The Nativist Origins of Philippines Independence

tags: Philippines, Independence, Tydings-McDuffie Act



Richard Baldoz is an assistant professor of sociology at Oberlin College and the author of the award-winning book The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America, 1898-1946.

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which established conditions for the United States to grant the Philippines its independence after nearly five decades of American rule. The circumstances surrounding the passage of this historic legislation serve as a reminder of our nation's lamentable experiment with overseas empire-building and a reckoning with this imperial past help us to understand one of the most visible legacies of this complicated relationship, the large number of Filipinos currently living in the United States. 

The act often was hailed as evidence of the benevolent character of the American imperial project, which was motivated by the desire to "uplift and civilize" the native population who had suffered under more than three centuries of Spanish domination. The US annexed the Philippines in 1899 in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, despite objections from Filipino leaders who already had formed an independent government. American statesmen, however, declared Filipinos unfit for self-rule. Only after a protracted period of intensive colonial tutelage would Filipinos be allowed to run their own affairs. Adding insult to injury, American officials argued (without irony) that the US was duty-bound to take possession of the islands to protect them from the nefarious designs of self-serving foreign powers. 

The eventual withdrawal of US sovereignty over the Philippines was far from a foregone conclusion that vindicated the American way of empire, and the origins of the Tydings-McDuffie Act offer a far more complex story involving racial animus, economic competition and the entanglement of domestic and foreign policy objectives.   

Filipinos, as American colonial subjects, were exempted from restrictive laws that barred immigration from Asia countries. The exponential growth of the agribusiness sector in Hawaii and the West Coast during the early 20th century spurred a large demand for cheap, flexible labor. Agribusiness concerns actively recruited Filipinos to do field and cannery work previously carried out by Chinese and Japanese immigrants.  

Filipino immigration to the United States during the early decades of the 20th century generated significant controversy, especially on the West Coast, where their arrival was characterized as the "third Asiatic invasion" (following on the heels of the Chinese and Japanese "invasions"). Following the popular cultural script of the period, the newcomers were accused of stealing jobs from white citizens, spreading disease and displaying a propensity for criminality. The fact that the first wave of Filipino immigrants was made up overwhelmingly of young male laborers without traditional family moorings was viewed as a budding social problem.   

Beginning in the late 1920s, the powerful West Coast nativist lobby pressed federal officials to enact legislation barring the entry of Filipinos. These efforts failed to make headway in Congress, with many lawmakers expressing concern about the diplomatic fallout that might result from excluding Filipino immigrants while they lived under the American flag. Key Congressional leaders worried that such a course of action would violate international norms followed by other imperial powers allowing colonial subjects unimpeded access to the "mother country."  

The failure of the federal government to take action compelled nativist leaders to ratchet up their campaign, hoping to galvanize greater public support for exclusion. Alarmist rhetoric accusing Filipino immigrants of brazenly defying the color line by pursuing social relationships with white women attracted significant media attention. Filipinos, moreover, were charged with exhibiting a penchant for labor militancy that threatened to upend the traditional balance of power between agribusiness and immigrant workers.  



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