JUST as the transfer of the Philippine Islands from Spain to the United States in 1899 resulted in marked changes in world politics, so the granting of independence to the Philippines now or in the near future would entail international complications in a number of directions. By the acquisition of the Philippines the United States became an Asiatic power, vitally concerned in the political, social and economic developments in the Far East, and, in turn, exercising a profound influence on events in that region. Were the United States to withdraw from the Philippines the political equilibrium that has been established during the last thirty years would be overthrown, forces of revolution would be unleashed, and America's influence in the East would be sharply curtailed.

In order to appreciate the full significance of these assertions it is necessary to bear in mind the fundamental fact that the Philippines form an essential link in the chain of islands lying off the Asiatic coast from Japan to Australia. The northernmost islets of the Philippine group are only about sixty miles from Japanese-owned Formosa, and the southernmost are only about twenty miles from the British and Dutch East Indies. They are scarcely five hundred miles from the coast of China. Although geography's part in determining international relations is better understood now than formerly, its importance in the present instance may appear even clearer if we stop to consider the geographical relationship between the West Indies and the Americas. Most of the West Indian islands are under European or independent control; but it is obvious that any important shift in sovereignty there would be of immediate concern not only to the United States but to all the other Powers having interests in the Caribbean area. When it was believed possible that Germany might buy the Danish West Indies, not only the United States but Great Britain, France, Holland and the Latin American countries as well were afraid of the complications that might arise from this change. Incidentally, the eventual purchase of these islands by the United States caused deep misgivings in South America, much as the transfer of Cuban sovereignty from Spain to the United States, followed by Cuban independence, had had profound repercussions in the Western Hemisphere.

So would it be in the Far East if there were to be a change of sovereignty in the Philippines. The nations whose territories adjoin the islands -- Japan, China, the British Empire, Holland and France -- could not but be affected. This would be true whether the Philippines were sold or transferred to some other Power or whether they were set free. Just as the entry of the United States into the Far Eastern political situation had profound influences, so would her withdrawal.

It is not mere chance that the acquisition of the Philippines by the United States was followed by increased American influence in the affairs of the Far East. Despite the "opening up" of Japan and the proselytizing of China, the views of the United States were not regarded by Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia -- the four chief Asiatic Powers in 1900 -- as deserving of much attention. In fact, the championship of the cause of China against those Powers which sought to dismember her appeared to them somewhat in the light of an impertinence -- prior to the acquisition of the Philippines. But in 1900 the fact that the United States had military and naval forces in the Islands made it easy and natural for her to take an important part in the suppression of the so-called "Boxer" uprising in China. Had it not been for this participation she would have had little claim to be heard at the peace table, and her wishes would have been politely ignored. As it was, she was able not only to voice her views, but to prevail on the Powers to be lenient with China.

As a result, the United States was able to take an effective lead in fighting for the territorial integrity of China. The Powers were no more anxious to accept John Hay's interpretation of the "open door" doctrine after 1900 than they had been before, but it was no longer possible to ignore America's demands. The fact that various nations found it convenient to try to use America to support their own selfish policies strengthened rather than weakened America's position. By following the practice of concurrent action when this seemed most expedient, and at other times by acting singly, without the coöperation of the other Powers, the United States was the better able to make herself respected and her policies effective.

Since that day America's influence has steadily grown. In the Far East she has become one of the four dominant Powers. Not only has she enjoyed the advantages of possessing territory of her own in Far Eastern waters from which she may act to further and protect her missionary, commercial and political interests, but she has had her full measure of that prestige or "face" which still counts for much in the Orient.

As a consequence of this she has become, like Great Britain and Holland whose enormously wealthy possessions in Eastern Asia have long been objects of solicitude, one of the principal factors in maintaining the status quo in the Pacific. These three nations are as one in wishing to prevent drastic changes in the political lineup in the Far East. They want international peace and internal tranquillity. Anything which threatens the political status quo or which undermines the stability of the governments of the dependent nations in the Orient is of concern to all three Powers. Hence their uneasiness when, in 1915, Japan adopted an aggressive policy in China. Hence the distrust of the anti-European doctrines preached since 1919 by Soviet Russian agents in China, the Dutch East Indies and elsewhere. These things threatened the stability of the Philippines and the other foreign possessions in Eastern Asia. The threats to stability menaced the peace of the Orient. Were that to be seriously disturbed the repercussions throughout the world might well be grave.

During the thirty years that the United States by virtue of possessing the Philippines has been an Asiatic Power, there have been jealousies and, on occasion, fear and distrust among the chief nations of the Pacific. But gradually a balance has been established on the sound basis of mutual forbearance. No single Power may be said to be strong enough to upset this equilibrium so long as the others retain their interests in the situation. In other words, peace is assured while the political status quo remains unchanged. But the natural corollary of this is that if any Power were suddenly to withdraw the equilibrium would be upset and at once an unknown and insecure relationship would be substituted for a known and secure one.

The probable results of America's withdrawal from the Philippines may be examined under four heads: 1. The effect on internal conditions in the Philippines; 2. The effect on America's interests in the Pacific; 3. The effect on other peoples under foreign dominion in eastern Asia; 4. The effect on the international equilibrium in the Pacific.

1. When the United States went into the Philippines she undertook, among other things, to break down the barriers of illiteracy, to eliminate the plagues and diseases which took yearly toll of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, to lay the economic foundations of a self-supporting state, and to teach the people the rudiments of self-government.

How does performance compare with promise?

When the United States occupied the Islands about 85 percent of the people were illiterate. Today the percentage of illiteracy is variously estimated to be between 50 and 60. Only about one million out of the total population of 12,000,000 speak English. During the first twenty-eight years of American occupation about 7,000,000 children passed through school age, of whom only about 530,000 finished the primary school. Only about 40 percent of the children of school age are in school today. Less than one out of five of the children who have attended school have gone beyond the fourth grade. The average period in school is less than three years, during which time the children learn little more than in the first grade in American schools. Less than 2 percent of those in school have gone in for agricultural training -- and agriculture is the main occupation by which the Filipino people live.

In the matter of public health great strides were made while the health work was under American supervision. Deaths from cholera dropped from about 100,000 in 1900 to 820 in 1915, and deaths from smallpox fell from 40,000 to 276. Then came the Filipinization of the government service and strict American supervision of the health work was relaxed. Deaths from cholera jumped from 820 in 1915 to 17,537 in 1919. Deaths from smallpox rose from 276 to 49,971. The situation was so alarming that the Americans again took hold of the work and by 1924 there were no deaths from cholera and only 6 from smallpox. Two subsequent threats of epidemic were promptly checked by drastic steps on the part of the American executives.

Economically we have done little that is practical to help the Filipinos, other than to build roads. We have neglected interisland transportation, which is of utmost importance in any archipelago. We have failed to teach the natives the effective use of better seeds and farming methods and have met with only partial success in fighting plant and animal pests. Whenever the supervising hand has been relaxed there has been prompt retrogression.

In matters governmental we have given the Filipinos a constitution much like those of our own states, with the responsibilities divided between the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches. But we have not been able to give them our own background and tradition of self-government. Until a generation ago they were accustomed to despotisms of one sort or another. They have had actual self-government only since the passage of the Jones Bill fourteen years ago. Without in any way casting reflections on the Filipino leaders, is it unkind to suggest that this is but a brief period of practice in the art of modern self-government? In spite of our own experience of a century and a half with representative government we still find great difficulty in administering it effectively.

Even those who do not consider this inexperience a handicap recognize that the greatest difficulties which the politicians would have to face in the event of independence would be of a financial nature. The Filipinos today are paying as high taxes as it seems possible to collect. These revenues, together with the rebate on the internal revenue tax of the United States on tobacco which is paid by the United States Treasury to the Philippine Treasury, cover the actual administration of the civil arm of the government. But they do not pay for the defense of the islands or for the representation of their diplomatic interests abroad. The former item, including the extensive fortifications of Corregidor and the maintenance of military and naval forces, is paid by the United States. The diplomatic and consular interests of the Philippines are cared for by America's foreign service representatives, at America's expense.

It follows, therefore, that the Philippine republic would begin its independent career with the added financial burdens of national defense and representation abroad and would at the same time have to do without the substantial contribution (in the neighborhood of $800,000 annually) which is now received from the rebate on Philippine tobaccos taxed in the United States -- a sum which, of course, neither should nor would be presented as a gift to the Philippine Government once the ties with the United States were severed.

Furthermore, the bonded indebtedness of the Philippines has been incurred at a rate of scarcely 4 percent, owing to the fact that the United States Government has guaranteed the bonds. The islands are already heavily indebted. This introduces two complications: first, the cost and procedure of a new refunding bond issue to replace the bonds which the United States guaranteed; and second, the cost of further fresh flotations. It is clear that the United States could not and would not continue to sponsor the bonds of an independent Philippine republic. It is equally clear that the underwritten bonds at present outstanding could not be refunded at the low rate of their original issue, owing to the withdrawal of America's guarantee. Furthermore, new issues, like the refunding bonds, would have to compete in the open markets of the world without the support of the United States Treasury and so would cost the Philippine Government much more. The net result of these two operations would be a material increase in the budget of the insular government to pay for borrowed money.

As if this were not enough, there is the virtual certainty that Philippine business would suffer severely for years after independence had been granted. It goes without saying that there would be no justification for maintaining the present free trade relations between the United States and the Philippines once the flag was withdrawn. This in itself would be a severe blow to Philippine business. Furthermore, the uncertainty as to the future would for a number of years deter foreign capital from developing the islands. The Filipinos would find, moreover, that they would have to compete with the cheap labor of the Dutch East Indies, China and Japan, and so would no longer have the advantage of the substantial profits which they obtain under the present free trade arrangements. Obviously these changes would still further reduce the revenue-producing capacities of the Filipinos, thus adding to the burdens of the government, which would have as its only recourse extensive and expensive borrowing with which to pyramid its outstanding indebtedness.

It has been assumed that the Filipino leaders would be able to preserve order and tranquillity. This point, however, has been doubted by many keen observers, including the late General Wood, who maintained that stability under the American flag did not ipso facto imply stability if that flag were withdrawn. Whatever the ability of the various racial groups in the northern islands to work in harmony -- and it must not be overlooked that Tagalogs, Visayans and Ilocanos, to name but three of the chief groups, have heretofore regarded each other with constant jealousy -- there seems little doubt that the Moros in the south would revolt against the Filipinos, and would do so successfully. They number only about 500,000 out of the total population of 12,000,000, but they occupy one of the richest and largest unsettled territories, Mindanao and Sulu. Moro leaders have repeatedly made it plain to Americans that if the United States were to withdraw, the Moros would drive the Filipinos out of Moroland.

2. The effects of American withdrawal on American interests in eastern Asia would be threefold. It would affect her prestige. It would affect her commerce. It would affect her standing as the supporter of Christianity and of democratic ideals and modern education in the Orient.

Of these the first is perhaps the most important in Oriental eyes, and at the same time the most difficult for Americans who have not been in the Orient to understand. The outward trappings of power and the pomp of ceremony have always been dear to Orientals. The mere presence in the Far East of impressive detachments of American warships has been to the Orientals a symbol of the might of the United States. Conversely, when a nation shows an apparent unwillingness to uphold its rights the conclusion of the Oriental is that it is afraid. The contempt of the East for the weak and timid is far greater than our own.

It is a safe assumption, therefore, that America's withdrawal from the Philippines would be regarded as a confession of weakness. As such it would involve a loss of respect for all things American and would encourage those persons who are already inclined to mulct American business men for all that they can get to go the limit in applying illegal taxes -- especially in China. In place of respect for American missionaries and teachers there would be a tendency still further to neglect and on occasions to insult them. The actual protection of American lives and properties would become more difficult.

Aside from these reactions on American business the actual losses in direct commerce between the United States and the Philippines and in the cutting off of future supplies would probably be considerable. While it is true that the total trade of the United States with the Philippines today is only about 2 percent of our foreign commerce there is every reason to believe that the Philippines, properly developed under the present system of free trade with the United States, could furnish us with a large share of those tropical materials which today make up almost half of our total imports. By the same token they hold promise of being one of the best markets for American goods in the Orient.

It is not generally realized in this country that only about a third of the arable land in the Philippines is under cultivation, and that much of this is still tilled in a primitive and comparatively unproductive manner. Inasmuch as the soil and climate are as well adapted in the Philippines as in Java for the intensive production of tropical agriculture--and Java is one of the richest and most fertile lands in the world -- there is no reason to believe that the Philippines could not, under suitable management, produce almost boundless wealth. Rubber, coffee, sugar and all the plants and trees which have made Java so rich can be grown in the Philippines. It stands to reason that this increased wealth implies an increased buying power, which means in turn a greater demand for all those American products which are already eagerly bought by the Filipinos.

3. Of special concern to the British and the Dutch would be the effect of Philippine independence on the native populations under their control. These include not only the Malays in the Malay peninsula and throughout the East Indies but also the peoples of the Asiatic mainland under British supervision.

Competent observers, Dutch as well as English, assert that the granting of independence to the Filipinos would be followed by serious anti-European agitations which might even take on the form of open revolution. They believe that in India it would strengthen the hands of the Nationalists so much as to increase greatly the task of preserving order.

To understand this we must bear in mind that the peoples of the Orient under alien control keep close watch on the treatment that is being meted out by the different controlling nations. It so happens that the people of the Dutch East Indies as well as those of the Asiatic mainland look down upon the Filipinos as the least important and capable of the Malay tribes. If, therefore, the Filipinos were to be set free by the United States, the other peoples would at once say, "Well, if the Filipinos are good enough to be independent then surely we, who are so much better, should be free. Let us rise and strike off the shackles of the hated European overlords!"

How successful these anti-European movements might be would depend on the ability of the Powers concerned to suppress the uprisings. It is not generally known that twice within the last twelve years there have been serious anti-European outbreaks in the Dutch East Indies, which were so carefully planned that they took the authorities by surprise. Inasmuch as the example of Philippine independence would be an additional incentive to revolt it is easy to understand why those in authority in the East are worried.

4. Both Great Britain and Holland regard the presence of the United States in the Philippine Islands as a powerful factor making for peace and order throughout the Far East. They dread America's withdrawal, not so much because they believe that any other Power would seize the archipelago immediately, but because of the unsettling effects of the existence of a weak, inexperienced new state, rich in undeveloped lands and under-populated, right at the doors of impoverished and over-populated Asiatic nations against which the Philippines by themselves would be defenseless.

In fact, there is every reason to expect that Philippine independence would at once be used by the British as an argument in favor of enlarging their navy. It is hard to see how even the most anti-English American could controvert such a claim. If the United States were to withdraw from the Philippines the maintenance of the political status quo in the insular world between Formosa and Australia would devolve entirely upon Great Britain. The need for the Singapore base would be greater than ever, for Great Britain would no longer be able to count on the presence in Manila of an important contingent of the American fleet, which, by its mere presence, is a force for peace.

That this prospect particularly affects Australia and New Zealand is clear from a reading of the debates in the House of Commons on the Singapore naval base. The people of the two Pacific Commonwealths look on Singapore as their main defense in the Pacific. So also they regard the presence of the American fleet in the Far East as a sort of indirect shield between their own empty lands and the over-populated countries of eastern Asia. The withdrawal of the United States from the Philippines would increase the Dominions' dependence on Great Britain.

To those Americans who have studied the political situation in the Far East one of the most disquieting aspects of the entire problem is the position in which the United States would find herself if independence were granted. It requires but little knowledge of the force of American idealism to realize that if anything went wrong in the Philippines, and they were endangered, the very same American sentimentalists who have for years been crying "Give them their liberty!" would be the first to demand that the United States step in to help her former wards and to protect them from the "rapaciousness" of alien oppressors. This is the sort of appeal which moves Americans strongly. It flatters their vanity and appeals to their sense of evangelism. They like to think of their country as the rescuer of the down-trodden, the savior of the oppressed.

If the American Government, once it had left the Philippines, were prevailed upon to go to their rescue, it would face the likelihood of a war of appalling consequences. Such a war would involve a vast naval construction program, long and hazardous expeditions to conduct military operations on the other side of the world, the probable mixing in of other powers, the stirring of new resentments among subject peoples of Asia. To the realist, what is most distressing about such a possibility is the virtual certainty that so long as we continue in our present relation these dangers are so remote as to be negligible. To remain is a fair insurance of peace. To withdraw is to invite disaster.

As an alternative it has been suggested that the United States might guarantee the independence of the Philippines, either alone or in company with other Powers, or that the League of Nations might give America a mandate over them. These expedients would put the United States in the very position which she has so long sought to avoid -- that of responsibility without authority. It would be only natural for the other Powers to turn to the United States, in the event things went badly in the Philippines, and call on her to step in and right them. Here again the United States would have to interfere under the most unfavorable conditions. Her task would be far harder than is the present one of attempting to help the Filipinos maintain a stable government.

The crux of the matter, then, is that the Philippine Islands are like Mark Twain's white elephant. They are a burden to maintain, but there is no safe and effective way of getting rid of them. Retention -- at least for a number of decades -- seems the lesser of two evils.

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  • NICHOLAS ROOSEVELT, of the editorial staff of the New York Times, author of "The Philippines: a Treasure and a Problem," and other works
  • More By Nicholas Roosevelt