Did the Americans Save the Philippines From Spain?
Not so long ago, in our university’s English lounge, I had a discussion with two colleagues about a comparative study on the effects of native and non-native English language teachers on students’ performance in English. When the discussion brought us to the three concentric circles of Englishes, we tried to identify the countries colonized by England and America. Surprisingly, one of them said, “The Philippines (my country) was rescued by the Americans from the Spaniards.” I paused, looked at him and said, “Are you sure you want us to discuss that topic?”
I was ready for a debate. I had the advantage – I am Filipino. I know my nation’s history (which apparently he knew little or nothing about). Philippine History was also one of the subjects I had taught in my country and I was ready to teach him a lesson. But to that question I asked, he just responded with a smile and redirected the discussion to the original topic.
Even if I wanted us to go back to his statement, for I really needed to respond, our time in the English lounge was over. We had to leave. He was saved by the bell.
That desire to respond stayed with me. It tortured my Filipino soul. The only way for me to regain my peace was to respond in any way. So, I decided to write this article hoping that one day that colleague who wrongly thought that the Americans were the Filipinos’ knights in shining armor would be able to read it.
Now, let me answer the question “Did the Americans save the Filipinos from the Spaniards?”
The Americans extinguished the flames of Filipino nationalism that was just beginning to flicker and deprived the Filipinos the chance to chart their own destiny as a nation.
Let me share some excerpts from my on-going study entitled “How Colonialism Shaped the Filipino Character.”
In 1896, the Filipinos staged the biggest and most organized revolt against Spain. Previous attempts by them to overthrow their invaders from the Iberian peninsula were all quelled. According to historians, the reasons those uprisings failed were the following: they were caused by non-encompassing issues; based on limited geographical scales; and they were lacking in national character. The 1896 revolution was different. It started in the capital of the country – Manila – then spread to surrounding provinces and eventually became national in scope. The revolt was driven mainly by the rise of Filipino nationalism.
The Spaniards had their hands full and it was only a matter of time and their more than three centuries rule would have come to an end. Even if the Americans did not come, the Filipinos could have succeeded in ending the Spanish rule.
The Americans duped Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the revolt against Spain, into believing that they came to help the Filipinos establish a republic and that they didn’t need any colony.
Then, the Filipinos watched helplessly as the Spaniards, too proud to accept defeat in the hands of the Indios they enslaved for centuries, surrendered to the Americans instead and was paid $20,000,000 for all the improvements they made in the Philippine islands during their colonial rule. That’s one of the conditions set in the Treaty of Paris in 1898 which the two countries concluded without concurring with the Filipino people.
Would the Americans pay the Spaniards that huge amount (which is worth more than half a billion dollars today) and get nothing in return?
America, then an emerging world power, needed to flex its muscles in the Pacific. The Philippines was the most ideal place for that. Their military strategists probably thought it was necessary for America to have presence in Asia to counter the growing military might of imperial Japan.
So, the Americans, contrary to their promise which Aguinaldo said he naively believed, declared Philippines a territory ceded to them by Spain.
It was a painful experience for the Filipinos. After centuries of struggle against Spain they finally had a chance to chart their own destiny as a nation. But the Americans stood on their way. The Filipinos had to continue their search for that elusive freedom.
So, the Philippines changed hands – from one colonial master to another, from the Spanish yoke to that of the American.
What if the Americans observed the principle that “governments derived their just powers from the consent of the governed” and decided not to stay in 1898 and allow the Filipinos to govern themselves? The Americans should have known better. That principle was the driving force of the declaration of their independence in 1776. It is touted to be the model for the right to self-determination, the very right that they deprived the Filipinos of when they colonized the Philippines. The Americans justified their occupation of the islands by saying that the Filipinos were not ready for self-governance. But how sure were they? And even then, the Filipinos certainly would have preferred to have charted their own destiny as a nation no matter what the consequences maybe. The world will never know what would have happened to the Philippines had the Americans gave them the reins of their own government. While it is not certain that the Filipinos would have succeeded, one thing is clear, neither did the Philippines become a better nation because the Americans occupied it.
It would have been a big boost to the Filipino pride if only they were allowed to continue their war with Spain which they were winning at that time when the Spanish and American strategists connived to stage what would later become known as the “Mock Battle at the Manila Bay” which the Americans purportedly won. That plan was concocted to prevent Manila, the nation’s capital, from falling into the hands of Filipino revolutionaries. Just imagine how big a victory like that would have affected the Filipino psyche. Its character as a nation would have evolved in a much different direction. But it was not meant to be.
The last quarter of the 19th century was perhaps the most significant stage in the development of the Philippines as a nation. It was when nationalism started to fluorish. It took centuries before the natives managed to put up a united front against their colonizers. Like the sun starting to rise from the east spreading it’s golden rays to signal the coming of a new day, the emerging solidarity among the natives became a portent of greater things to come (that never came.)
The most important ingredient for national development was finally manifesting among Filipinos at that time. The seeds of nationalism began to sprout. The influx of liberal ideas from Europe, the rise of the middle class and the martyrdom of Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora (GomBurZa) were among the factors believed to have fan the flames of national unity.
It was a long and arduous journey towards national solidarity made difficult to achieve by a combination of factors…the island nation being geographically fragmented, the people speaking different dialects, and the Spaniards’ employment of “divide-and-conquer” tactics.
The Spaniards succeeded tremendously in employing the “divide-and-conquer” tactic against the colonized people so much so that they reigned supreme for more than 300 years. But when the Filipinos began to develop a cohesive spirit to fill their geographical gaps, when they dismantled the language barriers with their deafening cry for freedom, the days of the Hispanic colonizers became numbered. The colonial masters suffered humiliating defeats from the people they held by the neck for a long time and were forced to retreat to the walled city of Intramuros.
But the next chapter of the Philippine drama unfolded not the way the Filipinos had the script written but the way the directors from Hollywood penned it. And just when the Filipinos were ready to hit the last nail in the coffin of Spanish tyranny, the Americans said, “CUUUTTTT!”
With absolute certainty, the revolution the Filipinos started in 1896 would have finally ended Spanish rule. The natives had them figured out. All they needed was just to march together with their hands tied by the bond of patriotism. The Filipinos were ready to storm Intramuros, the last bastion of Spanish rule but they were stopped on their tracks by the Americans who they wrongly perceived to be an ally in their quest for freedom from Spain. The Filipinos naively thought that the Americans who were waging a war against Spain in Cuba, also a Spanish colony then, came as a friend, not a foe.
Cutting the story short, the Americans occupied the Philippines when the Spaniards left and the Filipinos were forced to wage war against a military far more powerful and more advance in weaponry than their former colonizers.
The natives lost the war and the sprouts coming out from the seeds of nationalism sown by the forebears of the Filipino race was not allowed to grow and bloom. It was forcibly uprooted and trampled upon by the Americans. Historians explained that the new colonial masters extinguished the flames of Filipino nationalism with laws like the Sedition Law (1901) which imposed a death penalty or a long prison term on anyone who advocated independence from the United States even by peaceful means and the Flag Law (1907) which prohibited the display of the Philippine flag in any place.
Filipino nationalism was nipped in the bud. That period in the history of the Filipino people was referred to as the “Era of Suppressed Nationalism.” While the natives were still licking the wounds inflicted by their former Spanish masters, the Americans started whipping them .
And as everybody knows, the justification provided by the Filipinos’ new colonial masters was the natives were not ready for self-governance and it would have been very chaotic had they been left alone to fend for themselves.
They could have been right…or wrong. Nobody would know now? But what critical thinking Filipinos today know was that the Americans had no right to deprive the Filipinos at that time the opportunity to determine their own fate as people. The natives could have been left to face the consequences of their attempt to stand on their feet. They had no right to deprive the Filipinos for that opportunity to raise their arm in victory against Spain. It would have been so meaningful had the colonizer surrendered to the colonized. That would have been a huge moral victory for a people enslaved and deprived of their basic rights and freedom for so long. That would have been a big boost to the morale of the Filipinos. But instead of a boost to their psyche the actions of the Americans wounded the pride of the Filipino and impeded the development of a stronger national character.
The Americans should have taken a page from their history for them to understand how the Filipinos felt at that time. According to historians, the main reason the American colonists fought for independence against Britain in the 1700s was they believed in the unalienable rights of the individual and them being taxed by the British Parliament without any representation is a violation of such rights. They believed that whatever a government does must have the consent of the governed. The Filipinos did not want another foreign power to govern them, they had enough of the Spaniards already. The Americans did not have the Filipinos’ consent to stay in the country and govern them.
But there was nothing the Filipinos could do, no country could come to their succor at that time. The Americans had France to support them in their drive for independence against Britain and perhaps the Filipinos were hoping that America would be doing a France when they came, but it was wishful thinking.
The Filipinos were on their own and the world at the time was a big jungle where the colonial powers were the predators and the weaker nations the helpless preys.
The Filipinos then cannot even invoke any law to contest the legality of the American occupation of the Philippines. Imperialism has its own laws, and is backed by brute force. Because of its armed forces imperial law supersedes international law. Experts argued that “The legality of imperial activity is based largely on the imperial state’s judicial system and its own legal experts.” They added that since Americans championed liberalism, they should know that natural rights are not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable.
So, did the America save the Philippines from Spain?
Here’s some excerpts from one of the speeches delivered by Manuel L. Quezon, president of the Philippines from 1935 to 1944:
“It is true, and I am proud of it, that I once said, “I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans.” I want to tell you that I have, in my life, made no other remark which went around the world but that. There had been no paper in the United States, including a village paper, which did not print that statement, and I also had seen it printed in many newspapers in Europe. I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by any foreigner. I said that once; I say it again, and I will always say it as long as I live.
But that is not an admission that a government run by Filipinos will be a government run like hell. Much less can it be an admission that a government run by Americans or by the people of any other foreign country, for that matter, can ever be a government run like heaven.”
Make no mistake, the Americans extinguished the flames of Filipino nationalism that was just beginning to flicker and deprived them of the chance to chart their own destiny as a nation.