Little Brown Brothers: A Look into the History of Filipino-American Friendship

ILLUSTRATOR Roland Mae Tanglao

The Philippine flag was first raised on June 12, 1898, in Kawit, Cavite, but it didn't take long for the flag to be replaced by the Stars and Stripes. The Spanish colonizer was overthrown, yet replaced by the Americans. The Philippine flag rose again on its own on July 4, 1946, by virtue of the Tydings-McDuffie Act. The country grew out of its colonial past, but not into the independence Filipinos had hoped for.

American-Sponsored Freedom

Perhaps the biggest lie fed to Filipinos was that of benevolent assimilation, the U.S.' pretext for overstaying its welcome in the country. In truth, benevolent assimilation was anything but benevolent with thousands dead by the end of the war. 

Its reason for staying was nowhere near benevolent either: America was a growing power and needed the resources in the Philippines to maintain its position. That much was clear when McKinley demanded the country from Spain during the Treaty of Paris, and it was clear that when George Dewey negotiated with Aguinaldo, it wasn’t to “aid our revolution” but to expand the American Empire.


And “empire” is the apt term to describe the United States. Though not as grand as the British or the Spanish Empires, the U.S. extended its reach far beyond its borders. It did so to keep the engines of capitalism running, and it did so through conquest, and later, by taking over culture and government.

The Philippines was its prime example. It held total control of the colony up until its last days under the American eagle; by then, direct rule had no point. The Americans engineered an entire generation of Filipinos in their own image as their “little brown brothers.” 

There were school children who grew up in Americanized public schools, pensionados who studied abroad to fully consume American imperialist glory, big bourgeoisie businessmen and feudal landlords who depended on the colonial government, and politicians who owed their careers to the “Filipinized” Commonwealth. All of them shaped the nation, and most important, all of them followed the United States.

We could say the American sponsorship of our independence was the culmination of its efforts in the archipelago. Its domination was total, from introducing business ventures and transforming the hacienda system, to tearing apart the old government and creating a new one, to manufacturing “Filipino culture,” telling us who our heroes were, what our language was, and what traditions we held dear.

By the end of American colonization, there was no need to call us a colony. We were Filipino, but America, as they say, was in our hearts.

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A New Kind of Colonialism

The year 1946 was “independence” in name only. The truth was that the United States exerted its influence on the government just the same.

It started just after the war. Manila was in shambles, and the countryside was littered with landlords and their private armies fighting against peasant guerrillas who fought for the country when nobody else would. There was no industry, nor were there financial systems in place, and there was growing unrest all over the nation. 


The United States, in its great benevolence, offered the Osmeña government money for rehabilitation, but with a few conditions: relax import tariffs, retain the U.S. bases in Clark and Subic, and give Americans the same rights to exploit natural resources as Filipinos.

The Filipinos had no choice. Soon, the Bell Trade Act was passed, allowing American companies to flourish in the country. Foreign business and capital dominated the economy, and though it seemed like the nation was flourishing, the truth was only a few foreign businessmen were profiting off Filipino gains.


Then there were the military bases. Subic and Clark were kept as military installations to help the U.S. retain its strategic interests in Asia. Though some would be quick to point out the employment opportunities of the bases, Subic and Clark became notorious for the abuse that Filipinos suffered. 

The U.S.-Philippine Relationship

Author Lualhati Bautista notes the relationship between the United States and the Philippines is not that of friends, but an unequal partnership between the large and the small, between master and slave, between man and woman in the most feudal sense. This is true even today, decades removed from the days of Bell Trade Act and U.S. bases.

Today, there are no more U.S. bases, nor is the Bell Trade Act still in place. But American influence didn’t end with these. The Bell Trade Act of 1946 paved the way to today’s APEC and GATT-WTO deals: trade deals, which, on the surface, seem good for the economy, but only end up strengthening foreign-owned multinational companies and keeping local industries import-dependent and export-oriented.

The removal of U.S. bases in 1991 also didn’t last long. In 1999, Senate ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement (now the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement), allowing the U.S.  to station troops and maintain jurisdiction during its stay. 


U.S. imperialism bleeds into other aspects of Filipino life, as well. Education still uses English as a medium of instruction while the K-12 program maintains its colonial market-oriented character. Local industries are kept small and local, while foreign transnational companies reap the benefits of an import-dependent, export-oriented economy. The idea of working in another country to achieve a better life is romanticized instead of forcing us to look in the mirror and ask why we need to look for jobs elsewhere.

Even today, the Philippines is tied to America. And when the U.S. sneezes, it’s we who catch a cold.

It’s when we look at these details that we have to start questioning: What is independence? Is it enough to have a Filipino government while foreign policy dictates our future? Is that true independence?

This year's Independence Day marks 121 years since Aguinaldo first raised the flag in Kawit, Cavite, but let us not forget that the anti-colonial and anti-feudal struggle of Bonifacio’s Katipunan isn’t over yet. True independence doesn’t end in a Philippine government staffed by Filipinos. True independence is a Philippines that can truly assert its sovereignty, away from the influence of foreign powers.



Agoncillo, T.  (1990) History of the Filipino People, 8th ed. Garotech Publishing

Derechos. Constantino, R. (1966) The Miseducation of the Filipino. Weekly Graphic.

Novie, E. (2016) Lost Americans in the Philippines. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Kerkvliet, B. (2014)

The Huk Rebellion: A Study of Peasant Revolt in the Philippines. Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Shenon, P. (1991) Philippine Senate Votes to Reject U.S. Base Renewal. New York Times.

Lenin, V. (1916) Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Selected Works.

Bautista, L. (2006) Desaparecidos. Cacho Publishing House.

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Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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