Tomorrow, December 7, marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the American naval installation at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The surprise attack triggered the start of the Pacific theater of World War II. With troops from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy lording it over Europe since 1940, and with Japanese troops across mainland China, the war became worldwide, indeed.
Prior to the attack, the United States was officially a neutral country, albeit sympathetic to the British and French in the war in Europe. A day later, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke before Congress, called December 7, 1941 a day “that will live in infamy,” and sought a declaration of war against Japan. Congress obliged and America was officially at war, first with Japan, and later with Germany and Italy.
Hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes also bombed the Philippine Islands (then an American protectorate) and other American possessions in the Pacific. General Douglas MacArthur, head of the US military presence in the Philippine Islands, moved his troops to Bataan and Corregidor to buy time for the reinforcements and supplies promised by President Roosevelt, but which never came. Withal, the fall of “Pearl of the Orient” became inevitable.
Upon orders from Washington, D.C., Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmeña, president and vice president, respectively, of the Philippine Commonwealth, were evacuated to the US where they established a government-in-exile. MacArthur joined them there.
In January 1942, Manila fell to the Japanese, and a brutal occupation of the Philippine Islands ensued. The hard times were somehow mitigated by the Japanese-sponsored Republic of the Philippines headed by President Jose P. Laurel, who tried his best to cushion the effects of enemy occupation on his people.
Numerous atrocities were committed by Japanese troops and their Korean conscripts in the Philippine Islands—inhumane treatment of prisoners of war and guerillas; mass murder of innocent civilians, including women and children; rape of Filipino women—particularly the “comfort women” conscripted to provide sex for Japanese soldiers; seizure of private properties, including food supplies and medicine; abolition of free speech, press freedom and freedom of assembly; and the establishment of a climate of fear and repression throughout the occupied territories. Japanese soldiers were particularly cruel to the local Chinese suspected of supporting the Kuomintang—the nationalist party of China.
The end of the war in 1945 had different consequences for the Philippines and Japan.
Although the Philippines finally obtained its independence from the United States in 1946, the US imposed conditions on the grant of independence and the release of war reparations. These included parity rights—where Americans enjoy the same rights Filipinos have in the exploitation of Philippine natural resources, in commerce, and in the practice of the professions—and the establishment of military bases in the islands.
US President Harry Truman also rescinded the promise given by his predecessor, President Roosevelt, that Filipino soldiers who fought the Japanese during the war will be given the same compensation and military recognition like those of their American comrades-in-arms.
Although a mutual defense treaty was signed between Manila and Washington, D.C., that treaty appears superficial. Except for occasional donations of discarded planes and medium-sized sea vessels, the US never really upgraded the fighting capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Surprisingly, Japan and Korea got better treatment. The US banned Japan from re-arming itself and undertook the defense of its former enemy. America likewise restructured the economy of Japan to make it the industrial giant it is today. After the Korean War in the 1950s, South Korea got US fighter jets and artillery to defend itself against possible invasion from its communist neighbor, North Korea.
The assistance Japan and South Korea got from the US was purportedly part of America’s plan to make Japan a buffer state against any expansionist plans the Soviet Union and Communist China may have had in East Asia during the Cold War.
Pre-war Japan resorted to war and ended up a devastated country. Post-war Japan resorted to industry and is now an economic powerhouse. Thus, it may be reasonably assumed that post-war Japan has realized the folly of war.
That may also explain present-day Japan’s peaceful attitude towards its Asian neighbors, the Philippines included. Unlike its troublesome old self, modern Japan regulary assists in the infrastructure development of the Philippines. With the exception perhaps of the World War II comfort women apology and compensation issue, relations between Manila and Tokyo have been very warm for the past decades.
Sadly, the same can hardly be said for the contemporary ties between the Philippines and the US. Washington, D.C. has gotten used to treating the Philippines as a second-rate ally in the Pacific, especially after Manila booted out all US military bases in the country in September 1991.
Policy makers in Washington, D.C. may not be aware that the shoddy treatment Manila gets from the US is the cornerstone of the anti-US propaganda being used by communists in the Philippines and their Red Chinese allies to destabilize the constitutional order. The same may be said of international terrorist groups operating in the Philippines.
Fortunately, not all is lost. The recent invitation to visit Washington, D.C. in 2017 which US President-elect Donald Trump extended to President Rodrigo Duterte may be the start of remedial steps towards fixing Philippine-American relations. Politics aside, Manila can be America’s best ally in Southeast Asia in its expensive war against the international drug menace and terrorism. Since Duterte hates both the drug menace and terrorism, Duterte and Trump will have a common denominator which can jumpstart their discussions, this time as co-equals with a common interest.
When that happens, Dec. 7, 1941 may be commemorated not just as the start of World War II in the Pacific, but as a day when the blood ties between Filipinos and Americans got permanently forged by a war brought against them.