Equal Justice

There were two battles against the Japanese for the Philippines during World War II. We lost one and won the other. Though the War officially ended when the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the United States Congress decided it was too costly to recognize the Filipino soldiers’ contributions to the war effort by passing a law denying them the same benefits as all other American military personnel. Sixteen million Americans served in World War II, and Congress thought it would cost too much money to include Filipino soldiers among those eligible for benefits of the G.I. Bill. Money should not even have been a consideration. Though Congress has provided limited legislation admitting its dishonorable act, this shameful injustice is still in effect after nearly 65 years. House of Representative Bill #491, the Equity Act of 2001 would have overturned the Recession Act of 1946 which denied Filipino soldiers the benefits received by all other Americans who served in the military forces in World War II.

Democrat and Republican representatives alike, running for re-election in 2002, publicly announced their support of this legislation. Obviously, public announcements of support by incumbents were idle promises. American voters, which include increasing numbers of Filipino/Americans, have influenced limited but inadequate congressional legislation that has occurred. Congress must overturn the Recession Act, thereby providing nothing less than full restitution to Filipino veterans. What are some of the arguments against overturning the Congressional Act of 1946, signed into law by President Harry Truman?

First, the Philippines was a colonial possession left over from the Spanish-American War of 1898. Secondly, Filipinos were not American citizens as were the soldiers from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts or Kentucky. Let’s examine the relationship between the Philippines and the United States for the last 112-113 years and take a look at these arguments. By federal law, the Philippines was a commonwealth of the United States. It came into legal existence as such because of the Tydings-McDuffie Bill, passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 which granted absolute and complete independence to the Philippines by 1944 (actually 1946 due to Japanese occupation), and it provided for an interim commonwealth supervised by the United States, with a Philippine president elected by national vote, and a constitution. A constitution was adopted in February 1935, approved by the United States President and ratified by a plebiscite of the Philippine people in May 1935 with Manuel Quezon as President.

So what is a commonwealth? “A commonwealth is a body of people in a politically organized community that is independent or semi-independent, and in which the government functions by the common consent of the people. United States and the individual semi-independent states are thus commonwealths, although Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts and Kentucky have officially designated themselves as such.” On July 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed an order nationalizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and appointed Douglas MacArthur as Commanding General of the United States Armed Forces Far East. By United States law, the legal status of the Philippines before, during and after World War II was a commonwealth, and its citizens were, therefore, entitled to the same benefits as citizens of all United States commonwealths.

Another argument is, Philippine independence took place on June 12, 1898, when it declared itself free of Spanish rule. This date was officially recognized by President John Kennedy in 1962. Could his action have taken place because of empathy for the Philippine people, or was it a smoke screen to offset mounting political heat for restitution of the injustice to Filipino veterans? Some say that the declaration of June 12, 1898 does not prevail over actual achievement of independence which occurred, according to law, July 4, 1946. The latter view does not hold up when compared to the American Colonies declaring independence from England on July 4, 1776, but achieving it only after surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. The United States must be bound by laws in effect during World War II in its relationship with the Philippines.

What was the practical military value of Filipino soldiers’ war efforts? Sixty four thousand Filipinos and twelve thousand Americans of other ethnic backgrounds surrendered at Bataan in April 1942, and another fifteen thousand on the Island of Corregidor a month later, having held off the Japanese for five months without re-supply of food, equipment and ammunition, or reinforcements from the United States mainland. Contrary to popular believe that we were invincible, the United States did not have the wherewithal to re-supply or reinforce the Philippine defenders. Though it can be argued that the Japanese had no plans to invade the United States mainland or the Hawaiian Islands, who knows what they would have done if they had been able to capture the Philippines in a few weeks instead of many months? Japan could have used its forces wherever it chose. That delay gave the United States time to re-build its woefully weakened military forces.

Finally, the moral issue. Filipinos were subjected to the same harsh brutal treatment as other Americans during the infamous Bataan Death March. Can anyone deny the fairness of restoring full veteran benefits to Filipino soldiers the same as those bestowed on all other American military veterans? Despite news stories that attract public attention, there is an abundance of human-interest features waiting to be told that deal with this grave injustice. It is imperative to seek the viewpoints of Filipino veterans and highlight their stories now. They do indeed fit Tom Brokaw’s description of, “The Greatest Generation,” but they are not going the live forever.