When General MacArthur was forced to flee the Philippines in 1942 he uttered the famous words ‘I shall return’. When in 1944 he did return at the head of American troops charged with driving the Japanese back to Japan he was greeted as a hero. Fighting in the Philippines during the Pacific War was more intense than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It took six months of bloody warfare for the Japanese to oust the Americans in 1941–42 and another ten months for the Americans to expel the Japanese in 1944–45. There was a great cost in Filipino lives. Japanese slogans such as ‘Asia for the Asians’, ‘Japan the light of Asia’ and ‘The Co-Prosperity Sphere’ made much less sense to Filipinos than to other Southeast Asians. The nature of American colonialism, the bi-culturalism of the Filipino elite, the experience of self-government and the realisation that they were due to get independence in 1946 anyway, placed Filipino nationalists in a different relationship with the Americans than nationalists elsewhere in Southeast Asia with their colonial rulers. Though opinion was divided about the appropriate response to occupation, resistance to the Japanese in the Philippines was strong. The collaborationist government established by the Japanese lacked legitimacy in the eyes of many Filipinos.
Comparisons with other Southeast Asian countries are striking. Often the invading Japanese were seen as liberators elsewhere. The iron grip of colonial rule was broken. Certainly, the mood changed to resentment and then hatred of Japanese brutality but Japanese occupation opened the way for nationalists to seize power in August/September 1945 and to organise resistance to the re-invading Europeans. Filipino nationalists, by contrast, welcomed the returning American forces as liberators, restoring the country on the path to independence promised by 1946.
However, there were important long-term effects from the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Its incorporation into Japan’s Southeast Asia empire broke the isolation of the Philippines from the rest of the region that had begun with the arrival of the Spanish and continued through United States rule. Filipinos became more aware than ever before of their place in Asia. The war also sharpened social, economic and political tensions in the Philippines. Throughout Japanese occupied Asia people suffered badly. Filipinos were no exception. Corruption increased, the gap between the rich and the poor widened and social structures broke down. In 1946 the Communist Party of the Philippines took advantage of the deteriorating conditions in the countryside to arouse support for rebellion. The war also spawned an armed society. Filipinos put up strong resistance to the invading Japanese and the fighting between United States/Filipino and Japanese forces in 1944–45 was extensive. The violence of the war years led to a greater preparedness to use force to achieve political ends in the post-independence Philippines.
Historians of the Philippines have stressed the importance of the family to an understanding of the political structures and the political culture of the Philippines. They see independence in 1946 as changing very little. A small number of wealthy families, generally based on extensive regionally-based land holdings, has controlled Philippines politics since the first elections in 1907.
In the late 1960s a prominent Philippines businessman summed up the failure of the Philippines political system with the statement ‘we have no institutional loyalty, only personal loyalty.’ The political process in the 20th century Philippines – both pre- and post-independence – has been based on extensive patron-client relations, linking at the base of the society exploited peasants and powerful landlords. Party politics has been free of ideology – with the exception of the Huks and the Communist Party of the Philippines. Party loyalty has been fickle, based on a complicated and extensive reward system linking party notables to politicians and local leaders.
Between the achievement of independence in 1946 and the Marcos coup in 1972 the Philippines was a constitutional democracy with all the trappings of an American style political system. In practice, it was a system of intra-elite struggle, based on powerful patron-client relations at the apex of which were the landed families. The most serious opposition came from the Huk movement, based on support from impoverished tenant farmers and landless labourers in central Luzon. The Huks were in open rebellion against the Philippines state between 1946 and 1953. They were crushed by a combination of coordinated military activity and rural reforms introduced by President Magsaysay. However, rural discontent and unrest has remained a serious problem in the Philippines down to the present day. Local military and police forces are used by the local elites to contain rural resistance, and where they fail extensive private armies owned by the landlords are brought into play.
In the 1950s and 1960s the underlying rural problems were masked by the apparent success of the industrialisation policies of the Philippines government. The state promoted import substitution manufacturing by imposing high tariffs and import controls and by managing the exchange rate. A new industrialist class emerged. Some were from the wealthy landed elite, diversifying their capital away from its rural origins. Others emerged from professionals and traders, who created joint ventures with foreign, predominantly American, companies or with wealthy local Chinese.
By the 1960s the Philippines was the most successful manufacturing country in Southeast Asia and appeared to be the most prosperous. Urbanisation occurred apace. From the manufacturing companies built up behind tariff walls and state subsidies emerged a number of conglomerates with interests in agrobusinesses, real estate and banks as well as manufacturing. Some became multinationals.