Excavating the Fourth of July

THE FOURTH of July is knotted with historical significance and political ironies. From 1946 to 1962, July 4 marked Philippine Independence Day, commemorating the transfer of US sovereignty to the newly formed Republic of the Philippines in the wake of the terrible destruction wrought by World War II. In 1962, President Diosdado Macapagal changed the date to June 12, referring back to Emilio Aguinaldo’s proclamation of independence from Spain. It is an odd proclamation, one that asserts the freedom of Filipinos from Spain even as it places the country “under the protection of the powerful and humanitarian North American nation.” In replacing July 4th with June 12th, Macapagal was unwittingly recalling this contradictory gesture. It was his way of registering his unhappiness with the US Congress, which had turned down a $73 million aid package to the Philippines. Though he had also claimed to be bringing Philippine Independence out of the shadow of its former colonial master, Macapagal’s decision to change the date was also a piece of political brinkmanship. It was a way of asserting the country’s right to compensation for war damages, even as it signaled its continuing dependence upon US aid. July 4th has since been re-named Philippine-American Friendship Day. Still, we might pause to consider what this friendship consists of.

Philippine-US amity began amidst the enmity of a bloody, protracted war that lasted from 1899 well into the first decade of the 20th century. But like George W. Bush preemptively declaring “mission accomplished” in the midst of the Iraq war in 2003, Theodore Roosevelt prematurely declared the Filipino-American war officially over on July 4, 1902. In this case, the fourth of July not only marked the victory of US forces. It also coordinated the time of American colonial rule with the memory of US independence from the British empire. In this way, the fourth of July ideologically aligned conquest with liberation in 1902, just as the same date in 1946 would mark the formal independence of the Philippines, while continuing, by virtue of the unequal treaties, to make the Philippines even more dependent upon the US. Far from inaugurating a new era of national sovereignty, the fourth of July signaled the beginnings of a neo-colonial regime called the Third Philippine Republic.

The road to officially sanctioned independence is a curious one. While the First Republic of Malolos certainly sought to secure recognition of independence as early as 1898 and especially in 1899 in the midst of the Paris peace talks between Spain and the US, the politics of independence took on different twists and turns under US rule. Various Independence missions were sent to Washington, D.C. not only to lobby for independence but, as Nita Churchill has documented, to actively craft legislation. Quezon, for example actually drafted the text for the Jones Law and the Tydings-Mcduffie act. But in the end, as Paul Kramer and Rick Baldoz have pointed out, it was not the efforts of the Filipino Missions that led to the passage of independence legislation but the lobbying efforts of a coalition American nativists fearful of “racial contamination” by what they thought were sexually predatory Filipino migrant workers (especially in the West coast) and American farm and labor groups seeking to exclude “dirty” Philippine agricultural products from duty-free entry into the US. Hence, the only way American racists could exclude Filipinos from coming into the US was to push for Philippine independence, altering the legal status of Filipinos from “nationals” free to travel to the US into “aliens” that could be excluded, subject to the xenophobic Immigration act of 1924. Ironically, the Philippine Independence act of 1934 amounted to a Filipino exclusion act. It allowed the US to declare itself independent — from- the Philippines rather than the other way around.

The Third Republic, of course, was preceded by the Commonwealth government, which in turn was established by the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934. Otherwise known as the “Philippine Independence Act,” it provided for a 10-year transition period towards independence. However, the act also stipulated the virtual exclusion of Filipinos from the United States. By the 1930s, thousands of Filipino migrant workers, mostly single young men, had come to the US, seeking jobs in the agricultural fields of the West Coast, the canning factories of Alaska, the naval shipyards, and also as domestics in the homes of the wealthy and as university students. Their presence was greeted with unreserved hostility by American nativists fearful of “racial contamination” from “sexually predatory and perverse” Filipinos who on their days off dressed up and sought the companionship of White women in dance halls and other venues.

Referring to the coming of migrant Filipino workers as the “third Asiatic invasion,” White Americans saw it as a replay of the Filipino-American War. Except now, it was the Filipinos who were invading America, taking away White women, and giving rise to the specter of a majority of mixed race populations. In the fevered imagination of white racists, Filipinos, like the Chinese and Japanese before them, would proliferate to the point of wiping out the Anglo race. Driven by their own fantasies of White genocide, American nativists, in coalition with farm and labor groups intent upon excluding “filthy” Philippine products from duty-free entry into the US market, lobbied Congress to exclude Filipinos from coming into the US. But the only way they could do so was to alter the legal designation of Filipinos from “nationals” free to come and go into the US into “aliens” subject to the racial quotas of the 1924 Immigration Act. And such a change of status could only be accomplished by cutting the Philippines off as a US territory and making it an independent state. Ironically, then, the Philippine Independence Act of 1934 amounted to a Filipino Exclusion Act. It allowed the US to declare itself independent from the Philippines rather than the other way around.

This brings me to my final point. The US’s own Declaration of Independence is a very strange document that might help to contextualize the “friendship” between America and the Philippines. Much of the Declaration consists of a list of grievances that the colonists had against the British King. Such grievances served as the basis for justifying the Americans’ decision to break from the British Empire in order, according to a number of the Founding Fathers, to create their own. From the very beginning, then, the assertion of American independence from the British was less an anti-imperialist act as an insistence on the right of the colonists to have their own empire. The empire they envisaged lay, of course, to the west of the original thirteen colonies. These were the lands populated by the many Indian tribes. A number of them had forged treaties with the British Empire in the aftermath of the Seven Years War from 1754-1763 (which spread to the Philippines and resulted in the British Occupation of Manila for two years between 1762-1764). These treaties were meant to limit White expansion into Indian territories so as to keep the Indians from conducting wars of retaliation against the settlements.

White settlers deeply resented British attempts to limit their desire for more land, even as they came to hate the Indians who attacked and raided White settlements in self-defense. Such sentiments are expressed in the latter part of the Declaration of Independence where the British King is blamed for “endeavor[ing] to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Here, in the most sacred of documents related to the founding of the United States is a declaration of race hatred towards the native peoples of the continent and their depiction as terrorists who threaten the destruction of the White race. It is therefore not strange that, during the American Revolution, George Washington’s continental army directed as much of its fury towards the British as it did towards Indian peoples. It waged total war against entire Indian populations, killing thousands of men, women and children, burning villages and pillaging Indian goods in genocidal fury. Seeking to overthrow the British yoke, the American revolutionaries also sought to clear the land of their native populace. The United States of America was, from the start, conceived as a project of empire-building based on ethnic cleansing, slavery and land grabbing. Indeed, George Washington, who had formerly served as a soldier in the British militia, also worked as a land surveyor. He had long coveted lands west in the Ohio Valley that British treaties with the Indians kept him from acquiring. As soon as the British were defeated and the Indians wiped out, he could obtain, at very little cost, hundreds of acres there, and in Central New York. Soldiers in fact were promised generous portions of Indian land as a reward for their war efforts.

What Thomas Jefferson called an “empire of liberty” would quickly expand to cover a very large portion of the North American continent through a combination of purchase, invasion and outright theft. It is this same imperial-nation, fresh from fighting the last phase of the longest war it had ever fought, the war against Indians in the 1880s, that would invade the Philippines and imagine the “savage Filipinos” to be almost the equivalent of the “savage Indians.” The US Declaration of Independence should therefore be seen as a double declaration of freedom from both the British and the Indians so as to build an empire distinct from the former and at the expense of the latter. So, too, the US grant of independence to the Philippines on the fourth of July, 1946, should be seen as the US liberating itself from formally ruling the Philippines so as to have greater freedom to exert vast and, at times, unseen influences over its most intimate affairs. It remains to be seen how changing the date of Philippine Independence (the nature of which is a matter of debate) to June 12th would make the slightest difference to the historical legacy — the promise and the curse — that the fourth of July has brought forth.

Vicente Rafael is a professor of History at the University of Washington at Seattle, Washington.

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