Historian Daniel Immerwahr’s look at the painful history
between the US and its former colony, the Philippines
Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during initial landings at Leyte, Philippine. File photo from Wikimedia Commons
Northwestern University professor Daniel Immerwahr said a long-ago research trip to Manila set him on a course leading to his new book, “How to Hide an Empire,” which examines how the U.S. came to possess islands, atolls and other territories far from the conventionally taught 48 state U.S. mainland. The Philippines, which gained independence in 1946, suffered a good deal under the American flag, including what Immerwahr described as the “bloodiest thing that ever happens on U.S. soil” during World War II.
“It’s not that I hadn’t known that the Philippines had been a colony of the United
States,” Immerwahr said. “I knew that perfectly well. But something about being there made a difference. It was something like reading the lyrics and hearing the music and suddenly it clicked for me. As I looked at the Philippines, it was so evidently marked by the legacy of being part of the United States. What I realized is that we U.S. historians haven’t been telling the story right.”
This prompted him to read a lot of Philippine history and to try to figure out what U.S. history would look like if the Philippines were part of the story.
“The way the history of the overseas territories is often told, is through a chapter set in 1898,” Immerwahr said. “So unless you are in one of these places and know the history as local history, if you‘re just reading U.S. history textbooks or anything like that, you’ll hear about the war with Spain in 1898.”
But few of the high school or college textbooks deal with what is often referred to as the war between the Philippines and America— which went on until 1913 — or the overt racism that characterized much of it.
“In the Philippine war,” Immerwahr said, “it seems at moments like a race war. It seems like [the American] soldiers were taking a fair amount of glee in torturing Filipinos and their meeting military setbacks with sort of exterminate them all retribution. The soldiers do not carry out an exterminationist agenda in the Philippines, but it seems that some of them really wanted to. You’ll hear about the Philippine war, but there is alarmingly very little coverage of what happens next.”
From Immerwahr’s perspective, one of the most galling omissions is World War II in the Philippines, which he described as an “absolutely extraordinary story” and “the bloodiest thing that ever happens on U.S. soil.”
Few of the high school or college textbooks deal with what is often referred to as the war between the Philippines and America or the overt racism that characterized much of it.
“What’s so painful about it is the complicity of Washington in those war deaths, because a lot of those folks who died, died both as the result of U.S. grand strategy and also died in some cases from friendly fire,” he said. “And the fact that this was just blithely passed over on the mainland, doesn’t even count as part of U.S. history, struck me as completely unacceptable.”
Immerwahr said the best numbers he could dig out of Philippine archives reflect 1.1 million Filipinos and U.S. nationals died during the carnage, but stateside Americans were laser-focused on one figure: General Douglas McArthur.
Most books published in U.S. “were really just like a study of McArthur’s moods,” Immerwahr said. “There was so much hyper-attention given to McArthur and to the white people who served under him and so little to the moral horror show that was taking place in the background of all this.”
Immerwahr said McArthur was one of the few people in the high ranks in Washington who really cared about the Philippines. “He’s got deep familial connections there. He’s got deep biographical connections there and he seems to care about protecting the Philippines in a way that very few people around him do.”
Immerwahr said there was talk in Washington about Philippine independence, some of it driven not by idealism, but by well-connected stateside sugar producers.
“So the [sugar] beet growers in places like Colorado thought, ‘Wow, if the Philippines is independent, they’ll be a foreign country and they’ll face tariffs and we won’t have to compete.’ There was also a clear sense that war was brewing in the Pacific and the Philippines was going to be sort of a hard place to defend and if the Philippines was foreign and not domestic, there was no obligation to defend it whatever. Japan could take it if they wanted to. It wouldn’t be Washington’s problem.”
And then the war came and everything was different.
“No one is worried about Philippine sugar competing with beet sugar anymore because the Philippine economy is absolutely wrecked and the war has already happened, so no one is worried about the continued defense costs,” Immerwahr said. “Just the opposite, they actually want military bases there. Going back on the promise [of independence] is very difficult, because the United States is trying to position itself as a liberator in the third world and you can imagine high diplomatic discussions like, ‘what are the Chinese going to think if we don’t let the Philippines go as we said we were?’ And that is ultimately what gets the Philippines shoved out the door.”
In light of the history, what explains the generally warm feeling of Filipinos about Americans today?
“It was really interesting to me to talk to folks about what they remember about the U.S. colonial period and you’re right. There’s a lot of nostalgia for it from people who are not particularly fond of the United States in general, critics of U.S. foreign policy,” Immerwahr said. “It’s complicated and there’s also a lot of lingering resentment and [President Rodrigo] Duterte has gotten some play out of his defiance of the United States. With certain groups in the Philippines that sounds pretty good as well.”