America in East Asia: The Rise and the Waning of a Benevolent Hegemon Image (Excerpt)

From “America in East Asia: The Rise and the Waning of a Benevolent Hegemon Image,” by Victor Sumsky, The Japanese Journal of American Studies, No. 18 (2007). pp. 127-28.

What the US had established in the Philippines had the appearance of a self-dismantling colonial regime, set up ostensibly to train the natives in the art of democratic politics. Playing on the image of benevolence— in fact the term “benevolent assimilation” has become integral to the period’s vernacular—the brand of US colonial rule appeared to be something truly unique. Starting as early as 1907, local political parties were allowed to compete for seats in the colonial legislature. In less than a decade a pledge to grant independence to the Philippines was included in the Jones Law (1916), followed by a no-nonsense Filipinization of the colonial administrative structure. Further developments resulted in the formation by 1935 of the Commonwealth of the Philippines—a dominion- like entity supposed to become a sovereign republic after a transition period of ten years. For other colonialists of East Asia—the British, the French, the Dutch and, naturally, the Japanese—this was nearly a scandal. Dutch officials suppressed publication of news from the Philippines in Indonesian papers and were rumored to view the Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon as even “more subversive . . . than Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin rolled into one”—a gross but telling exaggeration.

In reality, the Americans were led into these unorthodox policies by their own inexperience combined with the specifics of the local situation. Grabbing the archipelago in the midst of the first anti-colonial revolution in Asia, they could not pacify it by sheer repression. Some positive response to the demands of the Filipinos, weary of the conservative Spanish rule and heavily politicized in the process of fighting it, was needed too. Many American experiments in neocolonial social engineering were rooted in that need.

None of this is to deny that during the last few years preceding the Pacific War the Philippines served as an encouraging example to much of Asia. This is what we want in India, said Mahatma Gandhi to Carlos Romulo, a prominent Manila journalist and a future foreign secretary of his country, as they discussed the peaceful road toward Commonwealth status and Filipino independence outlined in the Tydings-McDuffie Law. Gandhi’s words reflected not only his admiration for the achievement of the colonized but his acknowledgement of the colonial master’s wisdom.

If World War I turned America into one of several globally important centers of power, World War II propelled it to absolute dominance in the Western world. To maintain this position and to use it as a basis for still greater expansion, the US found it necessary to wage and win what is known as the Cold War, with East Asia as a major battleground.

Victor Sumsky
Author: Victor Sumsky
Russian scholar; Director of the ASEAN Centre of MGIMO University.

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