On the eve of the 50th anniversary of his father’s brutal declaration of martial law, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., arrived in New York for the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly. As he and President Biden discussed strategy in the South China Sea, a contempt of court order against the younger Marcos — ruling that his family must pay $2 billion to survivors of his father’s 14 years of unilateral rule under martial law — remains unenforced. And as he delivered an invited address to the New York branch of the Asia Society, activists and victims of the elder Marcos regime’s human rights abuses are fighting the historical revisionism that led to the family’s resurgence into national politics.
A friendship and shared history between the two nations has often been the official framing of this binational relationship. On Aug. 5, ahead of the State Department’s official visit to the Philippines, it described the partnership as one between “friends, partners, and allies,” on the basis of “people-to-people” ties, exemplified by the large Filipino community in the United States. But such euphemisms have effectively covered up the brutal realities of what this relationship was founded upon: the colonization of the archipelago by the United States. This erasure continues to shape silences in the relationship, impeding fights for justice and redress across the Pacific.
In 1896, after more than 330 years of colonization by Spain, native people in the archipelago took up arms against their colonial rulers in what became known as the Philippine Revolution. In 1898, taking advantage of the rapid decline of the Spanish Empire, the United States offered military assistance to revolutionaries in Cuba and the Philippines, with promises to insurgents that it, an expanding world power, would recognize native-led independence movements.
This series of interventions led to the Spanish-American War between April 21 and Aug. 13, 1898, and the decisive American military victory that followed. However, instead of recognizing the newly-declared First Philippine Republic, the United States purchased Spain’s former island colonies in the Treaty of Paris for a total of $20 million. After this betrayal of trust, the leaders of the republic declared war against the United States, their former ally.
What followed was brutality that remains largely erased from American historical memory. During the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), an estimated 20,000 Filipino soldiers and 200,000 to 1 million civilians died before the United States declared the conflict over. Even then, from 1902 to the mid-1910s, revolutionary movements proliferated against the new occupying power. As historians have argued, the Philippine-American War may very well not have ended in 1902, but rather took on a new name: counterinsurgency.
In 1934, amid a wave of anti-Filipino racism on the U.S. West Coast, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which capped migration from the Philippines into the continental United States at 50 people a year, even though the country was under U.S. rule.