Countdown, we’re looking at correspondence from 1954 between Lincoln Fairley, Research Director of the ILWU and Jack Hall, Regional Director of the ILWU, Local 142, in Hawaii.

Besides the momentary lapse of support for statehood by the ILWU, this document describes the Puerto Rican commonwealth and what that might mean for Alaska and Hawaii should this option be chosen.

Of particular interest is the conclusion that Lincoln Fairley makes 2/3rds the way down commenting upon the Puerto Rican referendum.

It is uncanny that the numbers should similarly reflect Hawaii’s plebiscite despite the difference in population size to Puerto Rico, and the fact that Puerto Rico had received three options in their plebiscite, including independence, rather than the yes-or-no option Hawaii received: “Shall Hawaii be immediately granted into the Union as a State?”

In Puerto Rico 59% of the eligible voters did not participate in the vote, while in Hawaii it was 60%. That 34% of the eligible voters voted for commonwealth, 35% of eligible voters in Hawaii voted for statehood.

Between Hawaii and Puerto Rico was a difference of just 1% when applying the same conditions for measuring the votes.

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July 15, 1954

To: Jack Hall, Regional Director
From: Lincoln Fairley, Research Director
Subject: Commonwealth status for the Territory of Hawaii

I understand from Lou that you have raised the question that the ILWU might agitate for commonwealth status for Hawaii as a substitute for the statehood campaign and that you are thinking of the status of Puerto Rico as the example. I have checked a bit about the present status of Puerto Rico and feel that Hawaii would not have much, if anything, to gain by moving in this direction.

Commonwealth status for Puerto Rico is unique. It seems to be principally a device for quieting the demand for real independence without in fact providing many of the basic factors required for independence.

Commonwealth status for Puerto Rico means the following:

  1. A compact between Puerto Rico and the United States that Puerto Rico will remain a part ot the U.S. Federal system.
  2. A considerable degree of autonomy in Puerto Rican affairs (exclusive, of course, of international relations) with an elected governor with a constitution drafted and ratified in Puerto Rico. However, they have only an observer in Congress and do not participate in presidential elections.
  3. A number of serious limitations with regard to control over even local affairs.”
    • A. There is apparently serious doubt whether the Constitution could be amended without approval by the U.S. Congress.
    • B. There are certain limitations written into the Constitution. There is, for example, a debt limit for Puerto Rico and its municipalities as a percentage of the actual valuation of property.
    • C. The government’s hands, therefore, would be tied if they sought to promote a program involving major government expenditures along New Deal lines.c. Most U.S. federal agencies operate in Puerto Rico under U.S. legislation; Selective Service, for example, though the Puerto Ricans had nothing to say about its passage. Similarly the Taft-Hartley Law is in effect and is not limited to commerce with the U.S.; all local industry is covered.
  4. The Internal Revenue Bureau is an exception to the foregoing, Puerto Ricans are exempt from U.S. income tax legislation. This, I assume is primarily an advantage to Puerto Rican corporations, many of which are in fact owned by persons in the U.S. There cannot be many workers in Puerto Rico who earn enough to gain much from income tax exemptions.
  5. 5. Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. tariff system. Puerto Rico exports to the U.S. are not taxed on arrival here and customs collections on goods coming into Puerto Rico are turned back into Puerto Rico and do not go into the U.S. Treasury.

Commonwealth status (referred to in Puerto Rico as Estado Libre Asociado) was effected when the Constitution went into effect on July 25, 1952. The Constitution was drafted and subsequently approved by referendum vote pursuant to Public Law 600 adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1950. The purpose of the changes brought about by Public Law 600 are indicated by the following quote from the report of the Public Lands Committee:

The bill under consideration would not change Puerto Rico’s fundamental political, social and economic relationship to the United States. Those sections of the Organic Act of Puerto Rico pertaining to the political, social and economic relationship of the United States laws, customs, internal revenue, Federal judicial jurisdiction in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican representation by a Resident Commissioner, etc., would remain in force and effect, and upon enactment of S. 3336 (the precursor of Law 600—ED.) would be referred to as the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act.” (Committee on Public Lands of 81st Congress, House Report 2275, 1950.)

Mr. Jack K. McFall, Assistant Secretary of State, in a letter included in the above committee’s report, wrote that the bill should be passed, “in order that formal consent of the Puerto Ricans may be given to their present relationship to the United States.”

He added: “In view of the importance of ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ in anti-American propaganda, the Department of State feels that S. 3336 would have great value as a symbol of the basic freedom enjoyed by Puerto Rico, within the larger framework of the United States of America.”

How popular commonwealth status actually is, is difficult to determine. It is true that the Constitution was adopted by referendum vote but only 41% of the eligible voters participated, Consequently the constitution was actually adopted by 34% of the eligible voters. Moreover, three of the political parties in the territory favor outright independence. How wise independence would actually be under the present circumstances is another question. My own guess that Puerto Rico being so small and so dependent on a single crop would be in and even tougher spot that the Philippines if full independence were achieved.

There appears never to have been any serious agitation for statehood in Puerto Rico. The choice was between independence and something short of independence. The question was how far from the U.S. would Puerto Rico move, not how close.

In pursuing the matter further, I suggest that you get a copy of the “The Annals of the American Academy of the Political and Social Science” from January 1953. The best thing in the issue is and article by Rupert Emerson, who during part of Roosevelt era was Director of the Divisions of Territories and Insular Possessions. After describing the character of the commonwealth set up, Emerson has the following to say about the possible application of commonwealth status to Alaska and Hawaii:

“ To Alaska and Hawaii the change which has been made in Puerto Rico’s status presumably appears as a menace, rather that as an advance to be envied. Coveting statehood which has several times seemed almost within their grasp, these territories have lingered under organic acts dating four or five decades into the past and providing for Washington-appointed governors and other restrictions on their autonomy in domestic affairs. In company with Puerto Rico, they lack full congressional representation and are excluded from Presidential elections. Fiscally they are at a disadvantage in that, unlike Puerto Rico, they neither receive exemption from the federal income tax nor secure the return to their own treasuries of internal revenue taxes and customs duties. But the one goal to which they aspire is statehood, and it would be the coldest of comfort to them to think that they might be put off by having accorded to them the favor newly devised to meet Puerto Rico’s needs. In its bearing on their own position, they could applaud the Puerto Rican solution only in the unlikely event that their own claims to statehood would receive kindlier treatment because of the removal of Puerto Rico from the list of current aspirants to the prize of becoming the forty-ninth state.”

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