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Filipinos in the US

The occasion to mark the 100th anniversary of Filipino arrival in the US also offers an opportunity to re-examine imperialism as defined in the American context. The US' aggressive colonisation of former Spanish territories would play a defining role in later foreign policy strategy; colonised populations, for their part, would find themselves deprived for many decades, of several legitimate citizenship rights.

Letter from America

Filipinos in the US

The occasion to mark the 100th anniversary of Filipino arrival in the US also offers an opportunity to re-examine imperialism as defined in the American context. The US’ aggressive colonisation of former Spanish territories would play a defining role in later foreign policy strategy; colonised populations, for their part, would find themselves deprived for many decades, of several legitimate citizenship rights.

ITTY ABRAHAM

T
his year marks the centenary of the arrival of Filipinos in the US. The initial transport of Filipino men to the US was undertaken in order to augment the labour force needed to work in the pineapple and sugar plantations of Hawaii. A few years before their arrival, the US, then beginning its search for imperial possessions beyond the continental heartland, had defeated Spain in the Spanish-American war. The war against a fading imperial Spain is often remembered for the apocryphal statement attributed to press baron, William Randolph Hearst, who telegraphed his correspondent in Cuba: “You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war.” This statement assumed significance in the context of the growing extraterritorial imperial ambitions of the US, initiated under the belligerent Republican presidency of William McKinley, and with an equally bellicose president-to-be, Theodore Roosevelt, waiting in the wings. Notable in shaping the pro-imperialist sentiments of the day was Alfred Mahan, a naval strategist who wrote the classic geopolitical treatise, The Influence of Seapower on History (1890), whose conclusions would be avidly promoted by proponents of naval power from the US, Japan, England and Germany.

The provocation for the onset of war against Spain was the sinking of the US battleship Maine at the Havana harbour in 1897, allegedly by a mine. Later investigations would show that there was no mine involved, rather, a spontaneous combustion of coal used to fuel the ship had set off the huge supplies of naval ordnance on board the ship. This set of explosions led to the ship’s complete destruction. Notwithstanding what may really have happened, the destruction of the Maine would become the first of many trumped-up provocations that would be used to energise an ignorant public and lead the US into war with other states. An easy victory against an impoverished Spain brought new territories into US possession, most notably, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Filipinos, long colonised by Spain, had initially welcomed the arrival of US warships in Manila Bay, seeing them as a force for national liberation. The Americans helped remove the Spanish colonisers, and soon the nationalists in the Philippines were busy writing a new constitution for their newly independent country. TheyelectedEmilio Aguinaldo, aChinese-Filipino mestizo as their new president. In 1899, another trumped-up incident led to the US annexation of the Philippines and the outbreak of the Philippine-American war, which would last until 1913. During this war, which was until recently called an “insurgency” in US historiography, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos would die, the majority of them civilians, and the US armed forces would learn their first lessons in modern counter-insurgency warfare. They responded with a scorched earth policy, widespread use of torture, and using the latest military technologies, in mass killings of civilian sympathisers.Domesticreactions to the horrendous violence of the war, including the loss of many US soldiers, led to the feeling that the US should not try and replicate the colonial model of the European powers. Rather, they could garner the benefits of colonialism without actual possession and direct rule, using local surrogates, especially drawn from the military. One can see this strategy dominating US foreign policy all through the 20th century, especially in the countries of Latin America, a region often derogatorily labelled, the “backyard” of the US.

Motives of Commerce

In the meantime, commerce too had its needs. Hawaii had been annexed by the US in 1898, though the latter’s interests had been prominent in local politics for a half century before that, especially through the dealings of missionaries who had developed close links with plantation capital. Filipinos were among the last of a wave of Asian labourers brought to the Hawaiian archipelago from the mid-19th century onwards, and they soon assumed their position at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. This was sometimes a literal description of their relative position in “native lines” housing tracts that were built on the sides of hills. American owners and managers lived on the top of the hill, the Portuguese and Germans overseers lived below them, below them were earlier Asian migrants, mostly Japanese and Chinese workers, and at the very bottom were the Filipinos, or “pinoys”, as they called themselves.

As years passed, Filipinos would migrate to California and Alaska, where they established local communities, and lobbied endlessly to allow family reunification and the travel of single women for the largely male population to marry. Their social and economic marginality was reinforced by their legal weakness. The US Supreme Court, following up on the infamous Dred Scott decision which denied African-Americans legal citizenship, would, in a series of rulings through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, deny the right of Asians, including those born in the US, from acquiring the rights of citizenship. Due to the nature of their insertion into the labour force, Filipinos would be closely involved with and help organise trades unions from the time of their arrival. Their militancy was not welcome even to the organised labour movement: Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) would resist the entry of Asians into AFL unions. California would pass laws banning the marriage of Asians with white women: as is common in other contexts as well, sexual miscegenation was among the greatest fears of the powerful majority. In 1924, Congress would pass the Asian Exclusion Act, banning completely the entry of Asians into the US.

In the end, the endless stream of US wars had a way of changing sentiments on Main Street. Filipino-Americans (as did Chinese and Japanese Americans) volunteered in large numbers to fight, often against their national compatriots, in the US armed forces during the second world war. Many ended up as mess boys and doing menial work in the navy, but some saw action and distinguished themselves in the Pacific theatre. As has been established as a pattern for US minorities, joining the armed forces continues to be the quickest, if most dangerous, route to citizenship (if not acceptability). In 1945, Filipino veterans were finally awarded full US citizenship for their military service to the country. The imperial wheel had turned full circle.

EPW

Email: abrahami@eastwestcenter.org

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

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