Exclusion and Empire, 1898–1941

Around midnight, May 1, 1898, nine U.S. warships slipped past the strangely quiet guns on Corregidor Island, past the old Spanish fort guarding the entrance to Manila Bay, and sailed silently toward the Philippines’ capital city. After about five hours, the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron dipped down close to Sangley Point, just to the southwest of Manila, where a dozen Spanish ships rested at anchor. As dawn broke, the Luneta battery onshore began firing at the intruders.

"The Philippine Situation" Cartoon/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay1_1_PhilippineSituationCartoon_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration This 1898 Clifford K. Berryman cartoon from the Washington Post depicts tensions that arose between the United States and European imperialists in Asia after the American victory over Spain in 1898. Jealous of the newfound U.S. influence in Asia and the Pacific, and seeking to retain control of the Philippines and other Pacific islands, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany struggles to hold shut the door to the “East” as Uncle Sam’s oversized leg squeezes through the opening.
Manuel L. Quezon, a 19-year-old law student in Manila, woke to the cannon fire and ran to the beach as Spanish forces lobbed volley after volley at the American squadron. Then, at 5:40 a.m., U.S. Commodore George Dewey gave the command to open fire. The American warships sailed in an elliptical pattern, each one emptying a broadside into the Spanish fleet before circling back around. Two hours later, Dewey broke off contact and sailed out into the bay. Quezon remembered hearing cheers of “Viva España!” until the Spanish ships began sinking into the shallow waters off Cavite. By 12:30 that afternoon, the Spanish forces had surrendered.1

What Quezon saw from the beaches of Manila Bay was the dawn of America’s overseas empire. In a sudden energetic burst, the country defeated Spain in the War of 1898 (traditionally called the Spanish-American War) and took control of territory in the Caribbean while, in the Pacific, the United States annexed the Philippines and negotiated to obtain Hawaii.2

What became a relatively straightforward conflict—U.S. diplomat John Hay, speaking for many at the time, famously boasted that it was a “splendid little war”—gave way to enormously complicated ramifications.3 Since 1789 American policymakers had encouraged the country’s often violent westward expansion—displacing many American Indian nations as eastern settlers established new towns, territories, and, eventually, states on the push toward the Pacific coast. Beginning in 1898, Congress, for the first time in American history, became responsible for overseeing territories that existed beyond the shores of North America. Millions of new people were suddenly swept up into America’s global footprint. Their very presence challenged long-held assumptions about citizenship and race and forced Congress to confront what it meant to be American.4 Would the islands become states, and would their inhabitants become citizens? Was there room in the national narrative for Filipinos, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders?

Battle of Manila Bay Lithograph/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay1_2_NavalBattleCavite_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This 1898 Kurz & Allison lithograph depicts the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, which marked the dawn of America’s overseas empire.
Congress, of course, had been wrestling with those questions since the mid-19th century, when immigrants from China and Japan began coming to America to work the gold mines, build the railroads, and tend the farms along the Pacific coast. Since 1868, with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Constitution had guaranteed citizenship rights to people born on U.S. soil, regardless of whether they were white and lived in Massachusetts or whether they had once been enslaved in Mississippi. Since 1870 both white and black immigrants qualified for naturalization.

But as the number of Asian immigrants rose out west, Congress developed laws targeting them specifically. Over the course of 70 years, federal legislators and the courts worked to bar immigrants from China and Japan from coming to America while prohibiting those already stateside from becoming naturalized citizens. These exclusion acts were compounded by state laws that prevented Asian immigrants from owning land or participating in the political process in any way. This simple fact, more than anything, explains why there is not a single Asian or Pacific Islander American elected as a voting Representative or Senator before 1956.

Resident Commissioners from the Philippine Islands and Independence Lobbyists/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay1_3_ResidentCommissioners_FHL.xml Image courtesy of the Filipinas Heritage Library The two Resident Commissioners from the Philippine Islands, Isauro Gabaldon (pictured fourth from left) and Pedro Guevara (tenth from left), gather with a group of Filipino independence lobbyists and activists in Washington, DC, in 1923.
Although this essay begins in the 1850s, the bulk of it covers the years between the War of 1898 and World War II. We have split it into two sections. The first section covers nearly a century of U.S. immigration law and explains how Congress and the western states, especially, envisioned and erected a policy of exclusion that systematically prevented people of Asian descent from integrating into American society. The second part investigates the history of America’s global reach in the Pacific: the debates for and against acquiring new territory, Congress’s approach to designing the territorial governments in the Philippines and Hawaii, territorial representation on Capitol Hill, the commercial relationship between mainland America and its overseas possessions, and the decades-long debates about independence and statehood. Although the Philippine and Hawaiian “questions” entered the national conversation around the same time, the island territories had remarkably different experiences, culminating in starkly different results. In 1946 the Philippines, which from the start saw itself as a separate nation entirely, became the only territory in American history with representation in Congress to gain its independence. Meanwhile, by the 1940s, Hawaii was clearing a path to statehood. Because of this vast split, their stories are told separately. Although the end date for this chapter is 1941, we have extended the section on the Philippines an extra five years to 1946. From a narrative standpoint, this allows us to cover the entire scope of the Philippines as an American territory, from its acquisition all the way up to its independence.

Chinese Men in Deadwood, Dakota Territory/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay1_4_ChineseHoseTeam_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Asian immigrants played a key role in the development of the western United States. A photographer documented this team of Chinese men in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1888.
In 1900 Hawaiian Delegate Robert W. Wilcox, whose mother was Polynesian, became the first Asian Pacific American (APA) Member of Congress. Less than 10 years later, Benito Legarda and Pablo Ocampo were sworn in as the first Resident Commissioners from the Philippines. Over the next five decades, 15 more APA Members served on Capitol Hill as either a Delegate from Hawaii (five total) or as a Resident Commissioner from the Philippines (13 total). For the 18 APA Members of Congress featured in this section, racism, exclusion, and imperialism were not abstract concepts. They were the products of everyday life, frequently dictating their personal legislative agendas and determining the very nature of their constituents’ relationship with the federal government.

The title of this section, “Exclusion and Empire,” is meant to underscore the two major forces at work in the United States’ policy toward the Pacific prior to World War II: the process of expanding America’s global presence while simultaneously restricting who could belong. In large measure, the two themes informed each other. By the time Congress assumed control over territory in the Pacific, it had decades of experience excluding people of Asian descent—especially the Chinese—from the American story. Over the next 40 years, as Congress supervised territorial governments in the Philippines and Hawaii, lawmakers continued to revise the requirements for citizenship.

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1On the Battle of Manila Bay, see Michael Blow, A Ship to Remember: The Maine and the Spanish-American War (New York: William Morrow, 1992): 224–234. For Quezon’s account, see Manuel Luis Quezon, The Good Fight (New York: Appleton-Century, 1946): 34–35. See also Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (New York: Random House, 1989): 103–105.

2The War of 1898 is traditionally called the Spanish-American War, but recent scholarship has begun using the War of 1898 in order to include Cuban and Filipino combatants in the narrative. See George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008): 309.

3For the Hay quote, see Herring, From Colony to Superpower: 316.

4Ernest R. May, Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961); Robert L. Beisner, From the Old Diplomacy to the New, 1865–1900, 2nd ed. (Wheeling, WV: Harlan Davidson, 1986); and Warren Zimmermann, First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).