Remembering broken promises on Veterans’ Day

Although I am quite aware that Veterans’ Day was originally called Armistice Day and was set aside for veterans of “The War to End All Wars”, I recall the sacrifices made by Filipino veterans less than a generation later on their home soil, in response to the call of a faraway imperial regime.

No, not Tokyo. Washington.

WGBH’s American Experience piece on General Douglas MacArthur gives a sufficient overview of the situation, posted below in its entirety with emphases in bold:

“I, __[Name]__, do solemnly swear…that I will bear true faith and allegiance…to the United States of America…that I will serve them honestly and faithfully…against all their enemies whomsoever…and I will obey the orders…of the President of the United States…And the orders of the officers appointed over me…according to the rules and Articles of War.”

With this pledge, approximately 250,000 Filipino men joined the U.S. Armed Forces in the months before and the days just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For the next several years, they would share the fate of their American counterparts on the battlefield, in prisoner of war camps, and throughout the countryside as part of the guerrilla resistance. Accordingly, Washington promised them the same health and pension benefits as their American brothers. Even after the war, in October of 1945, Gen. Omar Bradley, then Administrator of the Veterans Administration, reaffirmed that they were to be treated like any other American veterans.

But on February 18, 1946, the Congress passed and President Truman signed Public Law 70-301, known as the Rescission Act of 1946. It said that the service of Filipinos “shall not be deemed to be or to have been service in the military or national forces of the United States or any component thereof or any law of the United States conferring rights, privileges or benefits.”

Ever since, Filipino veterans and others appalled by this injustice have lobbied without success for a reversal of the Rescission Act. Mr. Ingles, whose sacrifices are vividly described above, gave voice to their frustration in his interview:

Interviewer: And do think most Filipinos were grateful that MacArthur returned?

Gustavo Ingles Gustavo Ingles: Well, in the case of people of my age, we were grateful to that certain extent that he came back, but the succeeding people who governed the States forgot about the promises made by Roosevelt when he encouraged Filipinos to fight for the Americans, and [about] this we feel very bitter. In fact, even myself, because of what happened to us, I never received any pension from the U.S. Government as a soldier. What I am receiving now is the pension from the Philippine government, and sometimes this is still forgotten because there is no money in the coffers. This promise was made, in fact even before I went to the States as a student in Fort Benning, [when] war was still going on in 1945, but [the] surrender of Japan was affected sometime in September.

So there was already peacetime …[plans] to reconstruct the Philippines, and this was true up to the end of 1945. But [in] 1946, some time in February, the American Congress, because of the expenses it is supposed to receive or give out to the Filipino veterans, put a rider in the veterans code, they noted what they call the Rescission Act, denying all benefits except for those who died or were wounded during the war. And up to now we, as veterans, have not received anything — well, maybe medical treatment from the Old Veterans Memorial Hospital, but that was also cut off already by the U.S. Government.

Today, fewer than 70,000 Filipino veterans are still alive, and that number is rapidly falling as even the youngest of them are approaching eighty. In recent years, their cause has been taken up by Rep. Bob Filner (D-California), who has introduced a bill in Congress which would grant them full benefits. But equally, perhaps even more important to these men is that their service be recognized and the government admit it made a terrible mistake. Hunger strikes, protests in front of the White House, and extensive lobbying have yet to prevail over bureaucratic inertia, fiscal restraint, and plain forgetfulness.

Their case was probably made most clearly back in 1946, before their sacrifice had been relegated to a distant memory. “There can be no question,” said a former World War I artillery captain named Harry Truman, “but that the Philippine veteran is entitled to benefits bearing a reasonable relation to those received by the American veteran, with whom he fought side by side.”

This particular issue touches me a bit more than peripherally; five of my Filipino ancestors served in World War II. Of these five, my maternal grandfather and my father’s two eldest brothers survived the Bataan Death March. None of them ever spoke about it with me; how could they initiate such a topic of discussion? How could I? (My mother tells of my grandfather’s occasional fits of rage, which I can only retroactively diagnose as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

Now, the question that I have is this: How many Filipinos would have served anyway, without the “phantom carrot” of quasi-mercenary compensation?[1] One could certainly argue a smaller number; after all, the mercenary attitude is race-neutral. But would not love of country — not love for the United States, to be sure, but for the land of their birth — have prompted some of these same men to rise up to drive the Japanese from their soil? If one were to answer “yes” to this question, then why offer a promise in the first place, only to break it later at the precise moment the stated beneficiaries were expecting its fulfillment? Were the Fed’s printing presses broken that year, and every year thereafter — to this day? Certainly not for Big Auto and Wall Street. But for these veterans, they may as well have been — and might as well be.[2]

Back in the mid-’90s, I was one of many Americans of Filipino ancestry who marched on Washington, D.C. to call attention to the injustice done to these veterans. More than a decade later, a quick Google search reveals little if any progress on restitution.

Like many, I used to think that racism played a principal role in the denial of benefits. I still do, to an extent.[3] ´╗┐But nowadays, while remembering the courage of all these Filipino veterans, and while acknowledging the fine efforts of many who advocate for the less than 20,000 of them that survive, I look at this shameful episode — one of many in American history, to be sure — as a cruel illustration of a lesson that we would all do well to heed:

When the government or its agents promises you good things, do the right thing: call BS on them every time, without exception. Otherwise, you guarantee disappointment for yourself and those around you. And even if they “make good” on their promises, chances are that it will be too little, too late.[4]

(Postscript: Filipino Veterans Left Out in the Cold. For a 62nd consecutive year. What further need have we of witnesses?)

Notes:

[1] In an earlier age, kings’ soldiers were essentially private contractors; failure to pay them would have been a serious matter. Therefore, the United States essentially treated the Filipinos as slaves.

[2] I do not in any way advocate that the Fed print money for these veterans; rather, I aim to point out the selective benevolence that our current monetary system enables.

[3] A reader relates the fact that the French government did something similar to Algerian WWII veterans under their command. Though I have no knowledge of this, or time to verify, what I’ve been told does contribute to my perception that racism did play some part in the decisions made by the United States, and the so-called First World in general.

[4] Note that I do not single out the United States Government. The Philippine-American episode as related in this piece, the Algerian-French episode in the previous note, and the trails of broken promises left by all governments — especially modern ones — prompt me to place them all under the same ignominious umbrella.

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One Response

  1. God bless your grandfather, Ignacio V. Aure. He will remain our hero forever.

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