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date: 17 August 2017

A History of Philippine-American Relations

Summary and Keywords

An enduring resilience characterizes Philippine–American relationship for several reasons. For one, there is an unusual colonial relationship wherein the United States took control of the Philippines from the Spanish and then shared power with an emergent Filipino elite, introduced suffrage, implemented public education, and promised eventual national independence. A shared experience fighting the Japanese in World War II and defeating a postwar communist rebellion further cemented the “special relationship” between the two countries. The United States took advantage of this partnership to compel the Philippines to sign an economic and military treaty that favored American businesses and the military, respectively. Filipino leaders not only accepted the realities of this strategic game and exploited every opening to assert national interests but also benefitted from American largesse. Under the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, this mutual cadging was at its most brazen. As a result, the military alliance suffered when the Philippines terminated the agreement, and the United States considerably reduced its support to the country. But the estrangement did not last long, and both countries rekindled the “special relationship” in response to the U.S. “Global War on Terror” and, of late, Chinese military aggression in the West Philippine Sea.

Keywords: colonialism, anti-colonialism, public school system and English, special relationship, anticommunism, mutual defense treaty, economic parity ties, economic nationalism, Ferdinand Marcos, martial law, human rights, U.S. military bases, military politicization, democratization, Islamic terrorism and the U.S. War on Terror, USAID, Balikatan exercises


In a July 14, 2014, Pew Research Center survey of countries that approved and disapproved of the United States as a global power, the Philippines scored the highest (92 percent favorability).1 How this came about has a lot to do with a shared colonial history, postcolonial security and development norms, and the political opportunism or mutual accommodation of the two countries’ elites. The origins of the relationship go back to the Spanish-American war at the turn of the 20th century, which brought American forces to the colony where a nascent Philippine revolutionary army was about to capture the capital, Manila. The two armies struck an alliance, although the American army eventually took over Manila after a secret agreement with the Spanish forces that wanted the Filipinos out of the picture. The latter raised very little protest over this ruse, and continued to treat the Americans as allies. This partnership did not last long, however, and once President William McKinley announced the seizure of the Philippines, a brutal war erupted between the two armies.2

Superior American firepower easily defeated the Filipinos, but anti-American guerilla warfare persisted in the towns and the countryside. Worried that this opposition would draw Filipinos back to the armed struggle, the colonial government installed a sophisticated surveillance system to suppress such activities.3 The demise of the nascent Philippine Republic came after its leaders switched their allegiance; Americans made it easier for them by offering incentives such as increased Filipino participation in state building, a public educational system, and limited suffrage. But these collaborators did not fully capitulate. Sensitive to nationalism’s enduring popularity, they appropriated the theme and used it to demand more concessions. These elite nationalists won Filipino support by promising to bring independence at the appropriate time. As insiders, however, they repeatedly assured their American mentors that they preferred colonial tutelage as long as they were allowed to expand their power and influence. The latter obliged, and, by the second decade, the Filipinos were in control of the levers of state power except the top executive positions.

American Colonialism, Filipinization, and World War II

As “Filipinization” moved forward, Filipinos became better at the politics of spoils that they first learned from the corrupt Spanish clergy who ran the colony. Americans were not bothered by this corruption; this was, after all, the gilded age of the great American machine politics and Tammany bosses, and many a bureaucrat sent to the colony earned his spurs from such associations.4 It was not unexpected, then, that they saw Filipino leaders as natural partners in the art of patronage politics.5 Pro-reform officials like General Leonard Wood tried to slow down this Philippine edition of the spoils system but that was a losing battle. By 1930, Filipino leaders had struck a deal with U.S. Congress to establish the Commonwealth Republic of the Philippines as the transitional body before full independence.6

A thread that ran alongside pro-independent sentiments was strong Filipino approbation of what the United States had done for the colony. This was the result of a policy that profoundly altered Filipinos’ political and social outlooks—public education. Aware of how much the Philippines’ linguistic diversity hindered colonial administration, colonial officials set up a colony-wide public school system where English was the medium of instruction. This program attracted Filipinos who saw the chance to wean their children away from the influence of the Spanish clergy as well as the opportunity for social and economy advancement.7 The top high school graduates were then encouraged to enroll at the state-run University of the Philippines.

All this did not mean that the radical spirit of independence had dissipated. The peasant- and urban-poor–based, 60,000-strong Sakdal (Tagalog for “accusation,” founded in 1930) Party, for example, demanded immediate independence, as well as the breakup of landed estates, reduction of taxes, and an end to government corruption. Trade unionists, socialists, and left-wing intellectuals established the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (Communist Party of the Philippines, PKP), which vowed to fight for the same issues as the Sakdal. Colonial officials suppressed the Sakdal on May 2, 1935, after its followers staged an uprising, and arrested PKP leaders to force the party to go underground.8

During World War II, American political and cultural hegemony was firmly entrenched in the Philippines when Filipino soldiers fought side by side with the Americans to slow down the advance of Japanese forces. The “heroic” defense by a badly equipped Filipino-American force of their last two outposts, and then suffering together in a “Death March” from the battlegrounds to prisoner-of-war camps. The guerilla war that ensued was mostly led by Filipino and American officers and men, adding to this shared experiences of war. Memories of that “special relationship” born out of war still strongly resonate to this very day.

This bond that World War II engendered would not have persisted into the postcolonial era had it not been for an important ideological infrastructure that the Americans laid out across in the Philippines in their forty-year colonial rule. Realizing that Filipinos were still divided by religion, ethnicity, and language when they took over, American colonial administrators hurriedly established a colony-wide public school system with English as its medium of instruction. This network had two major goals. First, it was to reduce if not eliminate these fissures and bring about a unified Filipino community, and second, it was to address a popular demand for education that the Spanish never granted the colonized. Until the late 20th century, therefore, Filipinos from different parts of the country were only comfortable communicating to one another in English.9 The national language, which was based on the dialect with the most speakers—Tagalog—failed to make a mark in the northern, central, and southern Philippines despite being a required language in primary and secondary schools. Only English could connect the regions to one another.

With English as the lingua franca, it was not a stretch to also introduce Filipinos to the various facets of American popular culture: from novels and comic strips to movies and television programs to rock-and-roll and Coca-Cola. Nationalists criticized Filipino acceptance of these symbols as evidence of a “colonial mentality.”10 It was a valid criticism, although it also ignored the above-mentioned realities that American colonial administrators faced. Pro-Americanism was the unintended outcome of a colonial order finding the best way to govern. It was also how Americans believed “modernity” would be introduced to the colonized. Moreover, Filipinos were to be trained to eventually run their country as the United States promised them in the first decade of colonial rule, then they had to learn the art of becoming modern in which the United States was a rising model. From that time on, “turning like the United States” became the developmentalist mantra of every Filipino leader, political party, and civil association.

The New Republic and Cacique Democracy

On July 4, 1946, the Republic of the Philippines was inaugurated with a political system resembling that of the former colonizer. The new nation was established at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were beginning to confront and undermine each other to protect their global zones of influence. During the Cold War, the United States kept close control over its client states; in the case of the Philippines, it used access to postwar rehabilitation funds as leverage to compel the latter to agree to allowing the former to set up military bases and stations in the country, and an economic pact that gave American business equal rights as Filipino corporations in the Philippine market. Nationalists and communists opposed these “unequal treaties,” threatening to order their elected legislators to block their passage in Congress. The government responded by accusing these left-wing representatives of electoral fraud and thus preventing them from taking their seats in new House of Representatives. The treaties were approved. The U.S. government also kept the pressure on Filipino technocrats who favored a “Filipino first” policy that protected Filipino industries from foreign competition. In this it had the powerful sugar families as allies, as the latter feared losing their special access to the American market.

The U.S. and Philippine governments were more worried about the growing communist belligerence. Believing that the young government was still weak and could be overthrown, the PKP prepared its guerrilla army for a possible assault force against the “reactionary state.” It had no problem keeping morale high, since the Philippine Constabulary (PC) and armed civilian militias kept harassing peasants to protect the landed estates of the rural elite fearing communist-led land seizure. On August 24, 1946, Juan Feleo, a peasant guerrilla leader, and four of his comrades were kidnapped and summarily executed by suspected government soldiers. This was the final straw, and the PKP ordered its army Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (The People’s Liberation Army, HMB, and later popularly known as the “Huks”) to take the offensive. President Manuel Roxas sent the Philippine Constabulary to fight the Huks, but this internal police force fared poorly against the more battle-experienced communists, prompting the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Defense Department to take over the anti-Huk campaigns.11

Under close American supervision, the Philippine army took over operations and succeeded in turning the tide. Three years later, the Huks were defeated. The campaign also gave the Americans the opening to deal with the widespread corruption inside the government, which they believed fed into the public perception of the state’s weakness against the PKP. What was needed as a reform-minded leader who could also clean up the state. They found that leader in Ramon Magsaysay, an automobile mechanic who distinguished himself as a World War II guerrilla, then served briefly as military governor of his province after the war. Magsaysay was elected to the House of Representatives and then became the defense secretary under President Elpidio Quirino. In 1953, he ran against his former boss and won despite having no national campaign machinery; the CIA made up for this logistical handicap by building a coalition of noncommunist peasant and labor organizations, professional groups, youth clubs, and the Catholic Church (with the Jesuits providing the ideological support for this anticommunist, anticorruption movement).12

As president, however, Magsaysay was far from the American puppet that nationalists portrayed him to be. He had a fraught relationship with the United States, exploiting what he felt were the weak points therein to advance the national interest. Magsaysay protected import-substitution industries, threatened to renegotiate the bases agreement, and started similar talks to reexamine American business parity rights.13 He participated in the Asian-African Non-aligned Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, which the United States had condemned as pro-communist, and stood alongside other former colonies to voice their concerns over the “neocolonialism” of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Magsaysay died in a plane crash on March 16, 1957, and his successor, Carlos P. Garcia, reversed his predecessor policies, downgrading Philippine involvement in the non-aligned movement and strengthening ties with the American-created Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Garcia did continue to pressure the Americans for concessions, and one of the results was a new treaty that shortened of American lease of its military bases from the first ninety-nine years to twenty-five years, renewable every five years.14 Citing a crisis in the economy arising from the uncontrollable outflow of dollars and the alleged Chinese monopoly of the retail sector, the president launched the “Filipino First” policy that, among other things, tightened regulations on the imports and exports.15 It was a policy that was far from perfect: the smuggling of imports worsened under Garcia, and corruption returned with a vengeance after being contained by Magsaysay. The United States worried that this policy would expand and include American businesses, and decided that Garcia was a liability to its interests in the Philippines and Asia.

In the 1961 presidential elections, the Americans supported candidacy of Diosdado Macapagal, who went on to defeat Garcia. One of Macapagal’s first policies was to lift exchange and monetary controls, thereby ending over a decade of protectionist policies. His technocrats then drafted a five-year development plan to restore free enterprise, pegged the Philippine peso to the U.S. dollar, reduced government involvement in the economy and made the private sector the vanguard of economic development. The Americans showed their appreciation by facilitating the release of a $300-million stabilization fund from the International Monetary Fund to prevent the peso from devaluing too fast after it was pegged to the U.S. dollar. Macapagal promised to send Philippine troops to Vietnam as part of the country’s obligations to SEATO, but he was blocked by an opposition-controlled congress. Macapagal lasted only one term and was defeated by Ferdinand Marcos in the 1965 presidential elections.16


President Ferdinand Marcos opposed the sending of Filipino troops to Vietnam while still in the senate, but once he became president, he did a 180-degree turn and deployed a “Philippine Civic Action Group” (PHILCAG) ostensibly to assist in the rebuilding of villages and provide other social assistance to Vietnamese villagers.17 Student protested this act of “puppetry” of the Marcos government to U.S. strategic interests and demanded the abrogation of the military bases agreement as well as the “onerous” parity rights treaty. A new Maoist communist party began to influence these protests. This growing communist presence could have been contained had Marcos not exacerbated the situation by winning a reelection 1969 via bankrupting the national treasury and using his allies’ private armies to weaken his rivals’ powers in their bailiwicks. This “re-election”—the first ever in the history of the modern Philippines—polarized political positions. Anti-Marcos politicians now sought out student radicals and labor federations to come up with a united front against Marcos. Nationalism had also infected the politicos. In Congress, bills were being proposed to end “parity rights,” and at the Supreme Court, nationalist lawyers had convinced the justices to rule against foreign (i.e., American) control of public lands.

Citing this alliance of oligarchs and leftists as a threat to the republic, Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972. Within six months, more than 30,000 were arrested and detained in various military camps. Marcos was less successful in the southern island of Mindanao, when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a coalition of Muslim groups that vowed to separate the Mindanao, the Sulu Archipelago, and the island of Palawan in west-central Philippines, declared war on the government. Amply supplied with guns and other war materiel by Libya and Malaysia, the MNLF fought a conventional war against the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) from 1975 to 1977. The MNLF performed badly in the battleground, but its rebellion also undermined regime consolidation.

The United States quietly welcomed Marcos’s constitutional authoritarianism, increased military aid to the Philippines, and supported the efforts of regime technocrats to obtain “development funds” from the World Bank (WB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and private lenders. Like many other Filipino politicians, Marcos was a creature of patronage politics, but he also belonged to a postwar generation of elites that regarded the state as their primary source of spoils. They were unlike the earlier generation whose vast rice and export crop estates were the foundation of their wealth, and who treated state positions as a means to defend or expand their fortunes. Marcos’s cohort group did not own huge plantations and big family corporations. They thus had to compensate by systematically plundering the government’s resources.

By the late 1970s, human-rights organizations began to release reports of military abuses against political prisoners, communities suspected of supporting the CPP, and even apolitical Filipinos who personally crossed the Marcos family or their cronies. The cruelties triggered widespread animosity toward the dictatorship, worrying American diplomats and intelligence officers tracking the growth of the communist insurgency and the anticommunist Marcos opposition. When the United States leaned on Marcos to ease political restrictions, the dictator threatened to review the military bases agreement and demand higher compensation. American strategic interests trumped human rights, and the United States continued to support Marcos even as there was growing evidence that his regime was weakening.

By the 1980s, Filipinos were beginning to be attracted to the left’s slogan of the “U.S.-Marcos dictatorship.” Moderate forces were appropriating “anti-imperialist” slogans, while anti-Marcos and anticommunist politicians formed “tactical alliances” with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Meanwhile, the CPP’s New People’s Army (NPA) was opening one “guerrilla front” after another and extending the armed struggle from the countryside to towns and cities in regions.18 Political instability took a turn for the worse when Marcos’s main political rival, Benigno Aquino Jr., was gunned down at on August 21, 1983, as he deplaned with a military escort sent to arrest him at the Manila International airport. Aquino’s murder sparked nationwide protests, bringing out to the streets hitherto apolitical business elites, professional groups, neighborhood associations, and even sports clubs. Overnight, these newly politicized groups had strengthened the moderate flank of anti-Marcos traditional politicians, anticommunist liberals, and social democrats. The CPP now worried that it was losing its vanguard role to the moderates.

An embattled Marcos called for an election for the rubber-stamp parliament in 1984. Despite massive government fraud, the moderate opposition won 41 out of the 181 seats being contested. American officials welcomed these signs of change but worried that Marcos was also losing control. Their concerns were confirmed when Marcos failed to stop the economic slide instigated by a Chinese businessman-partner of prominent Marcos cronies who fled the country with a $84.7 million debt and the IMF discovered that the president’s technocrats had padded reserve figures to qualify for a standby loan that could restart debt negotiations after the Philippine government declared a moratorium on principal repayments.19

By the middle of 1985, the end game had begun. In May, an attempt to form a “broad coalition” among the anti-Marcos forces failed when the CPP’s Leninist dogmatism undercut the negotiations, causing an irremediable split in the opposition. A month later, middle-level officers announced the formation of the Reform the Armed Forces of the Philippines movement (RAM), which vowed to expose corruption and abuse of power in the military. Its spokesmen began to turn out in public events explaining the group’s position. Then in November, Marcos surprised everyone by announcing in a television interview that he would hold a “snap election” for the presidency in February of the following year.

Moderate forces rallied around Aquino Jr.’s widow, Corazon (“Cory”), who agreed to run against Marcos. American observers became nervous when politicians who were part of Aquino’s inner circle were able to insert a provision demanding the closure of the U.S. bases in her program of action. Marcos “won” the February 7, 1986, elections, and Mrs. Aquino responded by calling for a nationwide campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. While doing final counting of the ballots, thirty-five official tabulators of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) suddenly walked out to protest over the blatant widespread cheating to ensure Marcos’s victory. President Reagan, who was doggedly loyal to his friend Marcos, finally yielded to the pressure and sent an emissary to discuss with Marcos and Mrs. Aquino the transition to power.

While the public was preparing for civil disobedience, RAM launched a coup against Marcos on February 23. The coup failed, forcing RAM to retreat to one of the camps under its partial control to await their massacre by forces loyal to the president. They were saved by Jaime Cardinal Sin, the head of the Catholic Church, who called on people to surround the camp and protect RAM. By the morning of the 24th, over a million people had formed a human wall around the besieged camp preventing Philippine Marines from staging an attack. RAM appealed to fellow soldiers to join this “people power revolution,” and once the Air Force defected to the rebel side, Marcos was finished. President Reagan saw the writing on the wall and sent Senator Paul Laxalt to tell Marcos to “cut and cut cleanly.”20 American helicopters from Clark Air Force Base flew Marcos and his family and cronies out of the palace, and then a military plane transported them to Hawaii. President Cory Aquino declared a “revolutionary government” and promised a full return of constitutional democracy.

Democratization, Divorce, and Reconciliation

Presidents Aquino and Reagan buried the hatchet during her state visit to the United States in September 1986, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution allotting $200 million in emergency aid to her government, and the United States spearheaded a multinational Multilateral Aid Initiative, with countries responding by pledging more than $6.7 billion in assistance. Domestic politics, however, remained unsteady for throughout the Aquino years. Feeling left out of the governing coalition and still dreaming of setting up the civilian-military junta they hope to replace Marcos with, RAM launched six coups against Aquino. All these failed, although the sixth one nearly succeeded had not U.S. vice president Dan Quayle sent a fighter jet to “fly over” rebel positions to convey to RAM unqualified U.S. support for President Aquino.

In 1989 negotiations began for the extension of the military bases agreement, which was due to terminate in 1992. Both sides agreed to a draft of the new treaty by the summer of 1991 and forwarded this to the Philippine Senate for approval.21 The debates were contentious, with passions stoked by outside pressures by President Aquino herself, who supported the extension. In the end, however, the senate rejected the treaty on the grounds that the US$203 million annual “rent” proposed by the United States was too low. The pro-bases senators lost by one vote.22 A year later, the Americans closed the Subic Bay naval base, while Clark Air Force Base was shut down when a nearby dormant volcano erupted and destroyed the other major facility.23 Filipino nationalists declared the end of “neocolonial domination,” while the U.S. government responded by cutting its $200-million assistance program to $40 million.24

The Philippines disappeared from the American strategic map, and efforts by Mrs. Aquino’s successor, Fidel V. Ramos, to rekindle the country’s “special friendship” were ignored by Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. While the United States had been offended by the Philippine decision, there were other factors at play that made withdrawal less painful. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Congress saw little value in keeping many bases around the world and was keen on slashing budget allocation for base maintenance. Improved military technology had also allowed the Pentagon to experiment with mobile bases that were less costly than permanent military complexes. Offers by Singapore and Thailand to host visiting American ships and troops on rest-and-recreation also more than made up for the loss of the Subic Bay base.

The chill in the Filipino–American relationship exposed the weakness of the AFP as it helplessly watched the People’s Republic of China seize a group of small islands west of the Philippine Sea. The military remained mainly an internal counterinsurgency force, and modernizing equipment and reorienting units for external defense were not the AFP’s priorities. Aware of this deficiency, President Ramos sold a major army base to real-estate companies for $2 billion in part to support military modernization, although this was still oriented toward counter-insurgency operations.

The winds changed in 1995 when Manila police arrested a member of an Islamic terrorist group sent to the Philippines to assassinate the visiting Pope John Paul II and smuggle bombs into American planes flying across the Pacific back to the U.S. mainland. The United States expressed its gratitude to the Philippines by devoting more attention to the southern island of Mindanao especially after the Abu Sayyaf, a self-professed vanguard of Islamic fundamentalism, launched an attack on towns in the southwestern province of Zamboanga del Norte.

Then, in 1996, the Philippine government and the MNLF signed a peace agreement, and when President Ramos sought American help to rehabilitate the war zones, the latter responded by allotting $40 million for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Manila station. USAID contracted the American Berger Group to implement the Growth with Equity Program for Mindanao (GEM), a multi-million project to rehabilitate the war zones of Muslim Mindanao. One of these projects was the the $2.5-million Livelihood Enhancement and Peace Program (LEAP) that would help ex-MNLF guerrillas get back to their feet. LEAP became one of the most successful American projects in the Philippines, having assisted 28,000 out of the total 30,000 MNLF army jump-start their small business activities.25

In 1998, Ramos’s successor, Joseph Estrada, successfully lobbied the senate to approve a U.S.–Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that his predecessor signed earlier. Filipinos expected Estrada to remain an opponent of any agreement with the Americans, after he had voted against the retention of the U.S. bases in the senate in 1992. Estrada, however, saw the need for a “revived alliance with Washington as a hedge against possible conflicts that might erupt from its territorial claims in the Spratleys islands [on the West Philippine Sea] and general instability in Northeast Asia.”26 The other thing that changed the president’s mind was the Abu Sayyaf, which had become bolder with its abduction of twenty-one tourists in and employees of a Malaysian beach resort in Sabah.

The senate supported Estrada, and in 2000 the first American troops returned to Philippine soil since the bases closed in 1992. In 2000, the Philippine and American armies launched Balikatan (Tagalog for “shoulder-to-shoulder”), a military exercise aimed at upgrading joint planning, combat readiness, and to synchronize their operations.27 This renewal of military cooperation happened at a time when another political crisis was unfolding in the Philippines. Filipino elites and the middle classes were increasingly displeased with President Estrada’s erratic working style and the growing corruption inside his inner circle. Estrada tried to distract public attention by declaring an “all-out war” against the 11,000-strong army of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The campaign was a success, with government troops capturing the MILF’s headquarters and destroying forty-three other smaller camps.28 Estrada, however, was less successful in propping up his regime. When the president’s allies in the senate refused to proceed with the impeachment, anti-Estrada groups went to the streets in an attempt to re-enact “People Power.” They were able to force Estrada to resign, this time backed by a de facto institutional coup by the senior military leadership. His successor, Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, revoked the “all-out war” policy and invited the MILF to talk peace.

Full Restoration

If the Balikatan exercises allowed for the regular visit of U.S. troops, the kidnapping by the Abu Sayyaf of an American missionary couple in May 2001 and the September 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center made U.S. military presence more or less permanent.29 Both assaults elevated the Philippines to the status of a “major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally” in the “Global War on Terror.” 30 This “reclassification” was a boon for the AFP: U.S. military aid went up from $38.03 million (2001), to $94.5 million (2002), and $114.46 million (2003). An additional $2.4 million was allotted for international military training education and $1.5 million for regional counterterrorism training. By 2003, U.S. military and economic aid totaled $808.2 million.31

Filipino nationalists were unrelenting in their criticism, but the public was not listening. In Muslim Mindanao, a 2002 poll survey showed 60 percent of Muslims supporting Balikatan while 36 percent disapproved of the exercise. Local politicians welcomed U.S. troops for their help in local infrastructure projects, and entrepreneurs described the presence of U.S. troops as good for business.32 The most surprising reaction came from the MILF, which described itself as an Islamic movement, but had never hesitated in offering to talk peace with the Philippine government. This odd pragmatism extended to the U.S. government when, in January 2003, the late MILF Chairman Salamat Hashim wrote to George W. Bush, introducing the organization and its goals, and then asking the American president to help revive the peace talks with the Philippine government.33

Bush responded by instructing the U.S. ambassador in Manila to launch a “Philippine Facilitation Project,” and requested the the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in August 2004 to take charge of mediating between the MILF and the Philippine government.34 When the USIP stepped down after its budget was not renewed, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, and Malaysia took over to ensure that the talks continued. The MILF and the Arroyo government finally agreed to a Memorandum of Agreement on the Muslim Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in July 2009. The Philippine Supreme Court, however, ruled the agreement unconstitutional, and an aggrieved faction in the MILF broke away, formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BFF), and promptly attacked several towns peopled by non-Muslims.

Benigno Aquino III, Arroyo’s successor, revived the negotiations, and both sides signed several annexes to a “framework agreement on the Bangsamoro” in October 2012. This “framework” was supposed to be the foundation of a proposed law on Muslim autonomy that the Philippine Congress would have to approve.35 All this was laid to waste when a secret operation to capture a Malaysian terrorist hiding in MILF territory turned into a one-sided battle between the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP SAF) and MILF and BFF troops. Some forty-four policemen and twenty-four rebels were killed, and an angry congress postponed hearings on the proposed law. Journalists alleged that American advisers were involved in the operations, but neither the Philippine nor the American government confirmed this claim.36 President Aquino left it to incoming president Rodrigo Duterte to decide whether to continue or just scuttle the talks and return to war.

There were other instances where the VFA provisions were challenged. A 2005 rape charge against a U.S. marine and the refusal of the Philippine government to turn over the suspect to American jurisdiction prompted the United States to cancel Balikatan 2007. Both countries, however, ended compromising—the marine was moved to the American embassy but was charged in a Philippine court—and the exercises were back on schedule. Another marine was charged in October 2014 for killing a transgender Filipina, but unlike the 2005 case, the United States did not oppose the litigation. Neither did it cancel Balikatan; in fact, the number of its troops participating in the April 2015 exercises doubled in number.37

Under President Aquino, the Philippine-American relationship reached an all-time high. In the face of aggressive Chinese moves to take over island groups in the West Philippine Sea, Aquino started a vigorous modernization program to enhance the AFP’s external defense capabilities, buying new fighter planes from South Korea and recycled coast guard ships from the United States and Australia.38 Military modernization plans also came at an appropriate time: the Philippine economy was in its most robust form, and President Barack Obama announced a “Pivot to the Pacific” post-Iraq war strategy in light of China’s aggressive presence in the region. The American government responded by tripling military aid to the Philippines in 2012 in support of the country’s reorientation of its national defense program.39 On April 28, 2014, the cooperation was raised to another level with the signing of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to deepen “bilateral defense cooperation” aimed at improving training, communications, and troops and equipment transportation. ECDA likewise included a provision allowing U.S. forces to store material in Philippine bases, excluding nuclear weapons.40

In the second decade of the 21st century, Philippine-American relations continued to improve. The United States boosted its image among Filipinos further when USAID and the American military assisted in evacuating 3 million people after central Philippines was hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded. Around 60 percent of the $240 million in American assistance to the Philippines was also diverted to fund the recovery effort that included rebuilding the local infrastructure. Gone was the typical practice of Filipino elites undermining American influence for their own patrimonial and nationalistic purposes. Instead, a remarkable uprightness underpinned military and economic ties. Regime changes and intra-elite conflicts may be cause for some apprehension, but they have had little impact on Philippine-American ties.

Today, the Philippines has an openly anti-American president who has repeatedly cursed at American leaders, and warned that he would cut all ties with the United States and move his allegiance to China and Russia. President Rodrigo Duterte’s outbursts have made headlines in both countries and caused some ripples all over. The Pew Trust survey, however, suggests that Filipinos continue to ignore the rants of Duterte and his nationalist/communist allies. This was reconfirmed in a September 2016 survey of the Philippine polling group Social Weathers Station on Filipinos’ perceptions toward the United States and China. The survey showed that 76 percent of the 1,200 respondents continued to place “much trust” on the United States, and only 22 percent had faith the Chinese. Fifty percent had “little trust” in China, and only 11 percent expressed doubts about the United States.41

Discussion of the Literature

The literature on the Philippine-American relationship is essentially divided into, first, those critical of American domination of the Philippines and, second, Filipinos’ accommodation of or resistance to this power. “Anti-imperialist” works argue that the United States was not the benevolent colonizer that its leaders claim to be. The literature is heavy on the Filipino-American War and on various forms of resistance to colonial rule after the defeat of the Philippine Republic.42 These scholars (and scholar-activists) describe American rule as a ruthless one, especially when it came to the popular and radical. Filipinos who collaborated with the Americans were as complicit as their patrons in maintaining this repressive rule.43

The other group of scholars sees these confrontations as more complex processes characterized by constant disagreements between American policy makers in Washington, D.C., and military and civilians implementing colonial rule, and quarrels over how to rule an ethnically diverse society.44 They agree that American rule had its repressive features, but also argue that the introduction of constitutional democracy, the basic freedoms (speech, free press, assembly), and a resilient and boisterous media were features of American politics passed on to the colony, turning the Philippines into one of the more resilient democratic societies in Southeast Asia.45

More recent scholarship straddles these two sides, seeing more nuances in Filipino responses to American authority. It draws attention to the many ways in which Filipinos were able to empower themselves at the expense of the Americans.46 The “Filipinization” of the colonial state was as much a part of the colonial policy to prepare Filipinos for independence as it was the outcome of institutional and political combat with Filipino leaders prevailing over their American rivals. 47 The new scholarship likewise explores Philippine-American relationships from other angles: looking at the subtle mechanisms of colonial control like surveillance and the restructuring of Filipino lives via public health policies, particularly the redefinition of hygiene.48 Past scholarship has focused on the political motives behind colonization, while current works explore the use of race as the ideological justification for colonial annexation.49 Filipino scholars, in turn, have shifted away from the grand narratives of the resistance to American, to the more nuanced and local responses to the new order.50

New works have also viewed the American colonial experience from a comparative perspective in part as criticism of the notion of American exceptionalism.51 Attempts to place the American colonial state alongside other colonial powers in Southeast Asia are refreshingly innovative given that these new works place colonial Philippines in a regional context instead of treating it as a place with no connections with other colonial societies in Southeast Asia.52 The focus of comparison had changed. There have also been attempts at what Benedict Anderson calls “negative comparison,” where the Philippines is compared to the United States. Thus, instead of a vertical examination that puts the United States/metropole on top and the Philippines/colony at the bottom), both societies are placed in the same horizontal plane, adjoined to each other.53

Scholarship in the era of the Philippine Republic has not been as extensive as that in the colonial period. Most connect the colonial and postcolonial periods.54 Two of the best works depart from the scholarship that sees a more multifaceted relationship in which Filipino elites have pitted wills against their American patrons, and often prevailed.55 There is yet no substantive study of Filipino-American relations during the post-Marcos period, although the books by policy analyst John Bresnan and journalist Raymond Bonner are notable early attempts at examining that period of the relations.56

Primary Sources

Joseph Ralston Hayden collected different kinds of documents (including personal letters) during his stint as vice governor of the American colonial government. These are now housed at the University of Michigan as the J. R. Hayden collection. The library also has the private papers of other colonial bureaucrats, for example, John Rodgers Meigs Taylor’s compilation of primary documents titled The Philippine Insurrection against the United States: Documents with Notes and Introduction, 1898–1903. This was originally a project of the U.S. War Department. The Eugenio Lopez Foundation in Manila published a Philippine edition in 1973. The U.S. State Department has also put out microfilm copies of consular reports from the Philippines, and these are available at the Cornell Library and other similar institutions with extensive collections on the Philippines.

The Foreign Relations of the United States Series and the National Archives and Records Administration house the most extensive collection of primary documents on United States-Philippine relations. The National Security Archives at George Washington University also contains the redacted reports on the Marcos period, as prepared by different American consuls and other officials. This was made possible through the authors using the Freedom of Information Act that led to the release of these documents.

Further Reading

Bonner, Raymond. Waltzing with a Dictator. New York: Vintage Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Brand, H. W.Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Cullather, Nick. Illusions of Influence: The Political Economy of United States-Philippines Relations, 19421960. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Delmendo, Sharon. The Star-Entangled Banner: One Hundred Years of America in the Philippines. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Friend, Theodore. Between Two Empires: The Ordeal of the Philippines, 1929–1946. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Go, Julian, and Anne Foster, eds. The American Colonial State in the Philippines; Global Perspectives. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Golay, Frank. Face of Empire: United States-Philippine Relations, 18981946. Madison. University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 2004.Find this resource:

Gonzalez, Andrew B.Language and Nationalism: The Philippine Experience Thus Far. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1980.Find this resource:

Hayden, Joseph Ralston. The Philippines: A Study in National Development. New York: MacMillan, 1942.Find this resource:

Kramer, Paul. The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Linn, Brian McAllister. The Philippine War, 18991902. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2000.Find this resource:

McCoy. Alfred W.Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.Find this resource:

McCoy Alfred W., and Francisco Scarano, eds. Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Shaw, Angel Velasco, and Luis H. Francia. Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899–1999. New York: New York University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Silbey, David J.A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.Find this resource:

Stanley, Peter W.A Nation in the Making: The Philippines and the United States, 18991921. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.Find this resource:

Stanley, Peter W., ed. Reappraising an Empire: New Perspectives on Philippine-American History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.Find this resource:


(1.) "Chapter 1. The American Brand,” Pew Research Center, July 14, 2014.

(2.) David J. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 30125.

(3.) Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 94125.

(4.) Frank Golay, Face of Empire: United States-Philippine Relations, 1898–1946 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1998), 143144.

(5.) Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 134143.

(6.) Joseph Ralston Hayden, The Philippines: A Study in National Development (New York: Macmillan, 1942), 329331.

(7.) Andrew Gonzalez, “The Role and Contribution of the Thomasites to Language Education,” in Back to the future: Perspectives on the Thomasite Legacy to Philippine Education, ed. Corazon D. Villareal (Manila, Philippines: American Studies Association of the Philippines and Cultural Affairs Office, U.S. Embassy, 2003), 5162.

(8.) Jim Richardson, Komunista: The Genesis of the Philippine Communist Party, 1902–1935 (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2011).

(9.) Andrew B. Gonzalez, Language and Nationalism: The Philippine Experience Thus Far (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1980).

(10.) Renato Constantino, The Miseducation of the Filipino (Quezon City, Philippines: Malaya Books, 1966).

(11.) “Edward Geary Lansdale and the New Counterinsurgency,” Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterrorism, 1940–1990.

(12.) Carlos P. Romulo and Marvin M. Gray, The Magsaysay Story (New York: John Day Company, 1956); and Rosalinda Pineda Ofreneo, “The Catholic Church in Philippine politics,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 17.3 (1987), 320338.

(13.) Nick Cullather, The Political Economy of United States-Philippines Relations, 1942–1960 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 96122.

(14.) Aurelio B. Calderon, The Laurel-Langley Agreement: a critically annotated and selected bibliography (Manila, Philippines: De La Salle University Press, 1979).

(16.) Yusuke Takagi, Central Banking as State Building: Policymakers and their Nationalism in the Philippines, 1933–1964 (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2016), 155179.

(17.) Jose T. Almonte with Marites Danguilan Vitug, Endless Journey: A Memoir (Manila, Philippines: Cleverheads, 2015), 4368.

(18.) Amy Blitz, The Contested State: American Foreign Policy and Regime Change in the Philippines (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 165167.

(19.) Paul David Hutchcroft, Booty Capitalism: The Politics of Banking in the Philippines (Ithaca, N.Y., and London, Cornell University Press, 1998), 165166; and Mario Antonio G. Lopez, “Corporate Governance in East Asia: Implications for Economic Efficiency,” in Asian Economic Recovery: Policy Options for Growth and Stability, ed. Kong Yam Tan (Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies and Singapore University Press, 2002), 129.

(20.) Sara Fritz and Eleanor Clift, “‘The Time Has Come,’ Laxalt told Marcos,” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1986.

(21.) Part of the senate’s power was the approval of treaties with other states, a practice that the Philippines emulated from the Americans.

(22.) Renato Cruz de Castro, “The Revitalized Philippine-U.S. Security Relations: A Ghost from the Cold War or an Alliance for the 21st Century?” Asian Survey 43.6 (NovemberDecember 2003): 974.

(23.) Philip Shenon, “Philippine Senate Votes to Reject U.S. Base Renewal,” The New York Times, September 16, 1991; and David E. Sanger, “Philippines Orders U.S. to Leave Strategic Navy Base at Subic Bay,” The New York Times, December 28, 1991.

(24.) Renato Cruz de Castro, “The Revitalized Philippine-U.S. Security Relations: A Ghost from the Cold War or an Alliance for the 21st Century?” Asian Survey 43.6 (NovemberDecember 2003): 975977.

(25.) USAID-Philippines, “USAID/PHIL activities in Mindanao.”

(26.) Renato Cruz de Castro, “The Revitalized Philippine-U.S. Security Relations: A Ghost from the Cold War or an Alliance for the 21st Century?” Asian Survey 43.6 (NovemberDecember 2003): 979.

(27.) “Exercise Balikatan: “Shouldering the Load Together,” Global Security Newsletter, n.d.

(28.) There is no exact figure for how many fighters the MILF had. The best estimate is by Jose Antonio Custodio, “War in Mindanao: How Prepared Is the Military? Part,” Interaksyon, February 18, 2015.

(29.) In June 2002 Filipino and American troops launched an operation to free missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham; Gracia survived, but Martin was killed in the crossfire.

(30.) Jim Garamone, “Philippines to Become Major Non-NATO Ally, Bush Says,” American Forces Press Service, U.S. Department of Defense.

(31.) Marvin Sy, “US Releases $808M in Aid to RP in 2003,” Philstar Global, October 20, 2003.

(32.) Patricio N. Abinales, “The Good Imperialists,” in Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim Mindanao Narrative (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2010), 9394.

(33.) As quoted by Jarius Bondoc, “MILF Letter to Bush Sped Up Settlement,” Philstar, August 1, 2008. “Moro” was a pejorative term first used by Spanish colonialist to describe Mindanao Muslims. The MNLF appropriated the term and turned it into a badge of pride.

(34.) G. Eugene Martin and Astrid S. Tuminez, “Toward Peace in the Southern Philippines: A Summary and Assessment of the USIP Philippine Facilitation Project, 20032007,” United States Institute of Peace Special Report 202 (February 2008), 410.

(35.) Soliman M. Santos, “The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and (the Question of) Charter Change,” Mindanews, October 27, 2012.

(36.) Carmela Fonbuena, “American Tried to Give Orders in Mamapasano,” Rappler, March 18, 2015.

(37.) Seth Robson, “US More Than Doubles Troops for Philippine Balikatan Exercise,” Stars and Stripes, April 8, 2015.

(38.) Drivers of growth have been the more than $12 billion dollars in remittances of overseas Filipino workers and corporate revenues derived from business process outsourcing. Foreign direct investments are less reliable because of the volatility of their inflow and outflow. The reason for this is not the corruption or lack of clear-cut government policy on investments, but “in the changing priorities of investors and where those priorities place the Philippines.” Nihal Amerasinghe and Justin Modesto III, “Foreign Direct Investment in Asia: Lessons of Experience,” Asian Institute of Management Working Paper 12–003 (August 2006), 32. On OFW remittances, see Ted P. Torres, “Third Highest Worldwide, OFW Remittances Seen to Hit $29.7B in 2015,” Philstar Global, December 26, 2015.

(39.) Manuel Mogato, “U.S. Triples Military Aid to Philippines in 2012,” Reuters, May 3, 2012.

(40.) Nikko Dizon, “Defense Accord with US a Security Cover for PH,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 13, 2014; and, Carl Thayer, “Analyzing the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement,” The Diplomat, May 2, 2014.

(42.) See, for example, Leon Wolff, Little Brown Brother: How the United States Purchased and Pacified the Philippine Islands at the Century’s Turn (Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1961); Renato Constantino, Neocolonial Identity and Counter-Culture (London: Merlin Press, 1978); Victor Bascara, Model-Minority Imperialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Gregg Jones,’ Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (New York: New American Library, 2012); and Abe Ignacio, The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons (Berkeley, CA: Eastwind Books, 2014).

(43.) David Reeves Sturtevant, Popular Uprisings in the Philippines, 1840–1940 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976).

(44.) Stuart Creighton Miller’s“Benevolent Assimilation”: The Conquest of the Philippines, 1899–1903 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984); Brian McAllister Linn’sThe Philippine War, 1899–1902 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2000); Brian McAllister, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899–1902 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); and Joel Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 18991902 (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008).

(45.) Frank H. Golay and the American Assembly, eds., Philippine-American Relations (Manila, Philippines: Solidaridad Publishing House, 1966); Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (Ballantine Books, N.Y., 1989, 2010); H. W. Brand’sBound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Sharon Delmendo, The Star-Entangled Banner: One Hundred Years of America in the Philippines (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

(46.) Frank Golay, Face of Empire: United States-Philippine Relations, 1898–1946 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 2004).

(47.) Theodore Friend, Between Two Empires: The Ordeal of the Philippines, 1929–1946 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966); Peter W. Stanley, A Nation in the Making: The Philippines and the United States, 1899–1921 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974); Peter W. Stanley, ed. Reappraising an Empire: New Perspectives on Philippine-American History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984); Bonifacio Salamanca, Filipino Reaction to American Rule, 19011913 (Riverside, CA: Cellar Book Shop, 1985); and Ruby R. Paredes, ed., Philippine Colonial Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale Southeast Asia Studies Monograph Series, 1988). This was a phenomenon first observed by Joseph Ralston Hayden, who, as vice governor in the late 1920s, first observed the Filipinos’ Machiavellian ability to upend the Americans. Joseph Ralston Hayden’sThe Philippines: A Study in National Development (New York: MacMillan, 1942).

(48.) Alfred W. McCoy. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009); and Warwick Anderson, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race and Hygiene in the Philippines (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

(49.) Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government; Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

(50.) Peter Gordon Gowing, Mandate in Moroland: The American Government of Muslim Filipinos (Manila, Philippines: New Day Publishers, 1983); William Henry Scott’sIlocano Responses to American Aggression, 1900–1901 (Manila, Philippines: New Day Publishers, 1987); and Resil B. Mojares, The War Against the Americans: Resistance and Collaboration in Cebu, 18991906 (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1999). The grand narrative school is represented the best by Renato Constantino, The Philippines; A Past Revisited (Quezon City, Philippines: Renato Constantino, 1993), 198280.

(51.) Julian Go, American Empire and the Politics of Meaning: Elite Political Cultures in the Philippines and Puerto Rico during U.S. Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco Scarano, eds. Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009); and Julian Go, Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

(52.) Julian Go and Anne Foster, eds., The American Colonial State in the Philippines; Global Perspectives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); and Anne Foster, Projections of Power: The United States and Europe in Colonial Southeast Asia, 1919–1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

(53.) Alfred W. McCoy. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009): 3–58; and Patricio N. Abinales, “Progressive-Machine Politics and Colonial State-Building in the Twentieth Century Philippines,” in Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim-Mindanao Narrative (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2010), 1–35.

(54.) Daniel B. Schirmer and Stephen Rosskam Shalom, eds., The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship and Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1987); Angel Velasco Shaw and Luis H. Francia, Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899–1999 (New York: New York University Press, 2002); and Alfred W. McCoy. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

(55.) Notable are Nick Cullather, Illusions of Influence: The Political Economy of United States-Philippines Relations, 1942–1960 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994); and Alfredo R. Bengzon and Raul Rodrigo, A Matter of Honor: The Story of the 1990–91 RP-US Bases Talks (Pasig City, Philippines: Anvil Publishing, 1997).

(56.) Raymond Bonner: Waltzing with a Dictator (New York: Vintage Press, 1988); and John Bresnan, ed., Crisis in the Philippines: The Marcos Era and Beyond (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986).