How the Philippines Were Crucial to the Making of American Empire

From its vicious occupation in the early 20th century to its military bases in the present, the US has long had a brutal, domineering relationship with the Philippines. And crucially, it’s depended on the labor of colonized Filipinos themselves.

Philippine Scouts, a unit of the US Army blamed for mass killings and torture, in formation in 1905. (Library of Congress)

In 1936, as the Great Depression overwhelmed the world and the threat of global war loomed, the United States aimed to build up military forces in the Philippines, its colony since 1898. Two years earlier, the United States had placed the Philippines on a ten-year path to independence under the Tydings-McDuffie Act. But independence demanded a Filipino, not US, army to defend the nation. The Americans expected to conscript ten thousand Filipinos for service in the Philippine Army, enticing them with the promise of a job.

Douglas MacArthur, a US Army general whose austere countenance concealed his obvious ego, led the effort as field marshal of the Philippine Army, wielding near-dictatorial power over the Philippines’ military and, soon, their political affairs. Yet when the Japanese invaded in January 1942, MacArthur’s efforts proved in vain — Japanese forces overwhelmed MacArthur and the Philippine Army in twelve weeks.

After MacArthur’s expulsion from the Philippines, his army remained, its troops scattered across the country. Some soldiers fought on behalf of the Americans, some allied with the Japanese. Others joined communist guerilla units to drive out both powers. MacArthur infamously vowed to return to the Philippines to reclaim victory — and he did in 1944. This time, MacArthur and the Americans overpowered the Japanese. Philippine independence, postponed by the Japanese occupation, became a reality in 1946.

America’s formal dispossession of the Philippines, and MacArthur’s concurrent transfer to Japan (which the US occupied under his command), birthed a new imperial moment for the United States. Filipino independence allowed the United States to reconstruct its Pacific empire under the guise of liberation through military dominance — an empire in service to the free world.

Historian Christopher Capozzola’s powerful new book, Bound by War, chronicles this history of America’s pre- and postwar empire in the Philippines and the broader Pacific. In Capozzola’s view, American and Filipinos’ experience of fighting and dying during the twentieth century wedded the two countries in an interminable and unequal union — their futures formed by an undying colonialism and the United States’ ascension to global primacy.

Filipinos’ participation in America’s way of war created these contorted bonds, Capozzola argues, but America’s desire for cheap, local (Filipino) labor maintained them. In its dependence on colonized laborers to run the colony, America’s empire was no different than the British and French empires of the twentieth century — each relied on local, cheap labor to maintain regional control and global influence. Unlike the British and French empires, though, labor on behalf of the military regularly became a means of obtaining social provisions in the United States after World War I.

For Filipinos, like Americans, labor in the warfare state brought access to the welfare state. The terms of that access depended on the conflict, but the potential for Filipinos to receive basic rights through military service — opportunities for migration, citizenship, employment, and personal stability in either the United States or the Philippines — encouraged colonialism, and a colonial mindset, even after Filipino independence in 1946.

Capozzola’s book illuminates this sine qua non of America’s empire. As colonial dependency became the means of prosperity for Filipinos in the twentieth century, the peculiar, transactional relationship between labor and rights in the United States — assimilation through exploitation — obscured the brutality of the Philippine-American War, during and beyond 1898. Those “bonds of war,” between warfare and welfare, allowed the United States to create an empire without the sting of an enduring imperial history.

In the Beginning

When the United States invaded the Philippines and defeated the remnants of the Spanish Empire in August 1898, Washington had no plans for what came next. It got an insurrection — led by none other than Emilio Aguinaldo, the revolutionary Filipino leader the United States hoped would promote its claims of a benevolent invasion.

As debates raged in the United States between anti-imperialists and war hawks over the necessity of empire, the war carried on until 1913. Over seventy thousand army troops were deployed to the Philippines by November 1899 with instructions to use “overwhelming force.” US officials, new to overseas conquest but very familiar with suppressing domestic insurgencies, analogized the conflict to the Native wars in the American West.

When the US campaign turned into a police operation — in other words, a permanent counterinsurgency —army officials began recruiting Filipino soldiers to replace Americans, believing they would “know the enemy’s personality and his territory . . . and would be naturally amenable to white officers’ commands.” Capozzola shows that Filipino conscription encouraged the Americans to wage war with greater cruelty while deflecting culpability. The Philippine Scouts, officially a unit of the US Army, would become the counterrevolutionary force blamed for mass killings and torture — waterboarding was a native invention, claimed one army captain — rather than Americans.

The Philippine Scouts, officially a unit of the US Army, would become the counterrevolutionary force blamed for mass killings and tortures like waterboarding. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1906 Bud Dajo and 1913 Bud Bagsak massacres, hundreds of Muslim minority Moros (men, women, and children) were killed by Philippine Scouts (some of them Moros too) because the US military feared they were “plotting the slaughter of Americans.” Army officials decried the Scouts’ excesses at Bud Bagsak, while patronizingly upholding Filipinos’ qualifications for military service — Filipinos had to run their own nation, they self-servingly claimed.

Racial hierarchies created both soldiers and servants for the military. The US Navy enlisted Filipinos as messmen in kitchens and “seamen at ports all over the Pacific,” where they encountered poor pay relative to other members of the working class but saw the United States as a dependable employer. But by World War I, a war ostensibly to end colonialism, military service meant more than a job. Filipinos expected “new rights of citizenship” to accompany enlistment.

The Naturalization Act of 1918 allowed “Filipino veterans with three years of service” to become US citizens, and the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 exempted Filipinos from bans on Asian immigration. These new laws, and the demand for cheaper labor in the United States, placed Filipinos in a purgatory between citizen and alien. Occupying this middle ground allowed them to labor in Alaska fisheries, California farm fields and restaurants, and Washington State restaurants for “as long as you like,” recalled one migrant.

“A Virtual Nullification of Philippine Independence”

The Great Depression revealed the precarious relationship between military service, menial labor, and social progress. Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934 amid a xenophobic fervor, as mass unemployment revived racist tropes about Filipinos as unassimilable, and the 1935 Repatriation Act encouraged Filipinos to return home to purge them from US welfare rolls. Filipinos stayed instead, laboring in domestic work when military service in the Philippines — $9 a month to serve in McArthur’s Philippine Army, “one fourth what a good factory job in Manila would pay” — could not support a family.

World War II attracted more Filipinos to military service to defeat the German and Japanese empires. While African Americans waged a “Double V” campaign — victory against racism, at home and abroad — Capozzola writes that Filipinos waged a “Triple V” campaign: victory against racism in the United States, against the Axis powers in Europe and Asia, and against the Japanese in the Philippines. Whole regiments of Filipino soldiers were “naturalized en masse.”

The war also meant better jobs for Filipinos. War production gave them access to unions like the Congress of Industrial Organizations, higher wages, and better living conditions. The United States now depended on Filipino workers and soldiers, and the “decades of exclusion, uncertainty, and denial faded, at least for a moment.” The Philippines received its independence in 1946.

Despite the Philippines’ new status, the burgeoning Cold War allowed the United States to retain its former colony without occupying it. In 1947, Congress passed the Military Bases Agreement (MBA), compelling the Philippines to provide the US twenty-three military installations. It was, in the words of president Sergio Osmeña, “a virtual nullification of Philippine independence.” At the same time, US military bases became the second-largest employer in the country, making base towns “want war — and pray for war.”

Across the Pacific Ocean, Filipinos in the United States looked to take advantage of new laws that encouraged family migration for longtime residents, allowing them to assimilate in “Cold War suburbia.” As more Filipinos settled throughout America’s cities, native Filipinos were sent across Asia under the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea to defend South Korea. Americans once again relied on local labor to operate the military bases that became the “anchor of a Pacific strategy” during the Korean War. “Anti-communism would keep the two nations bound together,” Capozzola writes of the early Cold War years, but “only militarism remained to bind the two nations together” after the Korean War.

People Power

The Vietnam War widened the gulf between Filipinos in the two nations. Filipino Americans drafted in the war were placed in the same servant positions they worked in during World War I and confronted the same racism within the military’s ranks. Vietnam gave Filipinos greater leverage in proving their loyalty to the United States and an opportunity to demand more from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society (as Americans, Filipinos were “entitled to services,” they argued).

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos assumed the presidency of the Philippines, promising a “better life for the people” lest the Philippines become “the Vietnam of the 1970s.” His notoriously corrupt rule sparked student protests, high inflation, and calls for his removal from power. Marcos answered demonstrations with martial law in in 1972, ostensibly to prevent crime and revolutionary unrest. Marcos then purged the military, dissolved the legislature, and arrested his opponents. The United States, which depended on the Philippines’ military bases, raised no objections.

Subsequent US administrations maintained close ties with Manila. Jimmy Carter renewed the MBA agreement and increased foreign aid to Marcos. Ronald Reagan saw Marcos as a bulwark against communist groups and vowed to double aid to Marcos ($900 million over five years), creating more jobs on military bases for Filipinos while nearby residents lived in abject poverty.

The People Power movement had other ideas. In February 1986, after Marcos claimed he won reelection handily, Filipinos occupied the streets of Manila with nonviolent protests, forcing the United States to finally distance itself from Marcos.

Richard Nixon and his family at Manila International Airport with Ferdinand Marcos and his family. (White House)

Marcos’s ouster coincided with veterans’ activism in the United States, as “forgotten” Filipino-American Vietnam veterans requested “a place in America’s expanding warfare state in order to gain leverage over its shrinking welfare state.” Anti-base activists — participants and descendants of the People Power revolution — also successfully pushed to close US bases in the Philippines, including Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base (both relics of the US-Philippines conflict, now home to shopping malls, nightclubs, and golf courses).

But People Power could not survive US foreign policy. Bill Clinton allowed military exercises and US troops back in the country in 1997, proving that “very little was actually going to change” about the US-Philippine alliance. The United States launched counterterrorism operations from the Philippines after the 9/11 attacks, and the country became a battleground, a “second front,” in the war on terror for its role in “terror migrations” of Al Qaeda leaders between the Philippines and Afghanistan, as well as the site of terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf.

For Filipinos in the United States, the war on terror solidified longstanding connections between “American patriotism and military service” that made them “evocative symbols both of Filipino Americans’ loyalties and the American government’s broken promises.” In the Philippines, however, those symbols currently echo in the dictatorship of Rodrigo Duterte, a former member of the People Power revolution whose anti-American statements resonate with Filipinos, but who refuses to cancel military agreements that keep US troops in his country.

The bonds of war erected in 1898 remain intact.

Empire as a Way of Life

Bound By War is more than just a revisionist account of the US-Philippines conflict. Capozzola provides us with a complex, if at times meandering, history of US empire that should inform our thinking about American global power in the present.

Capozzola grapples with two forms of military service: soldiering and servitude. What, exactly, Capozzola asks, was the difference? Not much, in the case of the Philippines. For Filipinos, military conscription and racialized, low-wage labor were indistinguishable in the ends they served: the demands of the colony. However Filipinos interacted with US global supremacy — whether in the Philippines or the United States — the empire ultimately became a way of life for the colonized: a means of subsistence that they hoped could lead to eventual liberation from its trappings. In other words, democracy’s promise was embedded in empire’s horrors.

Yet Capozzola shows how preexisting class and racial inequalities made the US military an engine of social and economic inequality, not simply an escalator up the class hierarchy. A few elites prospered more than others (as they invariably do in imperial arrangements). In addition to William Howard Taft and MacArthur, readers encounter CIA operative Edward Lansdale, whose reputation for defeating the communist guerrilla movement Hukbalahap in the Philippines gave him the opportunity to organize anti-communists in South Vietnam. From men like Lansdale, we can trace a through line from the Philippines to Iraq. Counterinsurgency methods tested in Manila were refined in Saigon and later deployed in Afghanistan.

In the Philippines, a string of autocrats — from Quezon to Marcos to Duterte — hitched their fortunes to American power. Service in the colony gave them greater access to the metropole. Each wrapped themselves in nationalist slogans while ingratiating themselves with US leaders, assuring them that the Philippines needed American power to defend itself from the same threats that Americans feared: communism and unemployment.

But it is Capozzola’s story of Filipino laborers and their ingenuity in navigating the limits of empire that make his book such a rich read, and one that reveals the original qualities of US empire building. As ordinary Filipinos sought to act in the empire, their value became contingent on the extent to which United States expanded its power because of that labor. In the hope of securing their own land’s independence, Filipinos would participate, even volunteer, to strengthen the American empire beyond the Philippines, limiting the power of their own independence in the process. This was not so much a dialectical interaction as a synergistic relationship, a tale not of complicity but necessity.

This power of America’s empire thus lies in the invisible, compulsory labor required to keep it running. Historian Daniel Immerwahr has argued that Americans have a long history of hiding their empire — its “pointillist” archipelago of military bases, territories, and colonies. But if the American empire is hidden it is because it is everywhere — in the working-class migrants from America’s territories, the welfarist incentives for military service, the local and imported labor needed to operate eight hundred military bases around the globe, the economic and military arrangements between the United States and its allies and client states that provide jobs in a globalized economy.

And that is the point. If the landmarks of US global supremacy are multifarious, and the social progress and rights of workers linked to the labor they output for it, then who would dare recognize the elements of America’s foreign policy as imperial? Who would want to eliminate their sole means of economic and political mobility? Through military service, the empire becomes normative, naturalized, vital to the health and security of the nation.

It is those democratic elements of military service — the United States’ ability to provide a modicum of social mobility to the working class through war — that have made it more lasting, more durable. It is why the American empire, unlike the British or the French empires, has yet to face its reckoning.