The Philippines circa 1920s

Buddy Gomez -- Cyberbuddy

Posted at Jul 13 2019 02:54 AM

A book review: 'The Isles of Fear'

The antecedents of  the Philippines’ modern day  political corruption and social malaise can be traced to the unforeseen consequences that followed the passage of the Jones Law by the US Congress in August  1916.

Here is a capsule review of that landmark legislation. The Jones Law, also known as the Philippine Autonomy Act, was the first formal and official declaration of  US commitment to grant independence to the Philippines. It replaced the Philippine Organic Act of 1902  which established the moorings of  Filipino self-government tutelage under the  colonial administration of the US.  “An act to declare the purpose of the people of the US as to the political status of the people of the Philippine Islands, and to provide a more autonomous government for those islands,” says its preamble. The Jones Law reiterated America’s avowed intent, as a  prudent mentor and steward, which was  “to withdraw their sovereignty over the Philippine Islands and to recognize their independence as soon as a stable government can be established therein.”

Current popular commentary of the times: “While the desire for independence was almost universal, undeniably there prevailed heavy misgivings as to whether the Filipinos were ready for it.”  It was also a commonly expressed sentiment then, and for a long time remaining  relevant  to many a social critic: “Not infrequently men would declaim eloquently in public demanding independence and would express in private the opinion that to grant it would be a mistake. “    

The stability of government run by Filipinos presented a divided US Congress with an unresolved issue: the capability of the Philippine islands for maintaining a stable government as “a precedent to a consideration of granting independence.”

Within days of being inaugurated as the 29th President of the US, Republican Warren G. Harding commissioned and dispatched before the end of March 1921 an investigative team to the Philippines which was then on the verge of economic collapse and in the midst of serious political scandals.  The mission was “to ascertain conditions in the Philippine Islands  and to report whether  the Philippine government is now in a position to warrant its total separation from the US Government.”

The team was headed by Gen. Leonard Wood, a Harvard Medical  School graduate who had served as Governor of the Moro Province,  as Commander of the Philippine Division of the U.S. Army,  and as Chief of Staff of the US Army. Before his Philippine assignments, Wood was military Governor of Cuba and had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was  assisted by  former Governor General William Cameron Forbes.

The Mission conducted an exhaustive four-month travel and consultation (May – August 1921) through out the islands, covering 48 of the then existing 49 provinces of the country.  They  travelled  by sea,  by land, by horse and rail, holding public  hearings, conferences and private interviews in 449 cities and towns.  The Mission felt that they had “placed itself in intimate touch with the great mass of the Philippine people--Christian, Moro, pagan--and practically all……foreigners domiciled and doing business in the principal cities and towns….”

The out-of-print book--“The Isles of Fear, the Truth about the Philippines” Harcourt, Brace & Co./1925--under review encompasses the results of an investigative reportage covering  the then prevailing social, economic and political conditions of the Philippine Islands, evidently inspired by and following the findings and conclusions of the Wood-Forbes mission. The author, Ms. Katherine Mayo, declared that her endeavor was “to present accurate material for the formation of opinion, not to influence judgment.” Her opus was principally directed to an American readership.  

Prior to its publication, Ms. Mayo’s journalistic reportage was serialized in the New York Times in 1924. She travelled extensively throughout the archipelago,  from Cagayan Valley to Sulu, pursuing pretty much the same route and territory covered by the Wood-Forbes Mission, plus some. It was ‘enterprise journalism’ at its best, privately financed and consciously eschewing  government favors and facilities save for access to records and statistics “and in credentials to Filipino Governors of distant provinces,” introductions, as they were. Ms. Mayo travelled with her long time friend, a wealthy heiress, Ms. M. Moyca Newell, who was also the photographer of their journey.  The output became a hard-hitting critique of the Philippine condition, replete with backgrounders and details of the political and financial scandal  pushing the islands upon the brink of collapse.

It is noteworthy, especially for aficionados of Philippine political history, that the passage of the Jones Law creating the Philippine Senate ended the political rivalry between Sergio Osmena and Manuel L. Quezon. Thereafter, Quezon was able to establish himself as the country’s top political leader, elbowing out Sergio Osmena for good.  

Beyond doubt,  the  Mission established that “…..the cost of government had more than doubled, the administration of departments were ‘top heavy in personnel and enmeshed in red tape……. finances of the administration were in confusion, the Philippine National Bank mismanaged, the credit of the government impaired.”  The government had began to  encroach upon the private sector by acquiring and engaging  in commercial businesses,  heralding the  deleterious advent of government owned and operated companies,  a festering source of political largesse and pelf.  It is not a matter of coincidence that the entry of political featherbedding  and rent seeking  as an unshakeable facet of  Philippine life accompanied the rise of Quezon’s political fortunes.

All these could not have come to pass without the complicit tolerance of Francis Burton (F.B.) Harrison, Governor General (1913-1920), formerly a Congressman from New York,  bruited about to have been the personal choice and recommendee of Manuel L. Quezon (MLQ) when he served as Philippine Resident Commissioner in Washington D.C., prior to the passage of the Jones Law.  

F.B. Harrison indeed became a very close friend of MLQ.  In fact, history refers to him as “The Champion of Philippine Independence.”  The Jones Law,  on the other hand,  as a matter chronology, did usher in the beginnings of the now seemingly endemic  surfeit of  unconscionable self-serving politics  that masqueraded as nationalism!

An  example  of the foregoing  is the chapter on the near bankruptcy of the newly organized Philippine National Bank.  “Nationalist”-inspired intrigues and maneuvers against originally hired American professional bankers  successfully  led  to the takeover by Filipino management of the PNB.  Within months, unfortunately, PNB was  faced with scandalous mismanagement and bankruptcy!  The first Filipino bank president  was serving  sentence for embezzlement at the time that  “The Isles of Fear”  was  being published.  

The Wood-Forbes Mission recommended that “the  present general status  of the Philippine Islands continue until the people have had time to absorb and thoroughly master  the powers already in their hands.”  In other words, the grant of independence would be premature!  Furthermore, it urged the U.S. Government not to be left in a position of responsibility without commensurate authority.  This latter concern was an exigent correction to the  F.B. Harrison-tolerated-and-encouraged anomalous extra-legal activities of the legislative branch  allowed to horn in, and in fact exercise dominance over, the Executive’s turf of operational matters. The newly minted Philippine Senate had immediately  come under the control  and  dictate of   its  President, Mr.  Quezon.

Before the end of 1921, General Leonard Wood was convinced to accept the  vacated post of Governor General, albeit reluctantly because he was already slated to become President of the University of Pennsylvania, with superior material compensation, emoluments and academic prestige.

Among Governor General Wood’s  first tasks was to secure from the US Congress a  $35,000,000.00  Federal  appropriation immediately needed to repair and restore the Philippine Governments’ credit and solvency.  He also  presided over the flotation of  $110,000,000.00 of Philippine  bonds,  the subscription of which was exclusively met by American interests.  Despite a public appeal, not a single  bond was ever subscribed by a Filipino national!  As a consequence, the  viability of the Philippine government at that time was to a large extent sustained by money of private citizens of the US.

The explicit instructions to Governor General Wood, upon assumption of office, was to get the Philippine government out of commercial business just as quickly as possible.  This was openly resisted by Quezon who embarked  upon  a nationwide personal vilification against  the Governor General until the latter’s death in 1927 during a very critical brain surgery. In command of much of Philippine print media, Quezon portrayed Wood as anti-Filipino and anti-independence, with great and lasting, albeit unfair,  effect.

Not only do we still saddle government with commercial interests better owned and operated by  private business, we have in fact expanded the number and the reach of GOCCs (Government-Owned and -Controlled Corporations).  Don’t they continue to be the source of  corrupting political pelf and largesse?

On a personal note,  a reading of “The Isles of Fear” exemplifies the value of reaching out to a past,  as  a learning moment and still as an indispensable  guiding element in resolving  our still uncorrected infirmities in governance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tomas 'Buddy' Gomez III began his professional media career in ABS-CBN's (previously Chronicle Broadcasting Network) DZQL-Radio Reloj in 1957, after which he spent 25 years with the Ayala Group.

In 1986, the then Pres. Cory Aquino appointed him Consul General to Hawaii and later served as her Press Secretary.

During the Ramos administration, he was chairman and president of state-owned IBC-13 Network.

After government service, he became an ‘OFW’ in the U.S., working as front-desk clerk and then assistant general manager of a hotel. He also worked as a furniture and antique restoration specialist.

He is now retired and lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.