In this interview, journalist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines, discusses the United States and the Philippines. From the Spanish American War in 1898 to commonwealth status in 1935, to complete autonomy in 1946, and, finally, the end of America's military presence in the archipelago in 1992, the two nations have shared a long and often turbulent history.
Can you briefly describe the history of occupation in the Philippines?
Christianity was brought to the Philippines by the Spanish, who ruled from the 16th century until they were displaced by the United States in 1899. Then you had a period of almost 50 years of American rule. Teachers came over from the United States and fanned out around all the islands. Filipinos were taught English, how to brush their teeth, how to say their prayers. The United States made quite an impact. The Philippines had kind of languished under the Spanish. It's like 300 years in a Catholic convent, and 50 years in Hollywood.
Why was the U.S. interested in the Philippines?
The United States got into the Philippines in connection with th Spanish American War. The United States, after the Civil War, was really booming. It was a period of tremendous economic growth: railroads, steel mills, coal mines. A whole group of Americans believed that this was the time for the U.S. to expand itself overseas, and the idea of waging a war against Spain starts over Cuba. Spain ruled Cuba, and there were Americans who felt that Spain should be driven out. A phrase had been coined early in the 19th century to describe the idea of westward movement of the United States — Manifest Destiny — that was applied to this notion that the time had come for the United States to expand itself.
Did most Americans agree with this idea of expansion?
It was not a universally accepted idea. And contrary to the idea that big business is always in favor of wars or expansion, the anti-imperialist group was largely composed of Andrew Carnegie and various conservative bankers and lawyers from New England and New York. Their thesis was: Yes, it's true, we need rubber, we need sugar, we need all these things that these countries have, but it's cheaper to go and buy them than it is to wage a war.
But you know when you have things like expansion, it's not always a tangible reason that propels a country to get involved. There's a kind of intangible, evangelical reason for doing it — like a crusade. When you listen to President George W. Bush talk about getting involved in Iraq... he's actually used the word "crusade." We are going to go forth and bring to these underprivileged, backwards people the benefits of American civilization.
So largely in the pro-imperialist camp, you have traders, you have certain business people, in the case of the Philippines you have sugar interests, and you have missionaries. When President William McKinley was talking about taking over the Philippines, he told how he prowled his office at night, he couldn't sleep, he was tormented by what to do, he prayed to God and then he decided that we would have to take them and uplift them. And he used the words, "We are going to Christianize them." He didn't realize, of course, that they were already Christian.
How did the Spanish American War get started?
The war started over Cuba. And on May 1, 1898, the Asiatic Squadron, which was a dinky collection of ships, commanded by Commodore George Dewey — whose job was to cruise up and down the China coast and rescue Americans who are in trouble -- were ordered into Manila Bay. They sailed in and sunk what was left of the Spanish armada, in just a matter of hours.
What happened next?
They didn't quite know what to do. Most Americans didn't know what the Philippines were, or where they were. There was a big debate at the time... should we stay or should we leave. One of the impulses to stay is that hovering around the Philippines are German ships, British ships, Japanese ships. So we're going to take it over because we're nicer guys than those evil imperialists.
The U.S had offered Spain $20 million in the Treaty of Paris to take over. You have a kind of three-way situation: American troops in the Philippines; the Spanish are still there; and then you have a third group — Filipino nationalists commanded by Emilio Aquinaldo. At first, the nationalists welcome the United States, but then you have a very brittle and tense situation around Manila. It's kind of a tinder box and nobody knows what's going to happen. Then one night, one of the American soldiers hears a rustle in the bushes and he shoots and kills one of the Filipinos. Then the whole thing erupts.
At the same time, this very eloquent debate is going on in the Senate over what to do. You had a pro-imperialist group. You had a strong anti-annexation group with old abolitionists from New England, who are worried about a new slavery, Episcopalian liberals, or they would be called liberals today, and oddly, allied with them are a lot of Southerners who are haunted by the idea of masses of Filipinos coming to the U.S. It was very close. The passing vote was that of the vice president.
The next thing you know we are at war with the Filipino nationalists who want to drive the United States out. Now, officially, that war between the Filipino nationalists and the United States -- in the American official jargon -- is an insurrection. It's a preposterous term. It suggests that it's a rebellion against a legitimate power. In fact, we were just seizing the Philippines. We were going to take over the Philippines and do good things for them, but the Filipino nationalists didn't quite see it that way. It was a very bloody war -- a lot of atrocities on both sides.
Did the United States commit atrocities?
There was an uprising in an island called Samar, where some Filipino nationalists descended on an American garrison and slaughtered some Americans, whereupon the American general in charge, a guy called General Smith, said, "We're going to turn Samar into a howling wilderness." He became known thereafter as Howling Wilderness Smith. And the Americans went off and slaughtered all numbers of Filipinos. One of the things they did in the course of this was to take a church bell and move it to some town in Wyoming, and there's a whole movement of Filipinos trying to get that church bell back as kind of a symbol of this atrocity. Howling Wilderness Smith was later court martialled and retired from the Army.
Why did the nationalists fail?
Emilio Aquinaldo and the leadership of this movement were upper class. They weren't great reformers. One of the reasons that they failed was that they didn't have the support of the masses of people. Nevertheless, they fought valiantly before Aquinaldo was captured. The insurrection caved in and the Americans took over.
Did the U.S. have economic interests in the Philippines?
The Philippines becomes a jewel in the tiara of the United States. Economically, it becomes a typically colonial, typically imperial situation. In other words, we were not going to build any interests in the Philippines. The Philippines was going to become a market for American manufactured products, in exchange for which we would import raw materials: sugar, hemp, coconut. So the economy of the Philippines becomes very linked to the U.S. It discourages the development of Filipino indigenous industries except maybe cottage industries. Americans come in not as manufacturers — they come in as distributors. If you look at old photographs of Manila you see signs for the Ford dealership, the branch of Macy's, Sears Roebuck. The economy continues to favor the land-owning group. The Philippines remains a feudal society.
How long did this situation last?
In the thirties the Philippines became independent, but with strings attached. The notion of special economic ties with the United States still kept it very dependent on the U.S. For a long time it was still mainly providing raw materials -- sugar and things like that -- to the United States; a lot of American manufactured goods were still going there.
How did World War II break out in the Philippines?
In the late thirties, under President Franklin Roosevelt, the United States slapped an embargo on trade with Japan. At that point, the Japanese decided to declare war on the United States and sweep into Southeast Asia. When they attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, simultaneously the Japanese attacked the Philippines. They bombed Clark Air Base. Later they put troops in and they occupied the Philippines. American forces were pretty thin in the Philippines, commanded by Douglas MacArthur.
What was MacArthur doing there?
MacArthur had retired from the American army and was hired by the Philippine government -- which was autonomous but still not independent — to train their army. But when the war broke out, the United States made him the American commander there. He was asleep during this whole attack. Nobody seems to know what happened, but it took him a long time to react. He couldn't do much. He retreated to Corregidor, a fortified island in Manila Bay, and later got on a PT boat and was taken off to Australia with his wife and his son.
How did the Japanese attack turn Americans and Filipinos into allies?
The American forces were captured and taken on this so-called death march into the Bataan peninsula. It was not just American forces — there were lots of Filipinos. The Philippine Constabulary, which was the name of the Filipino Army, went through the same horrendous experiences that the Americans went through. By this time, the Filipinos realized that the Americans shared their fate.
Were all Filipinos opposed to the Japanese?
During the war, quite a few Filipinos collaborated with the Japanese. After the war, MacArthur went to Japan, held war crimes trials, and executed a lot of the Japanese leaders, but he didn't do anything of the sort in the Philippines. He didn't want to disrupt that upper class structure, since many upper class Filipinos had collaborated -- a lot of them hadn't, but some of them had. So the whole apparatus of the Filipino upper class was left intact. It was the same families who had been powerful for centuries. They continued to be.
Did Philippine nationalism increase after the war?
There are 7000 islands in the Philippines, with people speaking different languages and dialects, with no semblance of a central authority. Compare it to other Asian countries -- historically, people could have been living in some outlying place in China, but they knew there was an emperor in Peking. And even though his authority didn't extend down to the villages, people knew he existed and there was some sense of cohesion. You never had that in the Philippines. The result was that Filipinos had very little sense of their national identity. They've been trying to build it, but they have always had a sense of dependence on the outside.
How have Filipino-U.S. relations evolved up to the present?
An American ambassador there in the 1960s, Charles Bohlen, once gave an interesting speech. The Filipinos were griping in the usual way. And he said, "You're an independent country. Pull yourself together, do it yourself, and stop complaining all the time." It was a good speech, but they were very upset about it: "Oh, now Uncle Sam is going to abandon us." He said, "You can't have it both ways. You're complaining and I'm saying okay, do it yourself."
It's a bumper sticker thing: Yankee Go Home -- and take me with you. The waiting list for visas to the U.S. is enormous. Yet today there's a rise in nationalism, and a lot of it is sort of trying to erase the past. It's all part of this struggle to create some sense of national identity. So it's not a clear-cut picture.
How does the U.S. occupation of the Philippines compare to the occupation in Iraq?
It's a totally different situation. There's no American past in Iraq. But we have very close, intimate, sentimental ties with the Philippines. The second World War is very important in the Philippines -- the liberation. The Japanese were terrible in the Philippines.