U.S. Occupation of the Philippines

U.S. Occupation of the Philippines
U.S. Occupation of the Philippines - 1898

In 1898 the United States acquired the Philippines as a result of the Spanish-American War, undertook a mission to prepare the Philippines for independence shortly thereafter, and succeeded in that task after World War II. Since then, the United States has had a "special relationship" with the Philippines, marked generally by warm relations and close economic, political, and social ties.

The Philippine–United States War decided whether that country would gain its independence immediately, as some Filipinos asserted, or would gain its independence gradually through reform and nation building, as the U.S. government under President William McKinley and his successors argued.

Throughout the periods of U.S. rule, World War II, and the independence of the Philippines, the two countries remained allies and had close bilateral relations, particularly in the areas of economic development of the Philippines, spreading democracy, expanding free trade, and combating international and regional terrorism.


The facts that the United States remains the largest trading partner of the Philippines and that Filipinos are one of the largest Asian ethnic groups in the United States have fostered further ties.

The social and political forces that compelled the United States to enter the Pacific world and the Philippines in particular stemmed from a variety of American interests: the popular compulsion to spread American culture, the desire to expand and to develop commercial relations, the economic goal of gaining access to raw materials and markets, and strategic objectives to increase national security.

The outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 placed the United States on a direct path toward major involvement in the Philippines. Aroused by allegations of Spanish aggression in its colony of Cuba, the disruption of U.S. trade with Cuba, and the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Bay, the United States went to war with Spain and conducted military operations in both the Caribbean and the Pacific theaters.

American soldiers on Panay Island 1899
American soldiers on Panay Island 1899

In order to negate the sea power of the Spanish fleet, Commodore George Dewey engaged the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and decisively defeated them. Following victories in the Caribbean over Spain and the arrival of 8,500 American troops in the Philippines, the Spanish authorities in the Philippines surrendered. On August 13 the U.S. flag flew triumphantly over Manila.

The Treaty of Paris, signed by representatives of the United States and Spain on December 10, 1898, effectively ended the fighting between these two nations but left the question of rulership of the Philippines in some dispute.

By the terms of the treaty, the United States gained possession of the Philippines as well as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other island holdings in exchange for a payment of $20 million to Spain. Shortly after the acquisition of the Philippines by the United States, Filipino insurgents resisted the transfer of authority to the United States and claimed that the Philippines should immediately become independent.

Emilio Aguinaldo, a patriotic and energetic revolutionary who had led his forces against Spain both before and during the Spanish-American War, turned his military prowess against the American occupiers and conducted a guerrilla war that used the dense jungles and difficult terrain against the American military.

Although the U.S. military was not prepared to fight against guerrilla tactics, U.S. forces prevailed against the rebels, captured Aguinaldo, gained his allegiance, and effectively won the support of many Filipinos.

The United States, acting on information gained from the First Philippine Commission appointed by President McKinley in 1899, adopted a policy of "tutelage," which aimed at preparing the Philippines for independence. In July 1901 the Philippine Constabulary was established as a countrywide police force for the purpose of maintaining order and suppressing the remaining rebel activities.

The Second Philippine Commission, headed by William Taft, implemented broad economic, social, and political programs that expanded economic development and opportunity, free public education, and political representation of the Filipino people.

Despite the successes, major obstacles to reform remained apparent, evidenced in the reluctance of the ilustrados, the wealthy aristocrats, who obstructed or reluctantly granted concessions to the lower classes. The emergence of a multiparty system and the indigenous political leadership of Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmena indicated the growing independence of the Philippines.

In 1913, the U.S. Congress passed the Underwood Tariff Act, which removed all trade restrictions on Philippine goods, an act that provided valuable markets for the Philippines but also allowed a high degree of economic dependency.

The Tydings-McDuffie Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1934, established the Philippines as a commonwealth with a constitution, an autonomous political system, and most importantly a 10-year period during which the Philippines would make the transition to independence.

The agreement was approved by the Philippine legislature, even though it allowed the United States considerable authority in matters pertaining to foreign policy, immigration, foreign trade, and currency regulation.

On December 8, 1941, the Japanese army invaded the Philippines and disrupted the transitory period. General Douglas MacArthur led American and Philippine military forces. MacArthur fell back to the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor to take a defensive position against the advancing Japanese army, which outnumbered MacArthur's troops.

The defeat of his troops in April and May 1942 allowed the Japanese to force the 80,000 prisoners of war taken at Bataan to march to a prison camp 105 kilometers to the north. This death march caused approximately 10,000 fatalities as prisoners faced abuses, malnutrition, disease, and the harsh tropical climate. MacArthur, under orders from U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, evacuated to Australia, vowing to return again to the Philippines. On October 20, 1944,

MacArthur led his forces back to the Philippines, landing at the island of Leyte. Fierce fighting followed that eventually led to the capitulation of Japanese forces after defeats in Northern Luzon and a last-ditch effort to defend the city of Manila.

After World War II the U.S. government faced the difficult task of aiding the Philippines in its recovery from the war. Despite contention regarding the issue of collaboration with the Japanese and political amnesty, on July 4, 1946, the Philippines became independent, and Manuel Roxas emerged as the first president of that republic.

During the early years of the cold war, the period of renewed tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Philippines proved to be a valuable ally of the United States. Manila signed the Military Bases Agreement in 1947 and thereby granted to U.S. naval and air forces base rights to 23 bases including Clark Air Base and naval facilities at Subic Bay.

In addition to allowing U.S. access to bases, the Philippines played an active role in the containment of communism, both in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia. In 1954 the government of the Philippines joined the South East Asia Treaty Organization, a collective security arrangement led by the United States to secure democracies in the region and to contain the expansion of the communist movement.

Philippine president Ramon Magsaysay won the praise of many Americans for his bold leadership, economic reforms, and effective anticommunist policies, which subdued the Huks—a Marxist-Leninist organization that revolted against the government of Manila and demanded collectivization of farms.

The post–cold war era brought new challenges and new opportunities for partnership in U.S.Philippine relations. The United States and the Philippines worked together to fight terrorism, expand global trade, and develop regional trade organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The U.S. Congress has taken a keen interest in the stability of the Philippines for its own good, its role as a regional ally, and its regional influence on developing democracies such as Indonesia.