Pre-World War II Philippine-American Relations

The flag must 'stay put'

Entitled "The Flag Must 'Stay Put'," this political cartoon depicts Teddy Rooselvelt holding the American flag on the Philippine Islands. This is a positive depicition of the policy of benevolent assimiliation employed by the United States toward their new colony of the Philippines.

The Spanish-American War of 1898, U.S. invasion of Manila

Conflicts and compromises between these two nations express a muddled past still searching for a place in the scholarship of World War II’s legacy. The relationship between the Philippines and the United States is steeped in a complex history of war and negotiated spaces of race and citizenship. The Philippine-American War of 1899 and the American occupation of Manila embodied the beginnings of racialized images of Filipino guerilla soldiers juxtaposed to their benevolent American occupiers. Historian Paul Kramer analyzes the transnational politics of race and empire present in the emerging colonial relationship between the Philippines and the United States in his book The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines. Kramer argues, “[W]ith the outbreak of war in early 1899, more than three years of imperial conquest structured U.S. racial visions of Filipinos as both tribally fragmented--and thus incapable of ‘self-government’--and as racially united in support of ‘savage’ guerrilla warfare.” The perception of the Filipino being racially incapable of self-government because of their uncivilized system of a tribal society allowed Americans to support the colonization of a dark-skinned population while maintaining America’s racial integrity. The presence of a Filipino elite, educated by their previous Spanish colonizers, provided hope for future assimilation and possible independence for the island. 

The construction of racial hierarchies justified American control over the Philippine Islands and led to the creation of an “imagined community of empire.” This is “the process by which each emerging national community came to imagine and bind itself unfolded inside the other.” The United States employed this image of a shared history and experience in the democratization of the Philippines in order to justify their colonial rule to both the American public and the Filipino population. Kramer suggests that this, “...led not only to articulations of difference between Filipinos and Americans but also to proliferations of difference among them, forms of difference that were new to both societies.” The “imagined community” depended on regulating who had access to the benefits of the new colonial structure. It created bifurcations amongst the Filipino populations and divided the Christian elite from the non-Christian indigenous populations on the island. 


Illustration shows William Jennings Bryan attempting to tear down American flags in Cuba and the Philippines; the spirit of General Henry Ware Lawton, who was killed in the Philippines, orders Bryan to "Halt!" 

The Filipino National

One manner in which Filipinos embodied a unique colonial relationship with the United States was through their legal status as a “national.” Historian Mae Ngai defines this legal designation as, “a colonial subject who owed allegiance to the American flag and who could, concomitantly, travel freely within the territorial domain of the United States.” Filipino immigrants took advantage of the educational opportunities this citizenship status offered them in the United States. Young, Filipino men were also recruited by industrial and agricultural corporations as laborers as a result of rising anti-Asian immigration legislation on the mainland, which created a labor shortage in the beginning decades of the twentieth century. This first wave of Filipino immigrants to the United States allowed federal and state officials to paint the Filipino population in a certain light. The Filipino student embodied the American mission to civilize and teach the island about American institutions. The experience felt by these Filipino students, however, encompassed the disconnection between American colonial officials and the rising tide of Anti-Asian sentiment emerging throughout the United States. 

Wireless telegraphy

Illustration shows George F. Hoar sitting on the U.S. Capitol dome using a telegraph to send a "wireless" message "Keep it up! We are with you!" across a body of water to the insurgent forces fighting against American troops in the Philippines.

This network of migration transformed the relationship between the two nations because of the conflicting messages Filipino’s received on the island and the manner in which they were accepted into or rejected from communities throughout the United States. Americans embodied a nativist sentiment at this time that used racial rhetoric to exclude populations from being considered “American.” Fisk University interviewed a number of Filipino migrant workers about their experience in the early twentieth century. The Filipino laborer Carlos Bulosan describes his experience as follows: “‘Western people are brought up to regard Orientals or collared peoples as inferior…, but the mockery of it all is that Filipinos are taught to regard Americans as our equals.’” Filipinos entered the mainland with an expectation of acceptance because of their experiences in the Philippines. They were met with hostility as local communities depended on racial hierarchies to navigate structures of control and power over each immigrant population. The age of exclusion soldified as Chinese, Japanese, and finally, Filipino immigrants fell victim to the tested system of immigration restriction of the early twentieth century. 

Pre-World War II Philippine-American Relations