At Quora, a social media site where people ask and answer questions, someone asked an interesting question about statehood. “Why did the Philippines not become the USA’s 51st state?” the questioner asked. “I think if it was so, the USA today would be even more powerful.” We won’t speculate on the possible power difference, but we are intrigued by the question.
The Philippines was ceded by Spain to the United States at the same time as Puerto Rico. They became independent in 1946. That didn’t work out exactly as they expected, but we have never seen much indication that the Philippines has regretted not asking for statehood instead.
So why did the Philippines go for independence? And why did the United States agree?
The Quora answers
Wes Frank, who has a Masters in American History from Northwestern University, said, “No one was interested in the Philippines becoming the USA’s 51st state in 1898.”
The Philippines had been fighting for independence from Spain before they came under U.S. rule. They continued to fight for independence through years, first with physical violence and then politically in Washington.
“Americans, for their part, saw their nation as a republic with most citizens of northern European ancestry,” Frank continued, “and also with no monarch, no aristocracy, no state church, no military class, and no peasants.” He connects these feelings with anti-Catholic sentiment and several political battles of the time.
“With these factors in play in 1898,” he goes on, “there was no support at all for making the Philippines, a Catholic and Moslem land of Asians and peasants, an American state. Indeed, the most powerful American reaction to the acquisition of the Philippines was outrage that the American government had somehow triggered a colonial war like those that plagued European imperial powers in the late 19th Century. They did not see the Philippines as a potential state, just as something different and distant and a source of trouble.”
In 1934, the Tydings-McDuffie-Act declared independence for the Philippines following a ten year transition. Japan, as it turns out, was already planning to invade as soon as the U.S. left the Philippines. In league with Nazi Germany, Japan invaded and occupied the Philippines but the U.S. and the Filipino people were able to repel them. The date for independence was extended because of World War II, but the Philippines became independent in 1946.
Other commenters pointed out the racist attitudes of many in the U.S., which are visible in the Supreme Court decisions in the Insular Cases, and one person from the Philippines added, “This opposition was EXPLOITED by local Filipino landed oligarchs who opposed US colonialism so local resources can be monopolized and exploited by the existing landed elite.”
Since the reasons for the Philippines lack of statehood seemed to the responders to come down to…well, nobody wanted it, we could imagine a situation in which the statehood movement in the Philippines (which did exist) got together with supporters in Congress and achieved statehood instead of independence.
Jon Dixon, a writer from Indiana, suggested the possible outcomes. Japan would not have invaded the Philippines, he said, the people would be far better off economically, and the Philippines would be a political powerhouse with enough representation in Congress to push legislation in any direction they chose.
What about Puerto Rico?
Why isn’t Puerto Rico independent? Well…nobody wants it. But the experience of the Philippines is probably a good example to look at if we want to see what an independent Puerto Rico would be like.