Recent Reading: In Our Image, America’s Empire in the Philippines

Book Cover on Amazon Stanley Karnow is better known for his work on “Vietnam,” but his book on the Philippines “In Our Image” of course touches closer to home for me. Just the first chapter provides an excellent and comprehensive nutshell summary of the Philippines under Spanish rule, from Magellan to the Spanish-American war, a skillful encapsulation of over five centuries of history that omits no necessary details. From there, he gets into the meat of the topic, the story of the Philippines as United States colony, later a commonwealth, and later independent republic still under the American thumb.

Karnow traces a common thread through Philippine history of colonizers and governments favoring wealthy families at the top of the social stratum, dynasties holding power over the lifeblood resources and industries of the economy — sugar being a prime export in colonial days. This fueled a continuous culture of feudal aristocracy which widened the gap between the country’s rich and its struggling lower classes. Since the granting of full independence in 1945, politics in the Philippines has been more a proxy struggle between conflicting dynasties rather than an actual expression of the will of the people, backdropped always by the economic influence of United States foreign policy.

Little sympathy is shown towards William McKinley, American president when the US was victorious over Spain in a war which unexpectedly landed the Philippines right in America’s lap. Karnow depicts McKinley as a bumbling, indecisive leader who appointed secretaries on the basis of loyalty rather than skill or merit, but fought and won the Spanish-American war thanks in part to a fiery young Republican Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, who would later be a war hero for his work with the Rough Riders in the Philippines, and still later a President — though the position he desired more, Governor-General of the Philippines, was never granted him.

Names abound in this history with which most Filipinos would be familiar from their streets and neighborhoods: Cameron Forbes, governor-general of the colony and origin of the name of Forbes Park; William Howard Taft, another governor-general who would later be US President and Chief Justice and have an avenue named for him; Daniel Burnham, architect and urban designer of such classics as Union Station, Flatiron Building, and Baguio City, where a park is named in his memory; and of course, Douglas MacArthur, General “I Shall Return” himself, worshipped as a hero and highway namesake in the Philippines, though given rather less heroic treatment in Karnow’s portrayal of him as an initial failure in his defense against the Japanese invasion, and a better artisan of public relations than of military genius.

There are areas where Karnow displays a marked pro-Communist bias, depicting Hukbalahap rebels more as noble underdog fighters defeated by CIA-installed President Magsaysay, while glossing over the Huks’ rural atrocities and murder of a former First Lady. (His later coverage of contemporary Communist insurgents is a bit more balanced, however.)

The section on Ferdinand Marcos is surprisingly scant for what could be considered the darkest years of Filipino history, though what he does cover is enough to illustrate politics as proxy for oligarchic conflict. Marcos installed his own allies in positions of power and wealth, and the 1986 EDSA Revolution against him was just as much a reclamation of power by displaced dynasties as it was an overthrowing of a corrupt dictator.

The book was finished in 1989, and there the history ends — before Pinatubo and the ending of the US military bases agreement by the Philippine legislature, a contentious event which would have made an interesting closing chapter had Karnow written “In Our Image” just two or three years later. Still, for what he was able to cover, Karnow offers an excellent, detailed, comprehensive story, only slightly marred at points by un-subtle bias.