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America’s Pacific Empire: Factions in the Philippines

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On June 12, 1898, the Philippines declared its independence from Spain after 350 years of colonial subservience to Madrid’s worldwide empire in decline. The United States was officially at war with Spain at the time of the Filipino declaration, and unofficially allied with Filipino rebel factions. When the rebels declared independence from Spain, though, the United States joined with the Bourbons in refusing to recognize this independence.

How two enemies, Spain and the United States, fighting an officially declared war could join together and denounce the actions of a third party - the liberationists of the Philippines - is a great way to use history to gain a better understanding of the American experiment with formal imperialism, as well as contemporary events around the world.

Two years prior to the Filipino declaration of independence, in 1896, a rebellion broke out in the Philippines, and - like the American Revolution and many others - it was instigated by Filipinos who had close intellectual and commercial ties to Spain’s elite classes. The revolutionaries wanted the Spanish colony of the Philippines to be a sovereign polity in the burgeoning world of nation-states that were just coming into being. However, not all Filipinos wanted a rebellion. Many Filipinos benefitted from Spanish rule. Many others did not want to be a part of a large nation-state like the Philippines; they wanted instead their own territory to be sovereign and a member of the world’s nation-states.

This socio-political backdrop - of numerous factions supporting numerous causes - mirrors not only the American Revolution (loyalists, regionalists, and republicans), but all other revolutions and secessions in human history.

When the rebellion broke out in 1896, however, Filipinos largely rallied around independence when Spain resorted to violence. (Sound familiar?) Unlike in the United States, though, Filipino factions could not cease hostilities against each other and the Spanish were able to exploit the cracks in the resistance just enough to gain an uneasy peace with rebels in 1897. Exile to the British colony of Hong Kong was the fate of many rebel leaders, though from there these revolutionaries made continuous overtures to London, Tokyo, and Washington for future help against Spain.

The problem these Filipino revolutionaries faced was that the British, Japanese, and Americans were not interested in liberating the Philippines for the sake of Filipinos; they were interested in acquiring territory for their global imperiums. The rebel leadership knew this, but it also knew that its revolution could not succeed without help from one of Spain’s rival empires.

Thus, when the United States declared war on Spain in April of 1898, the rebellion-minded Filipinos leapt into action and cooperated with American military units whenever possible. Together, the Americans and the Filipinos made short work of Spanish military units in the Pacific, but trouble began brewing after the Philippines Declaration of Independence went public. For the Americans, the Philippines were to be the crown jewel of their Pacific empire. For the Philippines, ousting Spain after 350 years of colonial rule meant independence.

In Manila, the capital of the Philippines, American troops and Filipino rebel units patrolled the streets side-by-side as partners (albeit unofficially) while the U.S. fought Spain elsewhere in the world, but once the Spanish-American War came to an end, the alliance between the United States and the Filipino guerillas ended. The two sides turned their guns on each other, but adding to the chaos was another faction with military strength: pro-Spanish partisans with deep commercial ties to Spain’s worldwide empire. When Madrid officially surrendered to the United States, the Americans in the Philippines had to begin fighting two very different groups. The fact that the two rebel groups were ideologically opposed to each other meant that the Americans would ultimately wear down the guerilla groups, but the last of these rebels didn’t surrender until 1913.

The pro-Spanish rebels were essentially eliminated from existence after the guerilla war against the U.S., but the idea of an independent Philippines eventually came to fruition in 1946 after the Japanese invaded the archipelago and temporarily dislodged the Americans from their imperial possession (the Japanese also built a number of prison camps throughout the country).

The narrative in American textbooks often overlooks the complexity of the situation in the Philippines during the late 19th century, often to the detriment of Filipino agency, and instead focuses on American factions dedicated to (or advocating against) war and empire-building in the Pacific. This is a shame, because it ignores the “hows” and the “whys” of federation, empire, secession, rebellion, and independence. Better to follow in James Madison’s footsteps, and focus on factions when pondering history, instead of the latest fads in intellectual circles.

 

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