The making of the modern Philippines (Excerpt)

From The making of the modern Philippines: pieces of a jigsaw state, by Philip Bowring, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022. pp. 41-45.




Co-opting elites enabled the US to move ahead with a form of representative government. The Philippine Organic Act of 1902 provided for a two-chamber legislature, with the Philippine Commission as upper chamber and an Assembly as lower one, to be elected. The first Assembly elections were in 1907 but the franchise was very narrow – property ownership as well as literacy limiting registered voters to 104,000. It did, however, represent an elite divided between those, in principle, hankering for independence – the Nacionalista Party, and those – the Progresista (formerly Federalista) Party – looking for a federal relationship with or statehood within the US. With fifty-nine out of eighty seats, the Nacionalistas and their allies won easily.

Two names emerged from that election which were to dominate politicsfor more than thirty years. One was Manuel Quezon, handsome, eloquent mestizo of complex but mostly Spanish parentage who had been an officer in Aguinaldo’s army before surrendering in 1900. He then became a successful lawyer and was found useful by the Americans who recognized his sharp brain, magnetic personality and lack of scruples. Elected mayor of Tayabas in 1906, he became leader of the majority in the first Assembly. The other was Sergio Osmena, illegitimate son of a rich mestizo Chinese family from Cebu. He served briefly with Aguinaldo before starting a newspaper in Cebu, where he became governor in 1906, then Speaker of the Assembly in 1907. Unpretentious, diligent and a devout Catholic, he was mostly to be in Quezon’s shadow and in 1923 was replaced as speaker by a Quezon protégé, Manuel Roxas, but his skills complemented those of Quezon.

In 1909, Quezon became one of the two Philippine Commissioners to the US Congress, pushing to increase localization of government and influencing President Wilson to appoint the liberal-minded Francis B. Harrison as governor who arrived in Manila in 1913 declaring: ‘Every step we take will be taken with a view to the ultimate independence of the islands’. He replaced Americans with Filipino officials who he made a majority of the nine-member Commission. The 1916 Jones Act provided increased autonomy with a two-chamber legislature, a Senate replacing the Commission. Independence was promised as soon as an undefined ‘stable government’ was achieved. For the time, political progress could partly compensate for racial division. Locals, however distinguished, were kept out of white homes and clubs, and American men kept local mistresses while officially frowning on racial mixing. (Filipinos could go to work in the US, mainly Hawaii and California, but in the US were barred from marrying whites.)

The 1920s saw a slowdown in political progress with tension between Quezon and Governor Leonard Wood, a retired general appointed by President Harding. Following a mission by Osmena and Roxas, and subsequently by Quezon, the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act granted the Philippines Commonwealth (self-governing) status to be followed by independence in ten years. A convention headed by lawyer Senator Claro M. Recto, a Quezon ally, then drew up a constitution modelled on the US with votes for all literate men aged twenty-one, with women to follow in two years. Quezon and Osmena re-formed an alliance as president and vice-president respectively with Quezon facing an aging Aguinaldo and the independent church’s Gregorio Aglipay. They won very easily but only 1 million out of about 4 million adult men voted. Quezon remarked: ‘I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than a country run like heaven by the Americans’.

The emotional appeal for independence was strong, particularly among the new political class. Others were more sceptical as to whether it would do anything for the masses in a society which remained divided between mostly mestizo boss class and the tao (common people). There was also a fear that US withdrawal would lay the nation open either to Japanese expansionism or an unstoppable flood of cheap labour from China. The Tydings-McDuffie Act also held several problems for the country. Filipinos in the US became aliens with an annual migration limit of fifty. Those already there could, as Asian aliens, not leave and return. They were already there in significant numbers – at least 50,000 – in both Hawaii and California, mostly as farm workers. Their lives were vividly described in the semi-autobiographical novel America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, was a farm boy from Pampanga who went to California and became a union activist and prolific writer.

Filipinos in the US faced racial hostility and exploitation not only by employees but by Filipino recruitment agencies and by longer established, better organized Chinese and Japanese immigrant groups. Nonetheless, few accepted the offer of one-way repatriation provided after the Tydings-McDuffie Act. As the title of Bulosan’s book suggested, America was still a dream. When the Second World War came, Filipinos in the US formed two segregated regiments which served in New Guinea and the Philippines. Service was a path to citizenship but in California they were not allowed to marry outside their community as inter-racial marriage was illegal there until 1948.

Tydings-McDuffie provided for a continuing US military presence. Command of the Philippine army would remain for ten years and thereafter be subject to negotiation. Nationalists wanted to be rid of the Americans but there were strong concerns that the country could not defend itself. The bigger issue, however, was economic. Sugar planters in particular but also the abaca and tobacco interests feared losing access to the US market. By then the country’s foreign trade had become far too tied to America for comfort so the fear of losing preferential access after independence was real, a very logical fear and shared by many who publicly avowed nationalism.

Taft had believed, both as governor of the Philippines and US president, in the value for both parties of free trade between the US and its new territory. He fought for the 1909 tariff reform, ensured that the US market was fully open for Philippine sugar, abaca, tobacco and coconut oil and copra – in the case of sugar against the interests of US beet growers. High tariffs were applied to non-US goods entering the Philippines. Thus, by the 1930s, the US accounted for about 80 per cent of its exports and two-thirds of Philippine imports. This version of ‘free trade’ protected the sugar barons but gave them no incentive to increase productivity while providing no barrier behind which manufacturing could develop. 

US investment did come but not as fast as had been hoped. Docks were much improved, and some 800 kilometres of railway were constructed – though much less than promised by the companies which won the franchises. Road building progressed slowly due to the scarcity of manpower as well as money. Little US investment went into plantations due to a limit of 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) which was imposed after nationalist uproar at the intended award of half a million acres of public land in Mindanao to the Firestone tyre company. There were some small plantations, including in Basilan, and gold mining prospered in Luzon, particularly after 1934 when President Roosevelt raised its price from $20 to $35 an ounce. The country also saw an influx of Japanese, first as labourers, then as merchants and farmers developing small abaca plantations in Mindanao. The expansion of plantation agriculture drove trade and profits but rice production failed to keep up with demand and the Philippines became a net rice importer.

Domestic trade developed as roads improved and a few farmers were helped by the establishment of local banks, but landowning peasants were a minority and absentee landlords often paid little attention to their lands. The 1930s global depression was especially hard on tenants growing cash crops, despite US market access. It is estimated that in 1938 two-thirds of the workforce were share-croppers or day labourers.’ Unrest simmered and two leftist parties were formed to represent worker and peasant interests, the Partido Obrera de Filipinas founded in 1924 and in 1930 the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas which was declared illegal in 1932 but continued underground. Another influence, albeit briefly, was the Sakdalista movement of Benigno Ramos. He had been a Quezon colleague but became a critic, demanding land re-distribution as well as independence. The Sakdalistas had early appeal but with the failure of a 1935 uprising supported by peasants in the Tagalog region it was doomed. Ramos left for Japan and a pro-Japanese future but the seeds of discontent did not die. The Commonwealth passed legislation to give some protection to workers and tenant farmers, and a National Rice and Corn Corporation was created to undercut middlemen. Unions were given the right to organize but there was no significant social change.

The new political class was mostly the same rival leading families at province or town level for whom democracy was their duelling stage. Quezon was a masterful manipulator of the system. It was no coincidence that he developed a good relationship with the equally self-assured Douglas MacArthur, son of Arthur MacArthur. As a young officer, Douglas had served in Manila in 1903-5 and became acquainted with Quezon and Osmena. In 1918, thanks to his exploits in the First World War, he became the youngest general in the US army, and served in Manila again from 1922 to 1924, by which time Quezon was President of the Senate. After years in Washington, Quezon influenced MacArthur’s return to Manila as commander of the US infantry brigade in the Philippines from 1928 to 1930…

On the formation of the Commonwealth, Quezon saw the need for an army, and in 1935 he enabled the appointment of his friend MacArthur to train it. The role of adviser evolved into the grandiose title of Field Marshal. MacArthur was a political conservative and a believer in the importance of the US presence in Asia. Racism, however, was not among his many faults which explained his ability to get along with Quezon and others, and eventually be seen as a national hero by many in the Philippines.

The extension of America across the Pacific had made it a global power befitting its economic might, but also increased its vulnerability. The new possession needed to be defended, with Japan, after its 1903 defeat of Russia, the most likely competitor in the region. However, it was envisaged that naval capability would suffice for the Philippines’ defence. That view prevailed even after 1918 when Japan, in return for naval assistance to Britain, was awarded several German possessions, the tiny but strategic chain of islands across the north-western Pacific – the Marianas, and the Caroline (now Micronesia) and Marshall islands. By the mid-1930s, Japan’s domestic politics and international outlook had changed with expansionist objectives in China becoming all too clear. The Philippines needed its own forces, however inadequate, as well as on the US shield. MacArthur had a plan for a force of some 10,000 regulars supported when needed by a lightly-trained mass militia, a job he gave to a sceptical subordinate, Dwight Eisenhower, whose best efforts produced only a fraction of the number envisaged. In July 1941, MacArthur returned to the US military as Commander of US Army Forces in the Far East, bringing the new Philippine troops under his command.

Quezon, meanwhile, had luxuriated in his position of president of an almost-sovereign state, travelling to China and Japan as a representative of Asian nationalism. He used his political dominance to try to expand the power of the State and reduce the reliance on the patronage system. Given more time he might have succeeded, but as tensions between the US and Japan rose, Quezon also became acutely conscious of the weakness of an independent Philippines. ‘It could not be defended even if every last Filipino were armed with a modern weapon,’ he told a crowd. He visited Tokyo hoping for a post-independence commitment to its neutrality but was politely ignored.

At home, Quezon and his colleagues basked in wide approval. Progress included votes for women and the encouragement of the use of Tagalog, now defined as Pilipino. In 1938, the Nacionalistas won 94 per cent of the seats in the Assembly. Using his popularity to prolong his reign, Quezon then proposed that instead of one term of six years, there should be two terms of four years each. This, and a proposal for a two-chamber legislature, was approved by a plebiscite and was followed by legislative, local and presidential elections in November 1941. Voters totalled 1.57 million out of an adult population of 7.5 million. Quezon and Osmena were re-elected with 81 per cent and 92 per cent of votes respectively but had scant time to savour victory.

Philip Bowring
Author: Philip Bowring
Journalist, historian, former editor the Far Eastern Economic Review, 1973-1992.

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