Why Is the U.S.-Philippines Relationship So Important?

american-filipino history difficult but improving

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The United States and the Philippines have a complicated history with one another. Starting in the early 20th century, the American-Filipino relationship has had many ups and downs. What role did World War II play in it?

World War II US Military plane and U.S.A Flag and Philippines Flag on blue background
The U.S. flag and the national flag of the Philippines are superimposed over a World War II U.S. military plane. Photo by Johnny Habell & Andy.LIU / Shutterstock

The Philippines has a long, rich history. As a Spanish colony, it got caught up in the Spanish-American War before eventually losing a war with the United States in 1902. After several decades of being an American territory, the Philippines gained independence in 1946, shortly after World War II. American-Filipino relations have been somewhat of a roller coaster since then.

Recently, the Philippines announced it would grant the American military access to new locations as part of a growing partnership. The current American military presence in the Philippines is intended to counter China’s expanding influence in Southeast Asia.

Perhaps, the key focal point in American-Filipino history was World War II when the Philippines played a pivotal, surprising role during the end of the Pacific campaign. In his video series World War II: A Military and Social History, Dr. Thomas Childers, Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, looks at a key battle that decided the fate of the Japanese empire and the liberation of the Philippines.

When Was the Philippines Liberated?

The largest naval engagement in World War II was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in the Eastern Visayan region of the Philippines. Ultimately, it would cripple the Imperial Japanese Navy and lead to the liberation of the Philippines. American forces arrived in Leyte on October 20, 1944, seizing the capital and two vital airfields.

“It was at the Battle of Leyte Gulf […] that the Japanese had produced a new weapon, and one that, although it was not capable of reversing the tide of battle, would certainly have a dramatic impact on American morale, and would inflict terrific casualties,” Dr. Childers said. “This, of course, was the ‘Kamikaze,’ or the ‘Divine Wind,’ the special suicide plans, suicide units employed by the Japanese, now in desperation, to break the momentum of American forces.”

Ultimately, the Kamikaze sank 24 American vessels and inflicted 2,100 casualties, but the Japanese forces were scattered and regrouped in such a way that assured their defeat. The Battle of Lete Gulf and the following Allied invasion of the Philippines proved crucial in breaking the back of Japanese military power in the Southwest Pacific. For the next four months, Japanese forces retreated as the American military pressed onward.

“The Bataan Peninsula fell by late February 1945, as did Corregidor,” Dr. Childers said. “The Japanese would withdraw into the mountainous interior of Luzon, and bloody fighting would continue until the very end of the war—All the way through the summer of 1945, Japanese resistance would continue in the Philippines.”

The United States suffered 14,000 deaths in the Philippines, while the Japanese lost 350,000, but at last, the archipelagic nation was free. The Philippines became one of the founding members of the United Nations on October 11, 1945. Nine months later, on July 4, 1946, the Treaty of Manila was signed and the Philippines was recognized by the United States as an independent nation.

World War II: A Military and Social History is now available to stream on Wondrium.