JFK and PH
Last Sunday was the birth centennial of John F. Kennedy, he with his widely recognized initials JFK. He was the US President from 1961 to 1963.
I tried to bring back memories of that time. I was a child then, but I do remember how frequently he was on television newscasts, and of course the assassination and the funeral played over and over again.
Then I read up on his presidency, more curious about US-Philippine relations, and realized that there are two main narratives about the JFK era.
One narrative, still dominant, had JFK epitomizing America the Great, America the Dream. JFK represented America as the greatest power in the world, made even more real in the Philippines when his vice president Lyndon B. Johnson, a huge Texan, visited the Philippines in 1961 (and again in 1966, as president).
JFK himself exuded this image of power, having fought in the Second World War in the Pacific. As a lieutenant, he commanded PT 109, a patrol torpedo boat, and was able to bring his crew to safety after an encounter with Japanese destroyers. JFK’s image, however, was different from generals and other war personalities, maybe because, together with his First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, he projected still another part of this American Dream, one of glamor and grace, American media describing a Camelot era ushered in by the couple.
In this narrative, we Filipinos must be eternally grateful to America for bringing us education and English, public health and, most importantly, democracy, mentoring us until we were ready to be granted independence in 1946. The colonial hang-over was powerful and JFK represented American benevolence, a father, a protector. In the context of the Cold War, JFK and America were protectors of democracy, defending us from communism—the Philippines was particularly fearful of that giant to the north called Red China.
Only a few years later I started college and began to get exposed to new narratives, the most radical of which focused on the Imperiyalismong Kano. This narrative demonized America as having destroyed Asia’s first republic established in 1898, as an oppressor that raped and plundered Inang Pilipinas.
The JFK era was seen as a continuation of imperialism, the Philippines remaining a neo-colony, governed by a puppet government (in the Philippines, the puppets were called “tuta,” a strange rendition of the Chinese communists’ “running dogs”).
Some 50 years after JFK’s assassination, which we mourned too in the Philippines, there is enough distance provided by time to revisit his presidency and its impact. When I do this kind of research, I begin to think again about the need for American Studies in the Philippines—and I don’t mean American literature, which is what American Studies usually connotes. Our universities need to have more area studies to understand how the Philippines is shaped by, and shapes, international events, area studies being very focused programs that will produce specialists familiar with the area’s languages, political systems, economy, culture. Even more importantly, such area studies would include a familiarity with broader regional and international contexts.
Why bother with all this? Because the “lessons of history” are rarely self-evident, and such area studies can help to wean us away from simplistic renditions of nations and peoples, train us to see through political scripts and performances, and narratives.
What then were US-Philippine relations like during the Kennedy era, and how much did it shape the directions we took, bringing us to where we are today?
I did some research, with historian Timothy Maga’s “JFK and the New Pacific Community” giving many leads. There’s of course only so much that can fit into a column but you’ll be surprised at how time can obscure so many facts … or allow new ones to emerge.
To start, JFK saw a “New Pacific community” as vital in the Cold War, with Japan and the Philippines as “holding the beachhead,” a term from the kind of war theater he had seen. We were to be front line defenses of American democracy, especially with “Red China” in the north and Indonesia then at that time under Sukarno, who was not friendly to the United States.
But the Kennedy administration vacillated between more hard-line military tactics—including backing a coup that ousted their erstwhile ally Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and launching the ill-fated invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs—and more “soft” tactics. It was Kennedy who issued the executive order that created the US Peace Corps in 1961, expanding a concept proposed a few years earlier by Senator Brien McMahon calling for the deployment of young “missionaries of democracy.” The Philippines was of course a favored assignment.
The Philippines was not as docile a client-state as is often depicted. There was the long-standing Huk rebellion, quelled in the 1950s, but nationalist ferment simmered even among the middle and upper classes, with the likes of Senator Claro M. Recto catching the attention, and ire, of the US government. Even traditional politicians saw it beneficial to play to the new tunes—President Carlos Garcia railed against the use of English in offices and President Diosdado Macapagal moved Independence Day from July 4 (US Independence Day, which they chose as the date to “grant” us independence) to June 12 (our own declaration of independence in Kawit).
Our politicians were also becoming harder to bargain with, around increasing the sugar quota (the amount of sugar that the US would import from us), and the US’ payment of war damages.
The JFK era came then at a time when the Philippines, like an adolescent, was becoming petulant and rebellious. But American uneasiness with the Philippines also came with concerns about widespread corruption, complicating policy decisions. JFK believed in foreign aid, and wanted more of this for the Philippines, but his administration was ambivalent about their “little brown brother”.
Vice President Johnson’s report on his visit to the Philippines calls our politicians “SOB’s”—see, the Americans can be Duterte-ish too in private. When President Macapagal was planning a state visit to the States, some American politicians protested, saying he was coming for more handouts. Macapagal postponed his visit, and when he finally pushed through, it was for the funeral of JFK.
It was frustrating for the Kennedy administration. The Philippines, according to a US State Department briefing provided to Kennedy, had the highest per capita GNP (gross national product) in Asia, the GNP growing between 5 and 6 percent each year. But the Americans also worried about corruption, and the politicians’ games.
The US was looking for more reliable and “cleaner” allies to lead the Philippines and had spotted a rising star. Within two years after JKF’s assassination, this Filipino politician was able to run successfully for president, copying some of the imagery of JFK, including claims of being a war hero. His relative youth, and his charming wife, allowed some of the Kennedy projections of a Camelot. That politician, born the same year as JFK, was Ferdinand E. Marcos.
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