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Assessing US-PH special relations: A review of Stanley Karnow’s In Our Image

Updated on May 30, 2016

Since winning the fight for its independence in 1776, the United States has steadily grown as a state and is now said to be the most powerful nation in the world. The unicameral power has continuously risen as an influential empire with a significant hold in every region of the world. One of these strongholds in Asia-Pacific is the Philippines. After almost a century of direct and indirect control over the archipelagic nation, the United States has established a unique relationship with the Philippines – what many political analysts term as ‘special relations’. To understand this so-called “special relationship” between the United States and the Philippines, it is imperative to look at their histories, both the individual history of each and the history of their interaction.

Before the Americans arrived at the Philippines, the independence movement led by the Katipunan was already gaining ground. Its forces battled with Spanish troops at different areas of the archipelago, winning in some but losing in others. After the failed attempt to take over the walled city, Intramuros, which was the center of the Spanish colonial government’s affairs, the Katipunan established a revolutionary government in Cavite. It reached a legitimate status insofar as acceptance by the people was concerned; elections were held and Emilio Aguinaldo was to be the first president of the Republic of the Philippines.

All this happened while Spain was in a war with the Americans as the latter extended its help to the Cuban people’s movement. At first, the US sought to assist in liberating Cuba from Spanish oppression. That was the reason they presented to the world, that they would only be fulfilling their mandate of helping countries governed by oppressive regimes by overthrowing the tyrannical rulers and installing their own model of democracy, a concept that would later be known as “manifest destiny”.

For Karnow, the Spanish-American war was a rite of passage to the US to be on the same rank as the world powers composed mainly of European empires. According to him, although Cuban liberation started as a virtuous move in the part of the US, an “inexorable momentum” drove the US to act upon the Spanish oppression in the Philippines. It succeeded in gaining control of the colonized country after Spain lost in the war and “sold” the Philippines to the US. Unfortunately, the Americans met staunch opposition from Filipinos who did not agree to be freed from the Spaniards only to be handed over to a different oppressor.

Taking a confused turn, what started as an attempt to spread the ideals of democracy by ousting the oppressor became an effort to end the Filipino independence movement. The Philippine-American war which first erupted on February 4, 1899 and continued for four years was no different from the Philippine Revolution of 1986 in the sense that both were between colonizers who aimed to oppress the peoples and the oppressed who wanted to defend their independence. Although then-US President McKinley issued a policy of “benevolent assimilation”, this was not believed by Filipinos who were certain that the US only wanted to colonize the Philippines like the Spaniards did. After the war ended, the US officially colonized the Philippines, but the resistance movement continued.

The most consequential contribution of the US to the Philippines was not the (elite) democracy that they incessantly champion, it was none other than the educational system. Starting with the first American teachers who set foot in the country, known as Thomasites, the US has systematically hacked the educational foundations of our thought as a people. If the Spaniards had religion at their side, the Americans had education. While the Spaniards, after 3 centuries of continuous rule, failed to instill their superiority by subjugating the Filipino people, the Americans were able to accomplish it in only half a century of formal rule. Education is a powerful tool that can work for the betterment of the people as a whole. However, if it's used by the wrong hands, it can have negative, and even dire, consequences.

Once education is controlled, it is easy to manipulate all other facets of the Filipino society. In schools, we are thought that Americans came to save us from our Spanish oppressors and that we owe our independence to them. Nevertheless, they presented an air of friendliness; they showcased themselves as a people of higher footing who were willing to bring themselves to the level of those who needed help. This is in stark contrast to the Spaniards' strategy of making the Filipinos feel inferior and preserving the elevated throne to themselves.

Although it is mostly restrictive in terms of socio-economic status, one good thing about the education system brought by the Americans is that it was relatively easier to encounter counterculture and dissenting ideas. The educated classes thus found themselves wanting other forms of representation or involvement in the government; they wanted to get what was due to them. In answer, the US installed the system of elite democracy which essentiallly means that the "government by the people" mostly contained members of the ruling class. The Americans created the different structures of government and appointed Filipino men who were loyal to them to the top positions. Moreover, since the government was controlled by the elite, it functioned mainly for the benefit of the elite, i.e. maintaining their wealth and position of power. The interests of the toiling masses were hence disregarded in the name of profit.

Decisions concerned with the economy were made with the interests of big companies in mind. Big local companies were not the only ones in control. They were augmented by foreign/transnational companies in exchange for limitless entry into the country. We also became a dumpsite of unsold goods, importing even the most basic industrial necessities (such as nails) because we had no local manufacturer of such.

Considering the territorial position of the Philippines, the US used it in various occassions to gain a military stronghold in the Asia-Pacific. The book was written before the Philippine Senate junked the Military Bases Agreement in 1991. Had he written it a few years later, the end result of the book might be different. For instance, he might have acknowledged that while the US and the Philippines indeed had a lopsided special relationship in favor of the former, the Filipinos have sufficient power to end the unfair relation if they worked together.

Stanley Karnow was an American historian and journalist who spent decades reporting about Asian affairs. Being a journalist, it was evident how much effort he put in ensuring that his book, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, would be objective and not be considered bias to a particular group of people. Considering this, it was difficult to disagree with his statements as he projected facts and grounded insights, not baseless opinions.

I agree with most of his statements and positions as well the main thesis of the paper. The special relationship of the US and the Philippines goes back to a long individual and shared history. The US may have had genuine intentions to help in the beginning, however, that doesn't matter anymore because that isn't what we see now.

If the world functioned to “what should be”, the US should definitely let go of its special ties with the Philippines. However, considering that the US has its own interests in keeping the current status quo, it is almost matter-of-fact to assume that it will not change the current relationship as long as it reaps benefits from it.


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