On the eve of the 50th anniversary of his father’s brutal declaration of martial law, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., arrived in New York for the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly. As he and President Biden discussed strategy in the South China Sea, a contempt of court order against the younger Marcos — ruling that his family must pay $2 billion to survivors of his father’s 14 years of unilateral rule under martial law — remains unenforced. And as he delivered an invited address to the New York branch of the Asia Society, activists and victims of the elder Marcos regime’s human rights abuses are fighting the historical revisionism that led to the family’s resurgence into national politics.
A friendship and shared history between the two nations has often been the official framing of this binational relationship. On Aug. 5, ahead of the State Department’s official visit to the Philippines, it described the partnership as one between “friends, partners, and allies,” on the basis of “people-to-people” ties, exemplified by the large Filipino community in the United States. But such euphemisms have effectively covered up the brutal realities of what this relationship was founded upon: the colonization of the archipelago by the United States. This erasure continues to shape silences in the relationship, impeding fights for justice and redress across the Pacific.
In 1896, after more than 330 years of colonization by Spain, native people in the archipelago took up arms against their colonial rulers in what became known as the Philippine Revolution. In 1898, taking advantage of the rapid decline of the Spanish Empire, the United States offered military assistance to revolutionaries in Cuba and the Philippines, with promises to insurgents that it, an expanding world power, would recognize native-led independence movements.
This series of interventions led to the Spanish-American War between April 21 and Aug. 13, 1898, and the decisive American military victory that followed. However, instead of recognizing the newly-declared First Philippine Republic, the United States purchased Spain’s former island colonies in the Treaty of Paris for a total of $20 million. After this betrayal of trust, the leaders of the republic declared war against the United States, their former ally.
What followed was brutality that remains largely erased from American historical memory. During the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), an estimated 20,000 Filipino soldiers and 200,000 to 1 million civilians died before the United States declared the conflict over. Even then, from 1902 to the mid-1910s, revolutionary movements proliferated against the new occupying power. As historians have argued, the Philippine-American War may very well not have ended in 1902, but rather took on a new name: counterinsurgency.
In 1934, amid a wave of anti-Filipino racism on the U.S. West Coast, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which capped migration from the Philippines into the continental United States at 50 people a year, even though the country was under U.S. rule.
In exchange, the Philippines would become a commonwealth, a provisionally self-governing nation for 10 years, before being granted full independence. The following year, in the presence of American and Filipino colleagues, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ratified the 1935 Constitution of the Philippine Commonwealth, modeled after the U.S. Constitution. During World War II, the Japanese occupied the Philippines in 1942, another violent period of colonization declared by an imperial power under the guise of liberation. After evacuating in March 1942, Gen. Douglas MacArthur — who had served as the military adviser to the Commonwealth of the Philippines — invaded the island of Leyte in October 1944. By January 1945, the United States occupied Manila once again, and reclaimed their Southeast Asian military and economic outpost.
These wartime aims previewed American-Philippine foreign relations in the immediate decades after the war. After World War II, on July 4, 1946, the United States granted independence to the Philippines. But the legacies of prior American involvement in the archipelago did not disappear. Various economic treaties guaranteed that, in exchange for American financial support for postwar redevelopment, the Philippines would allow U.S. companies and citizens rights to the islands’ natural resources, as well as free use of military zones on the archipelago. In effect, despite formal independence, the Philippines remained a neocolony of the United States.
U.S. colonial statecraft gave the juridical precedent for the seizure of power by the Marcoses. On Sept. 23, 1972, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. declared that the Philippines would be subject to martial law. He pointed to Article VII, Section 10 of the 1935 Constitution, which was still in effect. It granted the president — as commander in chief — discretionary powers to declare martial law as a preventive measure against “lawless violence, invasion, insurrection, or rebellion.” These provisions stem from the early American colonization of the Philippines, in which military occupation was at the heart of counterinsurgency.
Citing threats to his rule across the political spectrum, Marcos suspended habeas corpus and seized control of Congress, effectively granting himself authoritarian powers in perpetuity. In tandem with martial law, he declared his rule to be a new epoch in Philippine history, which he called the New Society.
The discretionary powers afforded to Marcos under martial law did not only pertain to governance, but also applied to all aspects of Philippine society. The regime swiftly suspended the free press, imprisoned Marcos’s political opponents and subjected Filipinos to curfews and strict surveillance. Those who were deemed dissidents were subjected to torture and abuse; an estimated 70,000 people were incarcerated and about 3,257 victims “disappeared” through extrajudicial killings.
By the 1980s, the Marcos regime’s hold on the Philippines began to wane. The president’s health began to decline, and his wife, Imelda Marcos, emerged as the new figurehead. In 1983, the regime’s popularity sharply dropped after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. After several failed coups and impeachments, through mass mobilization, the People Power Revolution of 1986 ousted Marcos and his family from national politics.
As Manila’s citizens took to streets in support of his opponent, Corazon Aquino, the Marcoses fled the Philippines with the help of their country’s former colonial master, the United States.
Aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130, the Marcos family and their cronies fled the Philippines to Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, then found sanctuary in Honolulu, another U.S. outpost in the Pacific. The family took much of their stolen plunder (including jewelry, cash and rare artworks) with them, and their wealth is now estimated to be over $10 billion. Despite litigation, a federal commission to retrieve stolen wealth and a tax bill of $3.9 billion, most of the money has not been recovered.
Over the years, the United States and the Philippines maintained their mutually beneficial relationship as “partners.”
On Nov. 20, 2001, two months after the fall of the twin towers, President George W. Bush met with then-Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to fortify U.S. military interests in the Philippines. Citing a strong “people-to-people” relationship between Filipino Americans’ love for the United States and the Philippine people’s shared commitment to this trans-Pacific partnership, Arroyo declared: “Long live the Philippines, and long live the friendship between the United States and the Philippines.”
Former strongman president Rodrigo Duterte, who was publicly anti-American and expressed his disdain for President Barack Obama, found much in common with his admirer, President Donald Trump. In 2020, Duterte voiced his support for his American counterpart, declaring him to be a “good president [who] deserves to be reelected.”
And despite the election fraud and intimidation that facilitated Marcos Jr.’s ascension to the presidency — and wide protests calling out the lack of integrity in the electoral process — on May 11 Biden congratulated the new administration on the victory.
But we must remember that the basis of the U.S.-Philippine “special relationship” is the erasure of colonial history. That on the 50th anniversary of martial law, the United Nations, the Biden administration and the Asia Society have welcomed an ill-begotten president with open arms, signaling the strength of this historical amnesia — and the troubling future of Philippine politics and civic life.
The ongoing fight for justice across the Pacific — for the repressed legacies of the American campaign of extermination in the Philippines in the early 20th century, to the survivors of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos Sr., to the victims of extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s so-called “War on Drugs” — takes place on the battleground of historical memory. For the sake of redress and social justice, we must remember.