Twisting the past to justify present

October 24, 2003|By Paul Kramer

DURING HIS eight-hour visit to Manila on Saturday, President Bush drew a striking connection between Iraq and the Philippines in a speech before the Philippine Congress. The current U.S. occupation of Iraq, he held, should be modeled on the earlier U.S. occupation of the Philippines, which lasted from 1898 to 1946.

"Some say the culture of the Middle East will not sustain the institutions of democracy," he stated. "The same doubts were once expressed about the culture of Asia. Those doubts were proven wrong nearly six decades ago."

Mr. Bush's statement greatly distorts and sanitizes a painful and violent history. The United States did not bring democracy to the Philippines a century ago but crushed a constitutional republic being established there. During the occupation that followed, the "optimism" expressed by U.S. colonial officials about the "culture of Asia," similar to Mr. Bush's, enabled a decades-long denial of actual political power.

Abuse and exploitation by Spanish colonizers in the Philippines led to the outbreak of a revolution in 1896. It was defeated in 1897 and its leaders exiled. But when the administration of President William McKinley sent the U.S. Pacific Squadron to Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War, Filipino leaders were able to return to the islands with U.S. naval assistance and defeat Spanish forces. By June 1898, Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo declared an independent Philippine Republic, the first in Asia.

U.S. representatives made explicit, and deceptive, promises that the new state would be recognized by the United States, which was crucial to its survival. At the same time, U.S. military commanders were ordered to deny the republic's army entry into Manila. In Paris, the United States and Spain also shut the republic's diplomatic representatives out of negotiations over a treaty that eventually transferred Philippine sovereignty from Spain to the United States for $20 million.

Contrary to Mr. Bush's claim, Filipino leaders had been most assertive that their culture could "sustain the institutions of democracy." Combining indigenous Filipino political ideas and conventions with Euro-American ones, the republic embraced constitutional government with an elected legislature. It was an elitist republic dominated by the wealthy; so too was the United States.

Far from undermining doubts about the culture of Asia, U.S. politicians, military commanders and imperial-minded journalists aggressively argued against Filipino self-government. They instead described the islands' population as "primitive," divided into innumerable "tribes" and oppressed by dictatorial and corrupt leaders from whom they must be "liberated."

These depictions became even more pronounced during the U.S. invasion that followed and the resulting war between Philippine and U.S. armies. The campaign was bloody and protracted, involving the looting of civilian property, the torching of villages and the torture and killing of prisoners by U.S. troops. Historians estimate that possibly 250,000 Filipinos died during the war and its aftermath.

U.S. officials declared the war over long before resistance had ended. As a postwar occupation began, U.S. observers continued to deny Filipino capacities for self-government.

Over the next 50 years, U.S. control over the Philippines would be justified with malleable explanations based on Filipinos' alleged incapacities for reason, discipline, order, hard work and other moral features believed necessary for self-government. Filipino assertions that they could meet American standards led to constant readjustments of those standards.

At the same time, those who denied Filipinos political power remained optimistic about Filipinos. Currently unable to rule themselves, they said, Filipinos would be able to do so after some indefinite period of education.

The United States was far from successful in democratic nation-building in the Philippines, having never attempted it. The U.S. occupation government instead installed Filipino elites in power through the instruments of a one-party police state, initially with strict and repressive censorship laws.

Filipino democracy would take constricted shape under U.S. imperialism both during formal occupation and, after 1946, as a Cold War battleground. Energetic U.S. support for the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos says much about the U.S. commitment to Filipino democracy. Present conditions of extreme economic inequality and political corruption are in many ways legacies of this earlier history. So too is the ongoing struggle in the southern Philippines between Philippine forces and Muslim rebels, in which U.S. troops are involved.

Mr. Bush's statement reflects the willingness of the administration to manipulate the history of an earlier imperial occupation to justify a newer one. Critics of the Iraq war should be cautious not to commit the same error by drawing strict parallels between occupations that are, in many ways, quite different. But in both cases, "optimism" about the political prospects of colonial subjects begins from the assumption that the United States has an imperial mandate to declare which cultures can "sustain the institutions of democracy" and which cannot.

Under any administration, such claims would be arrogant; under the present one, which has demonstrated a persistent disrespect for democratic procedures, they are also absurd. The right to determine the shape of Iraq's politics belongs to the Iraqi people, as it did to the Filipino people a century ago.

Paul Kramer, an assistant history professor at the Johns Hopkins University, is writing a book on the U.S. occupation of the Philippines.

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