Like many great loves, it began with an infatuation.
Enamored of Uncle Sam’s advances, Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the Philippine Revolution, believed US consul E. Spencer Pratt that America would support Philippine independence. Against all signs, Aguinaldo continued to hold on to this pledge, notwithstanding the ominous presence of George Dewey’s warships in Manila Bay.
It was not just Aguinaldo who was drawn to America. Jose Rizal, who sojourned across the United States for a few weeks in 1888, viewed it positively. Although his admiration was tempered by the racial inequality, he expressed his belief that the traditions of the “great American Republic” would ultimately allow it to resist the temptation of colonial enterprise.
Our leaders’ faith proved misplaced when the Philippine-American War broke out in 1899, precipitating a period of devastation for the country, with countless American atrocities—from Balangiga to Bud Dajo—and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos dying from the violence and the concomitant famine and disease. Just as devastating was our subsummation into a racial hierarchy that cast us, in literal and figurative terms, as “little brown brothers.”
The first to reembrace the Americans were members of the landed elite, who were amply rewarded for their cooperation. Much of the country followed suit, won over by education, public health, and sports. Even so, the desire for independence and self-determination was never lost. Manuel L. Quezon, caught in the tension between his overlords and his constituents, famously said: “I’d rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than one run like heaven by the Americans.”
World War II was a turning point: It saw Filipinos and Americans as brothers-at-arms. After the war and the Philippine independence that followed, love for all things stateside only intensified; canned goods like Spam became status symbols, and the queue for visas in the US Embassy lengthened.
But as in the past, the nationalistic impulse persisted, exacerbated by unequal treaties like the 1946 Bell Trade Act and US intervention, as with its support for the Marcos dictatorship. Held in this historic frame, a case can truly be made for the Philippines keeping a “healthy distance” from America: For all its sacrifices for and economic contributions to its erstwhile Big White Brother, the Philippines is a mere footnote in US cultural history—a taken-for-granted pawn in the geopolitical chess game—even as Filipinos continue to look up to America as their chief ally and cultural reference point. And of course, as far as military capabilities are concerned, we need no Clausewitz to tell us that dependency breeds stagnation.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of reason to keep our good friendship with America, which remains one of the Philippines’ biggest partners, not just in trade but also in many areas, from cultural and educational exchange to—oh, yes—drug control. For all its “many defects” (as Rizal put it), one of America’s strengths is its capacity for reflexivity and self-criticism: Americans themselves, from Mark Twain to Bernie Sanders, have railed against their country’s outsized role in other nations’ affairs.
The US presidential election next week presents an opportunity to reset ties. President Duterte will do well to set aside his personal feelings for what is truly in our country’s best interests. The next US president, for her part, should look beyond Mr. Duterte’s insults, and approach the Philippines with a recognition of its historic significance, strategic importance, and future potential: not just as an individual nation but also as part of a resurgent region that may well live up to the promise of an “Asian century.”
Today, the world is as uncertain as ever, just as it was in the time of Emilio Aguinaldo and William McKinley. As the Philippines and America reflect on their place in the world, they have much to gain by (re)discovering each other’s true worth, and making it the basis of their relationship.
Gideon Lasco (www.gideonlasco.com) is a medical doctor and anthropologist.
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