There are complicated but long-standing ties between the Southeast Asian nation of the Philippines and its former colonizer the United States, despite the history of conflict between the two nations.
On 12 June 1898, the Philippines declared independence from their former colonisers, the Spanish. The Americans stepped in to claim sovereignty over the islands, almost immediately leading to a second war of independence: the Philippine–American War of 1899–1902. Only a handful of works have depicted this crucial period in the history of both countries. (John Sayles’ 2010 little known indie release Amigo is a notable exception in the West.)
Local anti-American sentiment among the Philippine intelligentsia dates back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since then, it has been sporadically invoked in nationalistic polemics and critiques of contemporary western culture. In recent years, however, the strength of anti-American feeling has grown on both sides of the Pacific. This is reflected in an August 2021 video essay by filmmaker and reporter Johnny Harris, creator of Vox’s Borders series. Entitled “How The US Stole The Philippines,” it has garnered almost two million views on YouTube—far surpassing the viewing figures of any other video on the subject and helping to spark renewed conversation on the history of Philippine–American relations. Yet it seems more geared towards reopening old wounds and stoking outrage than understanding the past. To use history in this way—as a means by which contemporary ideologues can advance their modern-day agendas—is divisive and cheap.
In the US, the subject of how history is taught has become part of the culture wars. But in the Philippines, there has been fierce debate over whether national history should be taught at all, especially since the introduction of a K–12 curriculum in 2011. On the other hand, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts has expressed concerns that young Filipinos are becoming ignorant of their own history: blaming this ignorance variously on the prevalence of American culture, funding, and on a lack of interest on the part of educators. As a consequence, there are wildly varying standards in the teaching of history: some private institutions offer comprehensive history courses, while more impoverished public schools often offer little more than bullet-point highlights—which may paint a distorted picture of what happened and how it relates to the country’s present-day situation.
The Spanish–American War of 1898, which immediately preceded the Philippine–American War of 1899–1902, is a little remembered conflict, but it had lasting repercussions for the United States. By defeating one of Europe’s colonial powers to gain control over Puerto Rico, the Marianas and the Philippines, the young country of America, which had only recently defeated its own colonisers, the British, became one itself, expanding its “manifest destiny” beyond the confines of the New World. Ignoring the many anti-imperialist protestors—who included prominent figures like Mark Twain—the US set off on the path towards global hegemony—but also on a fateful collision course.
As Harris succinctly explains, at that time the Philippines had been under Spanish rule for well over three centuries. The legacy of this can still be seen in the prevalence of Christianity, as well as the many Spanish loanwords and Hispanic names (in all of which the Philippines contrasts sharply with its Southeast Asian neighbours). After American ships easily trumped the Spanish navy—the Battle of Manila Bay was so one-sided that the only US casualty was a single sailor who died from heat exhaustion—the Filipino revolutionaries and their then-president Emilio Aguinaldo believed that Uncle Sam was there to help their cause. After the Mock Battle of Manila, however—in which the Spanish garrison in the walled Intramuros district performed a staged surrender to the Americans out of a refusal to admit defeat to the Filipinos—it quickly became clear that the Filipinos’ supposed saviours were actually their new overlords.
What followed is remembered nowadays as either the Philippine–American War or the Philippine Insurrection. It was effectively over by 1902, with the capture of President Aguinaldo—though the last Moro holdouts on the island of Mindanao continued to fight on until 1913. By the time the war had ended, 20,000 Filipino soldiers had been killed in action and at least 200,000 civilians had died, mostly from famine and disease. Though sporadic clashes persisted for a while, the region soon slipped out of the public consciousness in the United States. Some contemporary newspapers in the US bemoaned the fact that the Americans “didn’t know if the Philippines were islands or canned fruit.”
Until the Philippines gained de facto independence from the US on 4 July 1946, as Harris further discusses, it was treated similarly to other “unincorporated territories” like Guam: it was part of America, yet its inhabitants were denied the rights, representation and liberties enjoyed in the mother country. Filipinos weren’t treated as full American citizens. As many have pointed out, this shows that a nation that supposedly prides itself on upholding freedom has often denied that freedom to other peoples and territories it has found convenient to exploit.
In the original draft of his “Day of Infamy” speech, delivered in December 1941, in response to the Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbour, Franklin Delano Roosevelt mentioned the Philippines and other islands over which the US held jurisdiction in accordance with a 1901 Supreme Court decision. But all mention of the Philippines was removed from the final version of the speech. Harris explains:
Yes, the Philippines was on some map somewhere. Yes, we technically owned it. But the people really didn’t want to hear about it because these people weren’t Americans. The Supreme Court had decided that. They weren’t gonna become states anytime soon, so why mention them? … Or let’s just call a spade a spade, let’s call them what they are. These are colonial possessions. The people who lived here don’t experience the full rule of law, they don’t get trial by jury, they don’t have full representation in our democracy, and they don’t get to vote for the President … We conquered these places, but we didn’t wanna bring the people fully into the American project. We left them out. And there they remain today.
Harris suggests here that the current friendly relations between the Philippines and the United States belie a dark past. The Philippines, for Harris, provide a lasting reminder of US imperialism: an example that should prompt us both to demand justice for those victimized by the US and to ensure that such colonial adventurism never happens again. But this is, at best, a selective reading of the past and, at worst, a misleading one.
This is only part of the story. Theodore Roosevelt’s actions in the Spanish-American War, which directly led to Uncle Sam’s involvement in Philippine affairs, were partly motivated by cynical realpolitik and colonial adventurism—and both by a desire to defeat the Spanish navy and a genuine belief in spreading liberty to the downtrodden. In fact, the Philippines were ceded to the US by Spain as part of the 1898 Treaty of Paris in return for a payment of $20 million. The Mock Battle of Manila took place after the treaty had been signed, but before news of it reached the Pacific.
The Philippine–American War involved many brutalities on both sides: both American massacres and retaliatory attacks by Filipinos. But not enough attention has been paid to what happened afterwards. Governor (later President) William Howard Taft may have condescendingly referred to the locals are his “little brown brothers”—though this was considerably better than the ferocious racism of some of his peers. However, Taft was a stabilising influence on the country. Not only did he create Baguio City as the nation’s “summer capital,” but freed up land previously owned by the Catholic Church—which had wielded considerable influence under Spanish rule—and returned it to the people. The reforms instituted under American oversight included the importation of 600 Thomasite volunteer teachers, who played a key role in bringing secular education to the masses in a way the Frailes and Real Audiencia de Manila never had. In addition, the 1934 Tydings–McDuffie Act, which set the stage for the country’s transition to full independence, was the culmination of joint efforts by nationalists like ex-revolutionary Manuel L. Quezon and sympathetic members of the US Congress.
So why did Roosevelt erase the references to the Philippines in the final version of his Day of Infamy speech? Perhaps this was less because he accorded Filipinos only second-class status and more because he thought of them as a completely separate people. The status of the so-called “Insular Cases” (like the Philippines and Guam)—which Harris invokes as an enduring reminder of the rigidity of American imperialism—has actually been in constant flux and remains a subject of debate. We have come a long way since the days of US hegemony over the Philippines—partly as a result of the camaraderie between the two nations during World War II that diplomat and first UN General Assembly President Carlos P. Romulo has described. To suggest that Filipinos are merely victims of American imperialism, or that the United States’ rise to global hegemony has been the result of blood lust alone is a gross oversimplification.
This poorly understood past has been exploited by both nationalists and anti-imperialists. While earlier anti-American sentiment was at least partially shaped by nostalgia for the nation’s Hispanic heritage—as seen in Nick Joaquin’s publications—they are variously influenced by postcolonial resentments—as exemplified by the work of Epifanio San Juan Jr.—western progressivism or populist activism. There’s been a recurring call to decolonize Filipinos—echoed by, for example, historian Kirby Araullo, who describes himself as both one of the last heirs to the precolonial Datu nobility and descended from those who “fought for the liberation of the Philippines from colonialism.”
Decolonising is often understood as revivifying a culture destroyed by foreign powers or freeing oneself from a systemic inferiority complex referred to as “colonial mentality.” But such an inferiority complex can also take the form of blaming our former colonizers for the problems we Filipinos face today, or of a blind contempt for anything associated with America, including elements of popular culture and institutions that have been assimilated into Filipino society. It is no coincidence that President Rodrigo Duterte often invoked the brutality of the Philippine–American War and the injustices committed under Uncle Sam’s watch, especially in Mindanao, in his attacks on the Obama administration and his attempts to align with China.
There is a grain of truth amidst the anti-American sentiment. It’s important to know your heritage and to acknowledge that the past has been no fairy tale. A desire for self-determination and for the national solidarity encapsulated by the Filipino word bayanihan is healthy. Likewise, America’s past should not be forgotten, and the US should strive to do better with living up to its ideals in the future.
But none of this justifies distorting the past to suit a convenient narrative. Such polemics paint a portrait of America that is no closer to the truth than the old blind belief in manifest destiny. And they stoke hyperpartisanship in their division of people into victims, oppressors and even traitors. The attempt to seek justice for old wrongs only reopens wounds, creating a vicious cycle of mutual animosity. This might fray the multicultural fabric of the Philippines—formed from the melding of indigenous, colonial, and other foreign influences over several generations—encouraging people instead to seek a “purer” national identity. Or it might compromise the mutually beneficial relationship between the Philippines and the US—especially crucial in the face of an increasingly aggressive China.
There is a better way to comment on history. Jerrold Tarog’s two films Heneral Luna (2015) and Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral (2018) provide an example. Set during the Philippine–American War, the films neither sugarcoat the realities of the conflict, nor glamourize the historical figures they depict—including their eponymous protagonists, who have been lionised by Filipino history. They also go beyond clichés of native and colonizer to provide observations on cultural habits and foibles of Filipinos that remain as true now as they were over a century ago. Interwoven in those narratives is the hope that tomorrow’s youth may learn from the past. This will mean neither being chained to it nor letting our ignorance or hubris be our undoing.