The Surprising Connection Between the Philippines and the Fourth of July
Seventy years ago, the Philippines won independence on the famous American holiday.
The United States isn't the only country to ever celebrate independence on July 4. In the mid-20th century, people in the Philippines also marked July 4 as the day that they broke away from a colonizing nation. But in this case, that colonizing nation was the United States.
It’s no coincidence that the Philippines shared an independence day with its former colonizer. But this overlap was short-lived. When the Philippines changed the date of its Independence Day holiday in 1962, it marked yet another step away from a long history of western interference.
Independence, Kind of
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Philippines was a colony in the Spanish Empire. In 1896, the islands attempted to break free in what’s called the Philippine Revolution, or Tagalog War. When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, some Filipinos saw an opportunity to ally with the Americans against their imperial rulers.
The Americans encouraged this alliance, and led the Filipinos to believe that they had no desire to colonize the country once it was free from Spain, says Vicente L. Rafael, professor of history and Southeast Asian studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. This culminated with a Filipino declaration of independence on June 12 of that year. An American officer was even among the signees.
The United States’ disregard for that declaration was made plain a few months later. After Spain surrendered, the 1898 Treaty of Paris gave the Philippines to the U.S. But Filipinos fought this handover, and rose up in the Philippine-American War in 1899.
The year in which that war ended depends on who you talk to, says Rafael. Although fighting continued until the 1910s, President Teddy Roosevelt declared a “victory” over the Philippines in 1902.
July 4, 1902, to be exact.
“That’s the irony,” Rafael says. “The Fourth of July is supposed to be a declaration of independence. But for Roosevelt in 1902, the Fourth of July was a declaration of conquest.”
The Philippines continued to push for its independence; and in the mid-1930s, the United States began a transition toward sovereignty. The day the country was planned to become independent? July 4, 1945. That’s right—the Philippines would be freed on the same day that it was conquered.
World War II threw a wrench into the plan. The Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1942, and independence was delayed until July 4, 1946.
But the Philippines only celebrated July 4 as its Independence Day until 1962. That year, President Diosdado Macapagal changed the country’s official Independence Day to June 12, to mark the day that the Philippines had declared independence from Spain in 1898.
Why did Macapagal dump the fourth? Well, there are a few probable reasons.
It was pretty callous of the United States to “give” its former colony the same Independence Day as itself, especially since that was also the day that the U.S. conquered it. Rising Filipino nationalism in the 1960s could have also influenced Macapagal’s decision to reject the date.
Rafael thinks there was also something else in play.
“It was his way of registering his unhappiness with the U.S. Congress, which had turned down a $73 million aid package to the Philippines,” writes Rafael in an essay he shared with National Geographic. “Though he had also claimed to be bringing Philippine independence out of the shadow of its former colonial master, Macapagal’s decision to change the date was also a piece of political brinkmanship.”
When Macapagal threw out the paternalistically bestowed July 4, he replaced it with a day that represented the Philippines’ rejection of the Spanish Empire. But by the 1960s, it’s not clear that that date still held any real significance for everyday citizens.
Friends With Political Benefits
At the time that Macapagal did away with July 4, the June 12 declaration of independence from Spain wasn’t something that many Filipinos were familiar with. Indeed, Rafael thinks that there is still some ambivalence toward the day because the country remained a colony for decades after. Born and raised in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, Rafael recalls that Independence Day is celebrated on a small scale.
“It’s not like this huge orgy of self-congratulation, which is what you get in the United States,” he says.
Augusto Espiritu, associate professor of history and Asian-American studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, also doesn’t recall Independence Day being a huge deal as a child in Manila.
“What’s interesting though is that when I came to this country, in Los Angeles especially, June 12 was celebrated quite a bit” by Filipino immigrants, he says. (It’s not unusual to see this in immigrant communities: St. Patrick’s Day didn’t become the large celebration that it is today until Irish immigrants began to hold parades in America.)
But what became of July 4 in the Philippines? Since 1962, it’s been known as Philippine-American Friendship Day—a non-holiday that, according to Rafael, is basically only celebrated at the U.S. Embassy.
Internationally, July 4 is mainly only celebrated by Americans. And even some Americans argue that Juneteenth, which commemorates the June 19, 1865, abolition of slavery in Texas, should be celebrated in addition to or instead of the Fourth of July.
To date, the most successful globalization of America’s Independence Day is, and will likely remain, the one in the movies.
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