Knowledge and Pacification: On the U.S. Conquest and the Writing of Philippine History

Reynaldo Clemeña Ileto

Book cover

When I go to the Bay Area, I like to go to Arkipelago Books in the Mission. It’s a great little shop of Filipino-interest books, and stocks a lot of things that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere in the U.S. (yes, even on Amazon!). This was the book I got on my last trip.

Ileto was part of a group of Filipino nationalist historians who tried to combat official pro-American and elitist versions of modern Filipino history, probably starting with Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino in the 1950s. Ileto’s most famous book, “Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840-1910” was published in 1979, so I was intrigued when I learned he had just published this book in 2017.

The book is more of a compilation of loosely connected essays than a single coherent narrative, and it took me a little while to get my bearings as a reader. I actually thought the early chapters, which focus on details of the Philippine-American war, were the least compelling part–but I’m glad I stuck with the book. The middle and later chapters, which focus more on personal history and on how the story of the war and subsequent events have been told, are very good. “Father and Son in the Embrace of Uncle Sam” was my favorite chapter, detailing the different relationships with America developed by Rey Ileto and his father, Rafael “Rocky” Ileto, who was a strongly pro-American high-ranking officer in the Filipino military, who served through the Marcos dictatorship and was defense secretary under Cory Aquino.

Some of the later essays in the book address the Second Philippine Republic under Jose Laurel, which is widely characterized as a puppet state of World War II-era Japan. Ileto’s writing goes some way to redeem Laurel and this government, showing how it promoted acknowledgment and recognition of Filipino revolutionary heroes that had largely been suppressed during the American occupation. He has some interesting things to say on how subsequent events colored Filipino national memory of the American occupation versus the Japanese occupation–while both were brutal, only the Japanese occupation is really remembered as such, and the American occupation has been largely rehabilitated. I see this when talking with family members, as well as in reading some oral histories from my father-in-law’s home town produced in the 1950s.

Finally, I also appreciated and found intriguing Ileto’s analysis of Filipino “awit,” a form of narrative poetry, as historical documents. By their nature, written historical documents (that still exist!) tend to be from the perspective of the winners, and from an official and elite perspective. While writing poetry is admittedly still a fairly elite activity, I thought this was a thoughtful and creative method for a historian to get some distance from that default story.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars