Is the Philippines Exhibit 1 of American exceptionalism?

Buddy Gomez — Cyberbuddy

Posted at Oct 31 2020 02:37 AM | Updated as of Oct 31 2020 12:38 PM

Last of a series on Filipino American History Month

In pursuit of the wishful argument that because the Philippines is indeed an integral part of the American story, a more insightful mention and citation of the Philippines and its ethnic diaspora now actively embedded in American society is reasonably called for as part of US History studies. A little more substance than the scant space presently available in textbooks, perhaps.

I approach “American Exceptionalism” not as political ideology. Having been born a colonial, I approach the concept more as a platform from which to better appreciate a past that can no longer be altered. However, a better understanding of the past can indeed dilute, strengthen, and/or revise attitudes towards it.

Now, to end our October’s Filipino American History Month series.

America’s “Exceptionalism” was initially a European critique of the USA’s claim and self-image of being “different” from older colonial powers, all Europeans.

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America engaged in an untried ideology. It became uniquely American, based upon liberty, equality before the law, representative democracy, individual responsibility and free enterprise economics; and expressed by Abraham Lincoln as “a government of the people, by the people, for the people…”

Inevitably, America developed a sense of superiority over other nations, undertaking “a unique mission to transform the world.”

I would like to believe that towards the end of the 19th century, the leading American expansionists’ guiding philosophy — “……a moral duty to expand in order that its power for good --- its ideas, its civilization, its culture, its religion should be spread, not for selfish aggrandizement but for the benefit of the more backward nations…..” — found substance, in being “different” from every nation that had until then engaged in colonial adventurism, when the United States acquired the Philippine Islands.

By American performance and policy, the Philippine experience possessed evidentiary elements qualifying the era as “Exhibit 1” of “American Exceptionalism.”

No other immigrant group in the US has ever been American nationals in their historical past as a nation. That is because the Philippines is the only colony she ever acquired, administered, cared for and nurtured towards political independence. Filipinos ceased being US ‘nationals’ from the moment the Philippine Commonwealth (of the US) was inaugurated in November 15, 1935, as a prelude to committed independence.

Warts and all, as all nations are heirs to imperfections, to mean both harsh and benign missteps and errors in governance notwithstanding, the American colonial performance in the Philippines profoundly captivated most Filipinos exposed to Americans and “Americanization.”

Until America came along, “Benevolent Assimilation” as a policy of attraction has never been a colonizing endeavor by any of the more advanced powers in the governance of territorial acquisitions.

In declaring the “altruistic mission” of acquiring the Philippines, Pres. William McKinley stated on Dec.21, 1898 that the US has “come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employment, and in their personal and religious rights….. to win the confidence, respect and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines by assuring them in every possible way that full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of free peoples, and by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.”

Designed to win over key elites and other Filipinos, the mission initiated self-government, introduced social reforms, and implemented plans for economic development.

There are many salient events that provide credibility in assessing early American occupation of the Philippines. Here are some instances.

In January 1899, Pres. McKinley created and sent forth the First Philippine Commission, a five-man group headed by Dr. Jacob Schurman (President of Cornell University) to the Philippines to study the country and make recommendations on how to proceed exercising sovereignty. (4-Volume Report of the Philippine Commission) As a result of this mission, a new civil government structure was commenced, notably a judicial system revived and reorganized. Highly exemplary was naming a Filipino as the very first Chief Justice of an American territory!

In a matter of weeks from the defeat of Spain in May of 1898, American soldiers were opening up schools, becoming its very first teachers! And this was happening while soldiers were urging the various townships’ principals to set up among themselves local governance. A spectacular paradigm change, the American ‘difference!’

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And just as soon as civil government was installed, in came young men and women recruited by the US government from practically all over the US, assigned all over the Philippines to teach. About 2,000 served throughout but never over a 1,000 at any one time. History refers to them as “the Thomasites,” after the ship that brought them over. They laid the foundations of the country’s public school system. The impact of the “Thomasites” upon Filipino-American relations is profound and worthy of scholarly study. Both Filipino and American students ought to know of this particular colonial initiative. (“The Thomasites” influenced the creation of the US “Peace Corps.”)

In 1903 came the monumental first modern census in the country. The US mandated the very first simultaneous nationwide gathering of selected citizens. That was to prepare for and participate in the national headcount. The endeavor produced a 4-volume compendium of data and all else about the Philippines.

The Schurman Commission, the advent of the “Thomasites” and the Philippine Census of 1903, all happening within the first five years of American occupation are indispensable components of “Exhibit 1.” As an upstart colonial power, the US proved different! Exceptional!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tomas 'Buddy' Gomez III began his professional media career in ABS-CBN's (previously Chronicle Broadcasting Network) DZQL-Radio Reloj in 1957, after which he spent 25 years with the Ayala Group.

In 1986, the then Pres. Cory Aquino appointed him Consul General to Hawaii and later served as her Press Secretary.

During the Ramos administration, he was chairman and president of state-owned IBC-13 Network.

After government service, he became an ‘OFW’ in the U.S., working as front-desk clerk and then assistant general manager of a hotel. He also worked as a furniture and antique restoration specialist.

He is now retired and lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.