The date: July Fourth. A new nation celebrates its independence from the world’s most powerful empire. But this time, the location was Manila, the year was 1946 and the empire in question was the United States.
Challenging three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, Filipinos first declared their independence on June 12, 1898. That day, leaders of the Philippine Revolution gathered in the city of Cavite, where Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed the country’s freedom from Spain. At a time when the United States and Spain were at war, and when empires such as Germany and Britain had an eye on the vulnerable territory, Aguinaldo demanded for the Philippine Republic a “dignified place in the concert of free nations.” The revolutionaries knew of America’s struggle a century earlier, and hoped the United States would support their bold claim to freedom.
They chose their words carefully. Much like the Continental Congress had done in Philadelphia in 1776, the declaration’s signers pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and … our most sacred possession, our honor” to the cause. They asked American officials for “protection” from Spain, and even invited Commodore George Dewey, waiting offshore in Manila Bay in command of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron, to the day’s events. Dewey declined, on the grounds that June 12, a Sunday, was his “mail day.”
Two months later, American forces invaded. Four years of brutal war suppressed the Philippine independence movement. Aguinaldo surrendered to U.S. forces in March 1901. For the next four decades, a country that had declared its freedom from empire in 1776 suppressed the independence of another. American colonial schools taught Filipino children about George Washington while they erased the history of the Philippine Revolution.
During World War II, Japan invaded and then occupied the Philippines, making the promise of freedom elusive. In October 1943, the Japanese military government granted independence to its conquered territory with the aim of luring Filipinos out of America’s orbit and into their own. Aguinaldo even came out of retirement to raise the flag of a new puppet regime. Filipino guerrillas in jungles and cities continued fighting. A massive 1944 American reinvasion — touted as “liberation” — pushed out the Japanese, but also devastated the country’s fields and factories.
In the aftermath of the war, the U.S. Congress selected July 4, 1946, as the date it would grant the Filipino people independence. Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines to announce “the end of empire.” But Philippine independence came with strings attached.
First, the new government was dependent on U.S. aid to rebuild its war-torn infrastructure. Congress established terms of trade that also tied the Philippine economy to the priorities of American manufacturers. A 1946 law guaranteed Americans privileged access to Philippine natural resources while keeping tariffs low for U.S. consumer goods. Strapped for opportunity at home, thousands of Filipinos began seeking employment abroad.
Nothing was less independent than the Philippine military. A bilateral agreement gave the United States access to 23 military bases. Another pact sent U.S. advisers to train the armed forces of the Philippines along strictly American lines, forbidding the Philippine Army to buy supplies — even ammunition — from any country other than the United States. In a radio message to Filipinos that July 4, President Harry S. Truman observed that “our two countries will be closely bound together for many years to come.” The Cold War proved Truman right for over 40 years.
Filipino soldiers joined American forces in Korea and Vietnam, and thousands enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Perhaps more than any other Cold War partner, the Philippines supported U.S. aims in Asia. The United States made promises in turn. A Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in 1951 and still in force, commits the United States to defend the Philippines from armed attack “in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
The Cold War’s end didn’t sever the connection between the United States and the Philippines — or the lopsided terms of the bilateral military alliance. The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), forged in 1998, includes limits on Philippine legal jurisdiction over U.S. forces that have generated repeated conflicts during the last two decades. Filipino activists have claimed the VFA impinges on national sovereignty.
In 2021, the Philippines’ booming economy — and a global diaspora of 10 million workers — means it’s less financially dependent on the United States than ever. Military affairs, however, are another story. Ties between the U.S. and Philippine militaries remain strong. As natural disasters regularly overwhelm Philippine first responders’ capacity, U.S. forces fill the gap.
Heightened tensions between the Philippines and China have tested the two countries’ bond. In February 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte announced the Philippines would withdraw from the VFA, only to retract his comments and delay his decision. Any changes will likely wait until after next year’s presidential election replaces the term-limited Duterte, but a full reexamination of the U.S.-Philippine military relationship is long overdue.
On this Fourth of July, as Americans celebrate our own independence, it’s worth recalling the moments in our past when we have failed to support the independence of others. Whether in 1898, when the United States ignored Emilio Aguinaldo’s call for American support, or in 1946, when America granted the Philippines only a partial freedom, the final say rested with American officials.
In 1964, President Diosdado Macapagal signed a law moving the Philippines’ national holiday from July 4 to June 12, the anniversary of its first declaration of autonomy from Spain. What that independence will mean in the next 75 years should be a matter for Filipinos — not Americans — to define. It won’t be decided on the Fourth of July.