War by Other Means: Filipino Migrants and Nativist Americans, 1906-1946

Vicente L. Rafael

Free Press Cover September 13 1941

Following on the heels of Chinese and Japanese exclusion, Filipino immigration to the United States in the first half of the twentieth century was often referred to by American nativists as the “third Asiatic invasion.” Rick Baldoz’s book explores the ramifications of Filipino immigration understood as a kind of ongoing war on white society. The US invasion and occupation of the Philippines from 1898-1941 opened up the pathways for Filipino labor migration to Hawai’i and the United States between 1906 to 1934.  But the increasing number of largely male migrants—at one point, estimated to be near 50,000 in the West Coast alone—was seen by nativist groups as a kind of invasion and colonization of the United States by its colonial subjects. Educated in the colonial public school system to think of America as a democratic society, Filipino migrants were stunned and dismayed at the racial discrimination and harsh working conditions they were subjected to in the metropole. However, rather than accept the terms of their marginalization, Baldoz shows how Filipinos pushed back, refusing to stay on their side of the color line. He traces in great detail the history of this other Filipino-American war as it set in motion a series of conflicts: between nativists seeking the exclusion of Filipinos and Filipino immigrants insisting on their right to civil recognition; and between local officials and Federal judges struggling to parse and clarify the profoundly ambiguous status of Filipinos as “nationals.” As Baldoz points out, such conflicts highlighted the irresolvable contradictions between domestic fears of non-white immigrants contaminating white society and the imperial project of territorial expansion and the colonial uplift of racially heterogeneous populations.

Filipino immigration to the United States began in the midst of war. In 1901, President McKinley authorized the recruitment of Filipinos to the US Navy, thus inaugurating a long history of employing America’s colonial subjects to fight the country’s wars. Despite the capture and surrender of many of their leaders by 1902, Filipino revolutionaries continued to wage insurgent warfare through the first decade of the twentieth century. The US responded with a policy of counterinsurgency. It replaced military with civilian rule, held local elections, set up a colonial legislature, and appointed trusted elites to colonial offices. It also established a scholarship program between 1903-1911 to bring some 289 Filipinos from elite families to study in American universities where, it was hoped, they would be exposed to American ways and return to run the colonial bureaucracy. By 1906, the first group of contract laborers was recruited by the Hawai’i Sugar Planters Association to fill the vacuum created by the exclusion of the Chinese. White planters thought Filipinos to be naturally deferential and thus effective for countering the militancy of Japanese workers. But given the oppressive conditions of plantation work, Filipinos soon formed unions and in coalition with Japanese workers conducted a series of costly strikes through the mid-1920s. Seeking to escape the hardships of plantation labor, many Filipinos were drawn to jobs in the booming agricultural industry of the West coast. They were soon followed by thousands more from the Philippines. Made up overwhelmingly of single young men, Filipino workers were highly sought by growers in California, Oregon and Washington, by the canneries in Alaska, and by hotels and restaurants to perform jobs that whites were unable or unwilling to take on.

Baldoz asks: what were the conditions that enabled this surge of Filipino immigrants to the US? Why was their presence conceived as an existential threat by many whites in Western states? What were the various ways by which the latter sought to contain this “Asiatic invasion” and how did Filipinos resist such efforts? In what ways did Federal policies and imperial realities clash with local ordinances and community sentiments regarding the place of Filipinos in the United States? And how did Filipinos seize upon the contradictions of the law and inconsistencies in their interpretation between Federal and local officials to assert their rights? The particular strengths and considerable significance of The Third Asiatic Invasion lies in the ways it addresses these questions with a clear eye for the telling details with which to fashion important insights into the foundational roles of race, labor and immigration in US imperial and national history. Drawing upon a wide array of sources that include court documents, newspaper accounts, personal memoirs, and congressional records, Baldoz produces a gripping narrative of nativist efforts to socially isolate and physically exclude Filipinos along with Filipino attempts at refusing such efforts. The war between nativists and immigrants amounts to a displacement and continuation of other wars, from the Civil War to the wars of 1898. The debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists as Baldoz points grew out of the vexed legacy of Reconstruction: to wit, were whites capable of incorporating and civilizing non-white populations or were the latter irrevocably backward, thereby threatening the integrity of white civility? While imperialists would win the argument, their victory was fragile. Empire would always be shadowed by its anti-imperialist nativist sibling as seen in the history of Filipinos in the US.

The ongoing tension between imperialists and anti-imperialists were in part predicated on the way by which the American invasion and occupation of the Philippines produced a new and highly ambiguous identity for Filipinos. Juridically and racially, Filipinos were neither citizens nor aliens, but “nationals,” who were not “Mongolians” but “Malays.” Armed with this novel identity, Filipinos eluded racial quotas on immigration, traveling freely in and out of the US. But this freedom of entry contrasted sharply with the severe restrictions on their mobility imposed by the color line. Mobilized by the fear of contamination and racial death, American nativists sought to counter the rising tide of Filipinos with legal and extra-legal means. They passed laws on residential segregation, banned miscegenation and ownership of property, sought to re-classify Filipinos as “Mongolians,” and when these were frustrated, resorted to mob violence, bombings and lynching between 1927 to the early 1930s. But Filipinos refused to back down. They sought legal recognition as citizens rather than colonial subjects entitled to the same rights as whites, openly kept the company of white women and argued for the right to marry across racial lines, formed unions often allied with the anti-racist US Communist Party and struck for better working conditions.

Seeking the exclusion of Filipinos, white nativists along with American labor and agricultural interests lobbied Congress for relief.  Forming an odd and uneasy alliance with Filipino representatives working for independence, nativists finally succeeded. Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934 that set a ten-year period for granting the Philippines independence. However, it immediately re-classified Filipinos as aliens barred from the US. By setting a timetable for Philippine independence from America, the law also promised Americans instant independence from Filipinos. From the US perspective, the Tydings-McDuffie Act was thus part of a series of Asian exclusion acts dating back from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But the war against these Filipino Asiatics was far from over. With the Japanese invasion of the Philippine colony, the US turned once again to its colonial subjects for military service. Filipinos in the US and in the Philippines responded enthusiastically. Baldoz provides a penetrating analysis of the ways Filipino military service complicated the racial basis of American citizenship. Existing laws had to be revised to allow “nationals” to join up and subsequently become entitled to veterans’ benefits and naturalization. But he also shows how this democratizing turn was brief and quickly set aside. With Philippine independence came a series of unequal treaties imposed by the US as a condition for post-war aid, alongside the Rescission Act of 1946 which reneged on the promise of equal pay and benefits for Filipinos who had served in the US military. It was not until 2009 that Filipino veterans were finally recognized by the US Congress and granted a tiny fraction of the compensation they were entitled to. War thus shaped just as it had been shaped by the color line, constructing its contours, eroding its edges, but only to reconfigure its force. In closely tracing the vicissitudes of this most telling theme of the twentieth century, The Third Asiatic Invasion is a singular contribution to our understanding of both US and Philippine national histories as irrevocably linked to the vicissitudes of colonial power, imperial projects and nationalist conflict. It truly deserves a wide readership.