Philippine Commonwealth, 1935-1948

Revellers line the steps of the Legislative Building in Manila to witness the inauguration of the Philippine Commonwealth on 15th November, 1935. 

Written by Elliot Newbold.

Today, many commentators reach to the 1930s for parallels with the current international climate. After all, a harsh economic downturn has preceded a persistent and global trend towards an increasingly reactive nationalism. In both the Philippines and the United States, new leaders have sought to distance themselves from the established political order, whilst revaluating their nation’s strategic alliances. President Donald J. Trump’s election victory spoke directly to Depression-era isolationism, with its insistent rhetoric of “America first.” His reference to barring Filipinos for issues of security is reminiscent of the sort of exclusionary policies discussed by Americans during the Philippine independence debates of the 1930s. Across the Pacific, the equally controversial leader Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte has repeatedly made overtures towards lessening the Philippines’ reliance on the United States. As well as his conciliatory stance on the South China Sea dispute, his insistence on renewing relations with Russia and China suggests an attempt to lessen the islands’ traditional reliance on its former colonial overseer. Meanwhile, the popular discontent currently manifest in the Philippines (such as the ongoing Moro and communist insurgencies) form part of a wider historical pattern of popular resistance to national visions of independence. Although these tensions in the Philippine-American relationship are contemporary in nature, their historical relevance is particularly pertinent given the story of how the Philippines achieved its sovereignty.

On the 15th of November, 1935, the Philippines took its first steps towards independence by inaugurating the Philippine Commonwealth. Hailed as a unique moment in the history of colonialism, the creation of the Commonwealth was one of the first examples of a sovereign power peacefully relinquishing its authority over a dependent people. Under the watchful eye of Frank Murphy (the last American Governor General of the islands), the United States heralded a new form of colonialism; a benevolent, tutelary colonialism that promised to bring dependent peoples into the thrusts of modern civilization and, when deemed ready, allowed to enter the independent theatre of nations.

To the eyes of many observers, this was the narrative that shaped American perceptions of Philippine independence. In reality, however, the high-minded image that surrounded the Philippine Commonwealth was tainted by harsher political and economic exigencies. By 1935 the United States and, indeed, much of the world, was in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns in history. The Great Depression halted much of America’s economic capacity; the banking sector collapsed, industrial production floundered, and the South’s agricultural economy came to a standstill. Internationally, the worsening crisis spurred a consistent trend away from democracy. In 1930 alone, six Latin American states fell to military coups. In Europe, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires after World War I produced numerous new nations, many of whom quickly turned to authoritarianism over parliamentary democracy. Finally, in Asia, democratic gains in Japan began to come under increasing pressure, particularly after the fall of the Inukai cabinet in 1932. This volatile international situation directly interacted with the creation of the Philippine Commonwealth, creating what many observers began to call the “Philippine problem.”

The quandary of the Philippine Commonwealth cut to the core of American perceptions of empire in the Philippines. Since 1898 and the American acquisition of the archipelago in the Spanish-American War, US policymakers had talked of a high-minded colonialism that would  afford the Philippines its independence. This historical obligation was at the forefront of American policy in the islands. However, the movement for independence began to make headway at an incredibly inopportune time for the United States. Domestically, the Depression curtailed America’s economic advancement. Whilst internationally, the move towards authoritarianism paralleled the deepening economic crisis. Sent to the Philippines at a time of great social, political, and economic upheaval, the last Governor General of the islands, Frank Murphy, worked hard to allay the economic and geopolitical anxieties that surrounded the creation of the Philippine Commonwealth. By no means an obvious choice for a colonial proconsul, Murphy inherited the position as a reward for his faithful service to Franklin D. Roosevelt during his 1932 presidential campaign. A native of Michigan, Murphy’s ascendancy into the FDR administration began in Detroit, where he served as the first Depression-era mayor of the city. His response to the desperate conditions brought on by the Depression made Murphy one of the first New Dealers to come to national prominence. Executive intervention in issues of public ownership, social welfare, and unemployment helped crystallise Murphy’s philosophy as an industrial New Dealer focused on alleviating the conditions of the urban poor.

At this point, you may be wondering what it is about Frank Murphy that makes his time in the Philippines worthy of such specific study? The answer lies not only in the pivotal timing of his tenure (Murphy served during the transition from colony to Commonwealth), but also in the way his career in the islands help illustrate the ways the Depression and New Deal informed American perceptions of its empire. The challenges Murphy faced as Governor General were indicative of the challenges FDR faced during the inter-war years. Domestically, the Depression challenged the viability of capitalism as a globally ordained economic system, whilst internationally the deterioration in democracy ran in tandem with alternative suggestions for political organisation. In the Philippines, an increasingly restive local population began to erupt in discontent. The largest revolt since American pacification of the islands began under Murphy’s watch, and the message of Pan-Asianism that accompanied the Sakdalistas’ uprising directly coalesced with an increasingly assertive nationalism across the continent.

Murphy worked hard to implement his vision of the New Deal in the Philippines, often to the detriment of the islands’ development. His emphasis on industrial labour, whilst effective in Detroit, did little to alleviate the desperate condition of the Filipino farmer. His popularity with the Filipino elite helped forge an ongoing alliance between the United States and the wealthy illustrado class of Filipinos who had ruled the islands since the days of the Spanish. Murphy posited a vision of Philippine independence that lent heavily on his experience as a New Deal Democrat. Having pioneered his philosophy as Mayor of Detroit, Murphy worked to transplant his intellectual rationale of the New Deal and apply it to Philippine society. Although effective in co-opting the support of the Filipino elite, alternative understandings of independence began to come to fruition during his tenure. In particular, the aforementioned Sakdalista movement. This disparity in local and elite understandings of independence produced a dichotomised nationalism in the Philippines. One the one hand were figures from the illustrado class, actors for whom cooperation with the American regime was directly beneficial. On the other were groups such as the Sakdalistas, people who had failed to see the fruits of American colonialism trickle down into their communities. The resulting tension created alternative visions of the Philippine Commonwealth that played on both the local understanding of the archipelago’s development and the United States’ interpretive vision of the Philippines.

Although separated by over eighty years, the story of the Philippine Commonwealth still holds resonance today as a wistful reminder of the paradoxical relationship between the Philippines and the United States. In many ways, the current pivot we are witnessing in the Philippine-American relationship resembles the battles for independence fought during the 1930s and 1940s. The last time such battles were fought, they inexorably fell in the United States’ favour. The question remains as to whether history will repeat itself again.

Elliot Newbold is a postgraduate researcher in the University of Nottingham’s American & Canadian Studies Department. His thesis, tentatively titled ‘At the End of Empire: Frank Murphy, Paul V. McNutt, and the United States’ Decolonization of the Philippines, 1933-1947’, maps US attitudes to Philippine independence through a comparative intellectual biography of Murphy and McNutt, two US administrators who played critical roles in America’s decolonization of the Philippines. His research is funded through the Midlands 3Cities Doctoral Preparation Scholarship as well as the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies (IAPS) Tomlinson Scholarship. He also works as an editor at IAPS Dialogue, a platform for discussion on the Asia and Pacific region run through the School of Politics & international Relations at the University of Nottingham, where he often contributes articles on the Philippines and the United States. He tweets @enewbold1992. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue series on America in the ‘Asian Century’, a symposium joint-funded by the Department of American & Canadian Studies, and the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. All images belong to the author unless otherwise stated. 

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