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This Week in History

March 18-24, 1934:
President Franklin Roosevelt Signs
the Philippines Independence Act

March 2012

Cotton Mather
Josť Rizal .

On his 18th birthday in 1900, Groton Academy senior Franklin Roosevelt lost his first current-affairs debate when he argued that the Philippines, then under U.S. military government, should be given independence. Thirty-four years later, on March 24, 1934, President Roosevelt signed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, also referred to as the Philippines Independence Act, which provided for a Philippines Commonwealth Government that would be followed by complete independence in ten years.

It had been a long road for the Philippines to reach that point. The Philippine Islands had been under Spanish control since the second half of the 16th Century, but in the 1890s an independence movement had developed, led by Jose Rizal. When Rizal was executed by the Spanish in 1896, the movement was carried on by Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the Filipino military forces. During the Spanish-American War, Aguinaldo accepted aid from the United States, and when victories followed for Adm. George Dewey and Gen. Wesley Merritt, Aguinaldo declared a republic. But the U.S. treaty with Spain at the end of the war transferred the Philippines to the United States.

Aguinaldo then began military action against the American army, which subsided into guerrilla warfare after Aguinaldo was captured in 1901. The year before, President William McKinley had sent the Taft Commission to study conditions in the Philippines and to recommend improvements. William Howard Taft, the future American President, headed the commission, and was then named Governor-General of the Philippines. In 1909, Congress passed legislation which set up duty-free trade with the Philippines, but this left the Philippines very dependent on export of raw materials such as sugar, coconut oil, and abaca.

President Woodrow Wilson appointed Francis Burton Harrison as Governor-General, and he instituted a different policy. The Democrats favored moving toward independence for the Philippines, and so Harrison replaced American office holders with Filipinos, and encouraged infrastructure development. The U.S. Congress passed legislation which set up a Philippine legislature, almost all of whose members were elected by popular vote.

When the Republicans won the White House in 1920, this policy was reversed. Harrison was replaced by Gen. Leonard Wood, who suspended most development plans, moved Americans back into government positions, and installed semi-military rule. During the last days of President Herbert Hoover's Administration, however, the U.S. Congress passed the Hawes-Cutting Act of 1932, which provided for complete Philippine independence in 1945. President Hoover vetoed it, but Congress passed it over his veto.

When Franklin Roosevelt entered the Presidency, he replaced General Wood with Frank Murphy, the legendary Mayor of Detroit who had done everything in his power during the bleak days of the Depression to make sure that the city's residents stayed alive and well. But then, Roosevelt received word that on Oct. 17, 1933, the Philippine Legislature had rejected the Hawes-Cutting Act. Manuel Quezon, the leader of the Nationalist Party, opposed the act because of the threat of American tariffs against Philippine products, and also because there were provisions which left military bases in American hands.

President Roosevelt therefore sent a message to Congress on March 2, 1934, requesting that the Hawes-Cutting Act be amended. The message opened by saying that, "Over a third of a century ago, the United States, as a result of a war which had its origin in the Caribbean Sea, acquired sovereignty over the Philippine Islands, which lie many thousands of miles from our shores across the widest of oceans. Our Nation covets no territory; it desires to hold no people against their will over whom it has gained sovereignty through war.

"In keeping with the principles of justice and in keeping with our traditions and aims, our Government for many years has been committed by law to ultimate independence for the people of the Philippine Islands whenever they should establish a suitable Government capable of maintaining that independence among the Nations of the world. We believe that the time for such independence is at hand.

"A law passed by the seventy-second Congress over a year ago was the initial step, providing the methods, conditions and circumstances under which our promise was to be fulfilled. That Act provided that the United States would retain the option of keeping certain military and naval bases in the Islands after actual independence had been accomplished.

"As to the military bases, I recommend that this provision be eliminated from the law and that these bases be relinquished simultaneously with the accomplishment of final Philippine independence.

"As to the naval bases, I recommend that the law be so amended as to provide for the ultimate settlement of this matter on terms satisfactory to our own Government and that of the Philippine Islands.

"I do not believe that other provisions of the original law need be changed at this time. Where imperfections or inequalities exist, I am confident that they can be corrected after proper hearing and in fairness to both peoples."

In this spirit of compromise, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act which was signed by Roosevelt on March 24, 1934. It was adopted by the Philippine Legislature on May 1, which also passed an act providing for the election of delegates to a Constitutional Convention. By Feb. 8, 1935, a Philippine Constitution had been adopted, and on March 23, 1935, President Roosevelt certified to Congress that the new Constitution conformed substantially with the provisions of the Tydings-McDuffie Act.

The new President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon, was inaugurated on Nov. 15, and he visited Washington to attend a conference with the Interdepartmental Committee which Roosevelt had created to plan for preferential trade arrangements with the Philippines. Also on Nov. 15, in honor of the new commonwealth, the U.S. Post Office inaugurated the Trans-Pacific Sky Mail service from San Francisco to the Philippines.

But there were other, less joyful, events which ultimately concerned the Philippines and commanded Roosevelt's attention. Japan had embarked on a war of aggression, and it resented U.S. policy towards its conquest of Manchuria. President Hoover's Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson, had developed the "Stimson Doctrine" which refused to recognize the Japanese conquests in Manchuria, and this doctrine was upheld by Roosevelt. In early 1933, the Japanese Army was sweeping toward the Great Wall of China, and by May, had reached a position just 13 miles from Peking.

During the early part of the 20th Century, Japan had been allied with Great Britain, and had developed plans for its navy to attack Hawaii and the Philippines. In the 1930s, these plans were still on the table, and they were mentioned in many Japanese magazines. In 1934, Naval Intelligence sent President Roosevelt a Japanese comic book which opened with an attack on Pearl Harbor and ended with a scene in the White House where the Japanese were dictating the terms of peace. Japan had been censured by the League of Nations for its action in Manchuria, but much of its resentment was focussed on the United States and the Stimson Doctrine.

Cotton Mather
Douglas MacArthur .

In 1935, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's commission as Chief of the General Staff in Washington expired, after a one-year extension which Roosevelt had granted. In view of the situation in Asia, the President appointed MacArthur as head of the American military mission to the Philippines. MacArthur's father, Arthur MacArthur, had fought in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and was briefly its governor during 1900-1901. Douglas MacArthur himself had served two Army tours of duty in the Philippines, one just after his graduation from West Point, and the other during 1922-1925 as commander of U.S. forces. Upon his arrival in the islands, he established a military training and defense plan, and, in 1936, became Field Marshall of the Philippine Army.

On Dec. 9, 1935, the University of Notre Dame sponsored a special convocation in honor of the new Commonwealth of the Philippines, and awarded President Roosevelt an honorary degree. During his acceptance speech, Roosevelt stated that America had "chosen the right course with respect to the Philippine Islands. Through our power we have not sought more power. Through our power we have sought to benefit others."

The Republic of the Philippines declared its independence on July 4, 1946.