In 1927, when the Philippines was a U.S. territory, Philippines Governor Leonard Wood sent a proposal to President Calvin Coolidge seeking his approval to hold a referendum on Philippine independence.
The Philippines Assembly had already approved a resolution on November 19, 1924 demanding “full and complete independence” from the U.S., and the distant U.S. territory appeared to be on a fast path to nationhood.
President Coolidge rejected the proposal.
Although the U.S. President did not give the people of the Philippines what they wanted at the time, he did provide them with a path forward and extensive guidance and perspectives.
In a long letter to Governor Wood, Coolidge emphasized his “serious consideration” of the referendum proposal. He also recognized the Philippines’ clear passion for independence and offered extensive detail on what the Philippines could expect from the U.S. upon achieving independence.
The President did not sugarcoat his response. He gave Filipinos – who were U.S. nationals at the time – a clear, direct explanation of what types of policies they could expect from the U.S. upon achieving sovereignty.
The picture he painted turned out to be accurate when the Philippines ultimately achieved independence in 1946.
President Coolidge Sets Expectations for Independence
President Coolidge did not reject independence for the Philippines in his 1927 letter, but he did call the proposed referendum “untimely,” and spent much of his correspondence addressing what he called the “inflated expectations” of people in the Philippines.
Starting with U.S. economic aid, President Coolidge explained that “[u]nless and until the people and their leaders are thoroughly informed of [past U.S.] material assistance,” and better understand what withdrawal of that aid means, “a vote on the abstract question of independence would be not only futile but absolutely unfair to them.”
In other words, Filipino voters needed to know that generous U.S. financial assistance would end if they voted for independence.
Elevating the stakes, President Coolidge called out the “misapprehension” that he saw as pervasive in the Philippines that “America, even though she granted full autonomy to the Islands, would still assume the heavy responsibility of guaranteeing the security, sovereignty and independece of the Islands.”
“In my opinion,” he wrote, “this is wholly erroneous.”
“Responsibility without authority would be unthinkable,” according to Coolidge. “Where there is no sovereignty there is no obligation of protection.”
For those who believed that shared U.S.-Philippines history and personal connections would overcome structural barriers, the President did not mince words. Calling this scenario an “illusion,” he emphasized that the people of the Philippines should not assume “that the present advantage of American sovereignty could be secured by convention or through sympathy.”
We often see similar ideas expressed in Puerto Rico by independence supporters who simultaneously cling to a romanticized notion that permanent U.S. citizenship, national security, financial assistance, and even reparations would be granted to a newly sovereign Puerto Rico in recognition of the currently strong U.S.-Puerto Rico connection, a shared history, and the lack of democracy that persists today.
The “bare minimum” that Congress owes Puerto Rico, it has been said, is guaranteed citizenship after independence. Yet Congress has never agreed to such an arrangement, and the State Department has been outright opposed.
President Coolidge dedicated a large part of his correspondence to the issue of international trade. Coolidge shared specific dollar figures showing how the free trade between the Philippines and the United States had benefitted the Philippines.
Coolidge recognized the hope of Filipino leaders to continue international trade operations under U.S. law as it existed at the time. He then quashed those dreams. “No independent country has ever secured similar advantages,” he said, to the trade benefits available to the Philippines as a U.S. territory.
Separatists like Javier Hernandez have argued that Puerto Rico would be able to earn more from its exports as an independent nation than as a state, but there is scant evidence for this claim. Losing favorable trading terms with the United States would immediately be costly for Puerto Rico, as it was for the Philippines. Building new trading relationships with other countries would take time.
“While these material advantages are by no means the most important consideration which should influence our judgment,” the president wrote, “they must be always kept in mind, as government is a practical business which depends largely for its success on sound common sense rather than high-sounding phrases.”
When the Philippines achieved independence in 1946, laws governing U.S.-Philippines trade changed, and financial assistance was severely reduced. The people of the Philippines were unable to keep their status as U.S. nationals – even those who had moved to a state.
In addition, Filipinos who fought valiantly for the U.S. in World War II and then became citizens of the Philippines not only lost their status as U.S. nationals, but they also did not receive the veterans’ benefits they had been promised.
Yet Congress had debated policy regarding the Philippines from 1901 through 1946, and unwavering Filippino support for a move to independence had been present throughout. There was no talk of attaining U.S. citizenship for the new nation or even protecting the status of Filipinos as U.S. nationals, but independence was widely embraced by the people of the Philippines.
In Puerto Rico, U.S. citizenship is valued. Critics of the Puerto Rico Status Act pending before the U.S. Congress have complained that the bill does not adequately protect U.S. citizenship in a future sovereign Puerto Rico, and that the future of U.S. citizenship in the proposal needs to be clarified.
Such clarity can be found in history. As President Coolidge accurately predicted, the United States would not hold any nostalgic sentimentality for its territories. Puerto Rico should not expect anything different.
Updated on October 26, 2022