A friendship and a shared history between the two nations have often been the official framework of this binational relationship. On August 5, ahead of the State Department’s official visit to the Philippines, he described the partnership as one of “friends, partners and allies”, based on “people to people” ties, exemplified by the great Filipino community in the United States. But such euphemisms effectively concealed the brutal realities on which this relationship was based: the colonization of the archipelago by the United States. This erasure continues to shape silences in the relationship, hampering fights for justice and redress across the Pacific.
In 1896, after more than 330 years of colonization by Spain, the natives of the archipelago took up arms against their colonial rulers in what became known as the Philippine Revolution. In 1898, taking advantage of the rapid decline of the Spanish Empire, the United States offered military assistance to revolutionaries in Cuba and the Philippines, promising the insurgents that it, a growing world power, would recognize independence movements led by the natives.
This series of interventions led to the Spanish–American War between April 21 and August 13, 1898, and the decisive American military victory that followed. However, instead of recognizing the newly declared First Philippine Republic, the United States purchased the former Spanish island colonies in the Treaty of Paris for a total of $20 million. After this betrayal of trust, the leaders of the republic declare war on the United States, their former ally.
What followed was brutality that remains largely erased from American historical memory. During the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), an estimated 20,000 Filipino soldiers and 200,000 to 1 million civilians died before the United States declared the conflict over. Even then, from 1902 to the mid-1910s, revolutionary movements multiplied against the new occupying power. As historians have argued, the Philippine-American War may not have ended in 1902, but rather took on a new name: counterinsurgency.
In 1934, amid a wave of anti-Filipino racism on the West Coast of the United States, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which capped migration from the Philippines to the mainland United States at 50 people per year. , even though the country was under American domination. .
In exchange, the Philippines would become a Commonwealth, a provisionally autonomous nation for 10 years, before gaining full independence. The following year, in the presence of American and Filipino colleagues, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ratified the 1935 Constitution of the Philippine Commonwealth, modeled on the American Constitution. During World War II, the Japanese occupied the Philippines in 1942, another violent period of colonization declared by an imperial power under the guise of liberation. After evacuating in March 1942, General Douglas MacArthur—who had served as military adviser to the Commonwealth of the Philippines—invaded the island of Leyte in October 1944. In January 1945, the United States again occupied Manila and recaptured its southeast . Asian military and economic outpost.
These war aims foreshadowed U.S.-Philippine foreign relations in the decades immediately following the war. After World War II, on July 4, 1946, the United States granted independence to the Philippines. But the legacy of earlier US involvement in the archipelago has not gone away. Various economic treaties guaranteed that in return for American financial support for post-war redevelopment, the Philippines would grant American companies and citizens the rights to the natural resources of the islands, as well as the free use of the military areas of the archipelago. Indeed, despite formal independence, the Philippines remained a neocolony of the United States.
American colonial art set the legal precedent for the Marcos’ seizure of power. On September 23, 1972, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. declared that the Philippines would be subject to martial law. He pointed to Article VII, Section 10 of the 1935 Constitution, which was still in effect. It granted the president – as commander-in-chief – discretionary powers to declare martial law as a preventive measure against “lawless violence, invasion, insurrection or rebellion”. These provisions stem from the early American colonization of the Philippines, during which military occupation was central to counterinsurgency.
Citing threats to his rule across the political spectrum, Marcos suspended habeas corpus and took control of Congress, granting himself authoritarian powers in perpetuity. Along with martial law, he declared his rule to be a new era in Philippine history, which he called the New Society.
The discretionary powers given to Marcos under martial law were not only about governance, but also applied to all aspects of Philippine society. The regime quickly suspended the free press, imprisoned political opponents of Marcos, and subjected Filipinos to curfews and strict surveillance. Those considered dissidents were tortured and ill-treated; an estimated 70,000 people were imprisoned and around 3,257 victims “disappeared” as a result of extrajudicial executions.
In the 1980s, the grip of the Marcos regime on the Philippines began to decline. The president’s health began to decline, and his wife, Imelda Marcos, became the new figurehead. In 1983, the regime’s popularity plummeted after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. After several failed coups and impeachments, through mass mobilization, the People Power Revolution of 1986 ousted Marcos and his family from national politics.
As the citizens of Manila took to the streets in support of his opponent, Corazon Aquino, the Marcos fled the Philippines with the help of their country’s former colonial master, the United States.
Aboard a US Air Force C-130, the Marcos family and their cronies fled the Philippines to Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, then found refuge in Honolulu, another US outpost in the Peaceful. The family took much of their stolen plunder (including jewelry, cash, and rare artwork) with them, and their wealth is now estimated at over $10 billion. Despite litigation, a federal commission to recover stolen wealth, and a $3.9 billion tax bill, most of the money has not been recovered.
Over the years, the United States and the Philippines have maintained their mutually beneficial relationship as “partners.”
On November 20, 2001, two months after the fall of the Twin Towers, President George W. Bush met with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to fortify US military interests in the Philippines. Citing a strong “people to people” relationship between Filipino Americans’ love of the United States and the Filipino people’s shared commitment to this trans-Pacific partnership, Arroyo said, “Long live the Philippines, and long live the friendship between the United States and the Philippines.
Former strongman President Rodrigo Duterte, who was publicly anti-American and expressed contempt for President Barack Obama, had much in common with his admirer, President Donald Trump. In 2020, Duterte expressed his support for his American counterpart, declaring him to be a “good president [who] deserves to be re-elected. »
And despite the voter fraud and intimidation that facilitated Marcos Jr.’s ascent to the presidency — and widespread protests denouncing the lack of integrity of the electoral process — on May 11, Biden congratulated the new administration on its victory. .
But we must remember that the basis of the US-Philippine “special relationship” is the erasure of colonial history. That on the 50th anniversary of martial law, the United Nations, the Biden administration and the Asia Society welcomed an ill-begotten president with open arms, signaling the strength of this historic amnesia – and the troubling future of Philippine politics and civic life.
The ongoing struggle for justice across the Pacific – for the repressed legacies of America’s campaign of extermination in the Philippines in the early 20th century, for survivors of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos Sr., for victims of executions extrajudicial under the so- called “War on Drugs” – takes place on the battlefield of historical memory. In the interest of redress and social justice, we must remember.