From Global to National: Linking American Imperialism to Philippine Colonial History

Jomer Malonosan
9 min readJun 7, 2022
From the CSUN University Library

The US colonial period was a time of significant social, economic, and political reforms that ranged from governance, education, public health, and gender equality in the country[1]. This critical juncture in the colonial history of the Philippines left an indelible mark on the national identity of Filipinos that remains up until today. Hence, it is necessary to assess this period in history to have a full understanding of contemporary Philippine society.

However, to fully understand the American colonial era in the Philippines, we must contextualize our national history in broader global historical forces. Reconciling the global with the national allows us to understand the continuity of events that result to specific historical outcomes. Therefore, this essay will focus on three salient themes that will establish the relationship of American imperialism with Philippine colonial history: (1) factors that motivated the US to occupy the Philippines, (2) relating Manifest Destiny and White Man’s Burden to the American Empire, and (3) challenges to Filipino resistance against the US colonial regime.

Factors that Motivated US Occupation in the Philippines

The motivating factors that compelled the US to pursue its conquest in the Philippines are multidimensional[2]. A confluence of capitalism, racism, evangelicalism, and interstate rivalry urged the emerging global superpower to expand its influence and territory. Hence, this paper identifies these factors into four distinct aspects: economic, geopolitical, religious, and racial. First, as a rapidly industrializing country, the US had to seek new markets that would consume the overproduction of its goods that resulted to the economic recession of the country[3]. Moreover, the US had to secure a steady supply of raw resources that were necessary for the production of its commodities[4]. As a consequence of these economic requisites, the Philippines was a strategic colony that would allow the US to penetrate Asian markets and serve as an invaluable source of raw materials such as sugar and tobacco[5]. As what Lenin has said in his book[6], imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism that requires imperialist countries to expand its territory and power to maximize profits. In the case of the US, there is truth to the analysis of Lenin between the inextricable relationship of imperialism and capitalism.

On the other hand, the balance of power between powerful states was a major driving force that convinced the US to transcend its borders. Major imperial powers such as Britain and France were continually expanding their power by conquering subordinate countries[7]. This phenomenon is most vividly illustrated through the “scramble for Africa” where Western European powers conquered, annexed, and colonized territories in the African continent. In order for the US to keep up with this geopolitical trend, it also had to secure its share of colonies in the world to ensure the country’s ascent to power. Moreover, the decline of Spain presented a power vacuum in international relations. This became an attractive prospect for the US that allowed them to replace the role of Spain in global affairs[8]. Thus, the Philippines became a critical asset to establish US military bases and markets in the Pacific region.

Relating Manifest Destiny and White Man’s Burden to the American Empire

Aside from economic and geopolitical factors, religion and racism played a pivotal role in justifying US expansionism. For the case of religion, the concept of manifest destiny encapsulated the evangelical underpinnings that accompanied US imperialism. Manifest destiny was the belief that the US was “ordained by God” to expand its territories and benevolently conquer backward and inferior races[9]. Such sentiments of divine providence were present in major literary works such as “The Law of Civilization and Decay” by Brook Adams and “The Frontier in American History” by Frederick Turner that explicitly endorsed the imperial undertaking of America through the will of God.

In addition to religion, racialist theories also informed the imperialist agenda of the US. During the 1900’s, scholarship on Social Darwinism gained popularity and legitimacy in academic discourse and were actively promoted by professors in Ivy League universities. Most of these theories postulated that the Anglo-Saxon race was the pinnacle of human evolution. For this reason, they must subjugate other inferior races to survive and civilize backward societies such as the Filipinos in Asia[10]. These racist undertones of the US Empire are most succinctly captured by the concept of white man’s burden. Originally from Rudyard Kipling’s (1899) poem “The White Man’s Burden”, the concept meant to signify that the Anglo-Saxon race was morally obliged to bring democracy and civilization to other peoples of the Earth through colonialism[11]. This notion effectively legitimized the violence of colonialism in the Global South under the pretext of development that can only be brought by Western colonizers. In the Philippines, this fostered a sense of colonial mentality where natives were taught to adulate their white colonizers and uncritically reject anything local and native.

Challenges to Filipino Resistance

Due to fortuitous events that transpired at a global scale, these consequently had a significant impact in shaping the trajectory of Philippine history. Shortly after the transient independence of the country from Spain, the Americans immediately supplanted the Spanish colonizers. Under the guise of democracy, the Philippines was colonized by the US and revolutionary forces were immediately quelled to impose American rule. For these reasons, it is essential to recognize the challenges that prevented Filipinos from attaining genuine independence. Literature suggests that a diverse range of obstacles impeded the revolution during the American colonial era[12, 13]. However, for the interest of this paper, it will identify three reasons: (1) superior warfare technology of the US, (2) factionalism among revolutionaries, (3) Filipino elite collaboration with the colonizers.

One of the most obvious reasons that rendered the Filipinos at a disadvantage is the superior firepower of the Americans. Despite the bravery of Filipino troops, they were not at par with the sophisticated technologies of war that the US utilized[14]. The battle between Filipinos were basically described as “one-sided” because Filipino bodies piled into tall stacks and were even used as breastwork by the American troops. Nonetheless, Filipinos were able to compensate for their lack of weapons through guerrilla warfare that took advantage of the Philippine terrain[15]. This proved to be challenging for the Americans that were not acquainted with the features of Philippine soil.

Another formidable challenge to the revolution was the factionalism that occurred among the revolutionaries[16]. Internal divisions within the revolutionary movement adversely attenuated the solidarity of Filipino troops. Ever since the schisms between the Magdalo and Magdiwang factions of the Katipunan, numerous groups competed for control. Consequently, these organizational cleavages led to a lack of centralized authority to effectively sustain the revolution under the US colonial regime.

Finally, class interests among the Filipino ilustrados prevailed in the face of the American threat[17]. Just like how the maharlika class during the advent of Spanish colonialism was coopted, the ilustrados easily forfeited their loyalty to the revolution and pledged allegiance to the new colonizers. The ascendancy of landed and commercial classes among the revolutionary forces encouraged the “conciliatory” attitude of Aguinaldo towards the Americans. For example, former members of the Malolos Republic such as T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Cayetano Arellano, Gregorio Araneta, and Benito Legarda became active sympathizers and supporters of the American colonial regime[18]. Upon knowing the prospect of the revolution’s futile success, they were quick to relinquish their ties to the newly established Philippine Republic in exchange of having government positions in the Philippine Commission created by the Americans.

Conclusions

The American colonial period is a crucial aspect to understand the nuances of Philippine history. However, it is necessary to contextualize national history in broader global historical forces to have a more holistic perspective of historical events. Thus, the rise of the US as a global superpower that was motivated by economic, religious, racial, and geopolitical factors provides a better grasp of events that led to the colonization of the Philippines. Concepts such as manifest destiny and white man’s burden became popular reasons to legitimize colonial violence in the country. Moreover, internal challenges to the revolution such as factionalism, elite collaboration, and the superior fire arms of the US made it more difficult for the Filipinos to resist the occupation of the American Empire. By understanding these different aspects of US imperialism, the colonial history of the Philippines comes into better light.

This paper was written in partial fulfillment of History 112 (Colonial History II) course at the University of the Philippines — Visayas

1 Julian Go and Anne L. Foster. The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives. Manila: Anvil, 2005.

2 George Brown Tindall, and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013.

3 Usha Mahajani. “American Neo-Colonialism in the Philippines.” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 6, no. 4 (1974): 62–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/14672715.1974.10413011.

4 Alfred W. MacCoy, and Francisco Antonio Scarano. Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2010.

5 Alden Cutshall. “Reconstruction of Philippine Agriculture.” Economic Geography 23, no. 4 (1947): 308. https://doi.org/10.2307/141788.

6 Vladimir Ilʹich Lenin. Imperialism: Highest Stage of Capitalism. Pluto, 1995.

7 M.C. van Zyl,. “Scramble for Africa.” Kleio 3, no. 1 (1971): 53–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/00232087185310071.

8 Joseph Smith. “The Spanish‐American War: Land Battles in Cuba, 1895–1898.” Journal of Strategic Studies 19, no. 4 (1996): 37–58. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402399608437651.

9 Rodney P. Carlisle, and J. Geoffrey Golson. Manifest Destiny and the Expansion of America. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

10 Richard Hofstadter. Social Darwinism in American Thought: 1860–1915. New York: G. Braziller, 1969.

11 Gretchen Murphy. Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

12 Daniel B. Schirmer, and Stephen Rosskamm Shalom. The Philippines Reader. Quezon City, Philippines?: KEN Inc.?, 1989.

13 Renato Constantino, and Letizia R. Constantino. A History of the Philippines: From the Spanish Colonization to the Second World War. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008.

14 Angel Velasco Shaw, and Luis Francia. Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899–1999. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

15 John M. Gates “Philippine Guerrillas, American Anti-Imperialists, and the Election of 1900.” Pacific Historical Review 46, no. 1 (1977): 51–64. https://doi.org/10.2307/3637402.

16 Teodoro Agoncillo. History of the Filipino People. Quezon City: C & E Pub., 2012.

17 Renato Constantino. The Philippines: A Past Revisited. Manila, Philippines, 1984.

18 Renato Constatino and Letizia R. Constantino. A History of the Philippines: From the Spanish Colonization to the Second World War. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008.

Bibliography

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Murphy, Gretchen. Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

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Shaw, Angel Velasco, and Luis Francia. Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899–1999. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Smith, Joseph. “The Spanish‐American War: Land Battles in Cuba, 1895–1898.” Journal of Strategic Studies 19, no. 4 (1996): 37–58. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402399608437651.

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van Zyl, M.C. “Scramble for Africa.” Kleio 3, no. 1 (1971): 53–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/00232087185310071.

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