The US Occupation of the Philippines

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Podcast Transcript

The Philippines is one of the largest countries in the world. With a population of 115 million people, it is the 14th largest country on Earth in terms of population. 

However, for a period of 48 years, it was a colony of the United States.

That half-century was one of the most important in the history of the Philippines. It saw two major wars, profound social and cultural changes, and laid the foundation for full independence. 

Learn more about the period of American occupation of the Philippines and how it changed both countries on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The United States went through a very brief phase of trying to become a colonial power. By that, I mean they actively wanted to acquire territories outside of North America to run as colonies, not just generally stick their nose in other people’s business.

By very brief, I pretty much mean the Presidency of William McKinley. 

McKinley isn’t high on the list of presidents that most people think of, but he was elected president twice, even if his second administration was cut down by assassination, and a lot happened while he was president.

Almost all US territories outside of the North American continent were acquired during the McKinley administration. 

Guam, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, American Samoa, very briefly Cuba, and the subject of this episode, the Philippines. 

The Philippines is the outlier in the list of territories I mentioned. Its size and population were several times greater than everything else combined. 

The United States wasn’t even looking to annex the Philippines when they went to war with Spain. They were more concerned about Cuba.

On May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. This victory paved the way for U.S. involvement in the Philippines.

When the opportunity arose, the McKinley administration grabbed it. 

The Filipinos had been fighting against the Spanish for centuries. Now, once the Spanish were out, the last thing they wanted was for them to be replaced with some other country. 

On June 12, 1898, Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo declared Philippine independence from Spain.

However, all parties involved ignored this. At the Treaty of Paris in 1898, ending the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, to the United States for $20 million.

After the signing of the treaty, President McKinley announced a policy of Benevolent assimilation. In his proclamation, he said, 

Finally, it should be the earnest wish and paramount aim of the military administration to win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines by assuring them in every possible way that full measure of individual rights and liberties, which is the heritage of free peoples, and by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.

This policy of annexing territories was not accepted universally. A group known as the Anti-Imperial League lobbied to stop ratification of the treaty. Their argument was that as the United States was a colony itself that fought a revolution for its independence, it shouldn’t be in the business of doing the same thing to other people. 

One of the vocal opponents of the treaty was the author Mark Twain. He wrote in the New York Herald:

I have read carefully the Treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. . . . It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

The treaty was ratified in the US Senate by one vote. 

As soon as the war with Spain was over, another war with the Filipino revolutionaries began.

The Philippine-American War began on February 4, 1899. The opening battle was the Battle of Manilla, which was also the largest battle in the war. It started with American Private William Walter Grayson firing shorts at Filipino soldiers. 

The war was far larger than the Spanish-American War in terms of casualties on both sides. Over 200,000 Filipino civilians were estimated to have died, mostly from famine and disease, with 4,200 Americans and 16,000 Filipino combatants killed. 

The Americans captured Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo in 1901, which weakened the Filipinos, and the conflict was declared over in 1902, but there were skirmishes by guerilla fighters for years afterward.

In the middle of the war, the Americans moved from military to civilian control of the Philippines. The Military Governor was General Arthur Mcarthur, the father of future general Douglas Mcarthur. The new civilian governor was future US President William Howard Taft. 

The Americans took a different approach to their administration of the Philippines from the Spanish. 

The Spanish administered their colonies in a top-down fashion, while the Americans attempted to incorporate Filipinos into the territory’s administration.

Much of this policy change was prompted by President McKinley’s assassination and Teddy Roosevelt’s assent. Roosevelt opposed the US annexation of Cuba and was also in favor of Philippine independence. 

He stated in 1901, “We hope to do for them what has never been done for any people of the tropics—to make them fit for self-government after the fashion of really free nations.”

When I said the US experiment with colonialism was short-lived, just three years after they took control of the Philippines, the wheels were in motion for Philippine independence. 

It didn’t happen immediately but rather through a series of phases. 

The first phase was the 1902 Philippine Organic Act. 

The Organic Act officially established the Philippines as an unorganized US territory and marked the end of the Philippine-American War. 

The act established a democratically elected Filipino legislative assembly, known as the Philippine Commission, which would be seated in 1904, a bill of rights, the separation of church and state, and the creation of two non-voting representatives to the United States Congress. 

If any of this sounds familiar, it isn’t dissimilar to the situation under which most US territories operate today. 

The change from Spanish to American control resulted in political changes as well as significant cultural changes. 

The primary cultural institution in the Philipines was the Catholic church, which closely aligned with the Spanish authority. The church wasn’t abolished, but it no longer had any official standing. 

A host of American nonprofit groups established operations in the Philippines. The religiously affiliated Salvation Army and YMCA, as well as the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary Clubs. 

Educational reforms were instituted, including instruction in the English language. 

The US sponsored the construction of bridges and hospitals. The urban planner Daniel Burnham visited the Philippines and created a plan for the development of Manila. 

The US purchased 166,000 hectares or 410,000 acres of land from the Catholic Church and sold parcels back to Filipino citizens in a program modeled on the Homestead Act in the United States. They also established a land title system to track land ownership.

While the land reforms had good intentions, most of the land went to large landowners, not small farmers.

Elections for the promised Philippine Commission took place in 1907. 

The next step on the road to Philippine independence was the Jones Law or the Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916. 

The Jones Law replaced the Organic Act of 1902. 

It replaced the Philippine Commission with a formal Congress with a Senate and House of Representatives and gave this legislature more power than the Commission. Perhaps most importantly, the Jones Law explicitly promised future independence to the Philippines.

In 1932, the Hare–Hawes–Cutting Act was passed, which set a particular timeframe for Philipine independence. American farmers were one of the groups inside the US who were the biggest supporters of Filipino independence. Because the Phillippines was a territory of the United States, cheap sugar was imported into the US which undercut the price of American sugar farmers. 

The act was passed by overriding a veto from President Herbert Hoover. 

The final step before full Philippine independence came with the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934.

The Tydings-McDuffie Act superseded the Jones Law and had several important provisions. 

First, the vague promise of independence was replaced with a firm timetable setting a date for independence on July 4, 1946.

Second, the Philippines was established as a commonwealth. The term commonwealth doesn’t really have any official meaning under US law. Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands call themselves commonwealths, but then again, so do Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

In the Philippines, Commonwealth status established a democratically elected president, a unicameral legislature that eventually became bicameral, and a supreme court made up exclusively of Filipinos. 

Finally, it established Tagalog as the national language. At the time, Tagalog was actually just the dialect spoken around the Manilla.

The Philippines government would have almost full authority in all domestic affairs, with the United States continuing to control foreign affairs. 

In 1935, Manuel Quezon became the first President of the Commonwealth of the Philippines.

The Commonwealth government was intended to be the transitional government that would prepare the country for full independence. 

However, there was a massive roadblock on the path to independence. 

On December 8, 1941, the Philippines was invaded by Japan. 

The island’s defenders lasted only a few months, eventually returning to the Bataan peninsula. The subsequent surrender of the Filipino and American forces was covered in a previous episode on the Bataan Death march.   

On December 24, 1941, President Quezon and his family, along with Vice President Sergio Osmeña, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and other senior officials, fled Manila for the island of Corregidor. 

From there, they were taken south to Mindanao, then to Darwin, Australia, and eventually to Melbourne. 

From there they took a ship to San Francisco and a train to Washington DC where they set up the Philippine government in exile. 

Before the evacuation, the Philippines legislature passed an emergency powers act that granted the president exceptional powers to handle the crisis. 

In Washington, Presiden Quezon represented the Philippines in signing the Declaration by United Nations, which was the formal document that established the allied during the war. This document, despite the name, was not the establishment of “the” United Nations organization after the war. 

On October 14, 1943, Japan created a puppet government in the Philippines that they called the Philippines Republic. The president of this republic was Jose Laurel. 

The Republic declared war against the United States and the United Kingdom.

When American forces landed in the Philippines, Laurel and members of the government fled to Japan. 

President Quezon developed tuberculosis and died in August 1944. 

Laurel was later held in prison and was to be put on trial before he was given a full pardon.

On October 20, 1944, General MacArthur, the former Field Marshall of the Philippines Army, landed with US forces on the island of Leyte. 

By February 1945, Manila was recaptured after a month of fierce fighting, but at great cost, with much of the city destroyed.

When the war ended in 1945, the date of independence that had been set back in 1934 was kept. 

In the Treaty of Manila, signed on July 4, 1946, the United States relinquished all claims on the Philippines and recognized the Philippines as an independent country. 

Today, the former ties between the United States and the Philippines can still be seen in both countries. The Philippines has one of the highest percentages of English speakers in Asia, although almost everyone speaks it as a second language. 

In the United States, Filipinos make up one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, especially in Hawaii and California. Tagalog is the 4th most spoken language in the US after English, Spanish, and Chinese. 

The United States occupation of the Philippines only lasted 48 years, and for about four of those, Japan actually occupied it. 

However, for the Philippines, the path to independence from first contact with the Europeans took over four hundred years.