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The Other 4th of July

America’s Independence Day has a fraught history in the Philippines.

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Let us pause for a moment our U.S. independence commemorations — which for most of us, in true American fashion, consist entirely of grilling meat and setting off lesser explosives — to mark the independence of a country on the other side of the world.

The United States declared independence from Britain on July 4, 1776. On July 4, 1946, 170 years later, 70 years ago Monday, the Philippines gained independence from the United States.

The American colonists who fought for separation from the British empire had always been British subjects, and were themselves in the process of subjugating North America’s original occupants, plus the victims of the Atlantic slave trade. Filipinos, at the turn of the 20th century, after centuries of Spanish colonial rule, were on the very verge of realizing their aspiration for self-rule, only to have it crushed by the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In the Philippines, a movement led by Emilio Aguinaldo declared independence from Spain on June 12, 1898, two months ahead of the August signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the four-month conflict. That document ceded the archipelago, along with Puerto Rico and Guam, to the United States. It also ended the Spanish dominion in Cuba and ushered in a new age of American imperial expansion.

Those pushing for an independent Philippines transitioned from fighting the Spanish to fighting the United States, a country that many Filipinos had hoped would help overthrow the Spanish — not replace them. (Much the same happened at the same time in Cuba.) William McKinley was U.S. president during the Spanish-American War, but Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded him as president in 1901, inherited both the Philippines and the conflict there. At least 200,000 Filipino civilians died during the Philippine–American War, as a result of violence, disease, or starvation. Although the conflict simmered on in some remote areas for another decade, the U.S. Army won lopsidedly. Roosevelt declared victory over the Filipino insurgents in 1902 — on July 4.

“That’s the irony,” Vicente L. Rafael, professor of history and Southeast Asian studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, told National Geographic on Friday. “The fourth of July is supposed to be a declaration of independence. But for Roosevelt in 1902, the fourth of July was a declaration of conquest.”

The bloody Philippines insurrection prompted plenty of soul searching in the United States. In 1900, Mark Twain told a reporter for the New York World:

I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess [in the Philippines]…. I thought we should act as their protector — not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now — why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.

At that time, Americans were just beginning to ask many of the same questions the country still struggles with today. Two years after Twain’s remarks, the Atlantic published an unsigned essay arguing that the Philippines should be free:

It is plain enough now that we are holding the Philippines by physical force only, and that the brave and unselfish men we have sent there have been assigned to a task which is not only repellent to Americans, but bitterly resented by the supposed beneficiaries of our action…. Lincoln put the whole moral of it, with homely finality, into his phrase about no man being good enough to govern another man without the other man’s consent…. The islands came to us partly through force of circumstances, partly through national vanity and thirst for power, but mainly through our ignorance. Now that we have learned what we were really bargaining for, it becomes possible to give over the burden to those to whom it belongs.

But by the 1930s, Philippine nationalists had wrested some important concessions from Washington. The archipelago, still a key piece in America’s Pacific strategy, was inching closer to independence: It became a U.S. commonwealth in 1935, with plans for full independence. Then the Second World War intervened. American and Filipino soldiers fought and died together in campaigns against the Japanese. Toward the end of the war, Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously “returned” to liberate the archipelago from Japanese occupation.

And a year later, on July 4, 1946, the United States finally followed through on years of promises and granted the Philippines independence — 40 years to the day after Teddy Roosevelt declared victory in the Philippine-American War. But in many ways, the archipelago continued to live under America’s shadow. The United States maintained important naval and air bases there until the early 1990s, for example.

The United States might have failed to recognized the irony in declaring freedom for the Philippines on July 4, but the Philippines didn’t. In 1962, President Diosdado Macapagal changed his country’s official independence day to June 12 — the day the Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898.

In the Philippines, July 4 is now designated “Philippine-American Friendship Day.” No one takes off work, and few celebrate.

Image credit: Phillipines Presidential Museum and Library/Flickr

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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