The Manila Syndrome

Filipino labor importation and US Cold War Diplomacy

Men wait on pier 40 to board the ship that will take them to Alaska. April 27, 1939. Courtesy Fred and Dorothy Cordova, National Pinoy Archive, Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) Copyright (c) reserved.

A month after New York went into COVID-19 lockdown, one of my boyhood friends, a Filipino nurse now working in the US, sent me a special report by Aljazeera which reveals the staggering high attrition rate of Filipino nurses in the frontlines of the battle. “Keep me in your prayers,” he told me. Even with the daily risk of death, his predicament is not the worst when compared with the immigrant experiences of many Filipinos in America. Since the Marcos regime (1965-1986), Philippine export labor euphemistically called “human capital” is scattered around the world mainly in the form of domestic and semi-skilled work (San Juan, 1). Bearing these facts in mind, I can’t help but think of personal engagements stirred up by Catherine Choy’s article “Exported to care.” I was intrigued by how she traced this phenomenon back to both US Cold War diplomacy and shifts in the Philippine educational system during the American Colonial period (114). Her study enriches discussion of Filipino contracted labor in the globalized workspaces by remembering its relationship to colonial-era policies. For example, the shift to American English worked to give Filipino laborers a comparative advantage in the coming neoliberal marketplace. Choy mentions that the legacy of the colonial era is a network of hundreds of Americanized nursing schools that eventually produced tens of thousands of caregivers a year (115-116). This is a mere slice of reality on the ground as the whole of public education in the Philippines is the result of over a century of systematic Americanization. A number of historians refer to this phenomenon as the “miseducation” of the Filipino. The sending of Filipino pensionados to US colleges and universities produced graduates who became the American surrogates in the emerging Philippine state. Their ideological indoctrination was such that they generally considered American interests to be Filipino interests. I saw Choy’s findings as an indictment of an educational system that primarily served US Cold War diplomacy. Despite her comprehensiveness, some crucial questions are left unanswered. What exactly motivated the United States to send thousands of Filipino scholars to the United States? Missionary zeal for modernization has never been a convincing reason for this munificence. The American public tended to view America’s presence in the Philippines as an unjustified public cost, so much so that Theodore Roosevelt resolved in 1907 to, “giving the islands independence of a more or less complete type” ahead of schedule (Ninkovich, 200). The passage of the Jones Law in 1916 led to the granting of greater autonomy in government. However, President Woodrow Wilson preferred to not specify a timeline of this veiled exit plan, which would allow American corporations as much time needed to survey and extract human and natural resources. Isn’t it too coincidental that by 1936, just as gold and silver mines had been depleted, and the forest cover had dwindled by more than half since 1909, that the Philippines was finally put on the path to independence? The importation of nursing professionals while rooted in colonial-era educational policy can be explained by the planned transition of the Philippines as both a source of raw material and as a consumer market for US surplus of goods in the coming Neoliberal turn of the 1970s. (Berger 1083; Harvey 27) Choy’s reference to the US Information and Educational Act of 1948, which explains the need for “dynamic measures” to win the American cause in the battle of Cold War politics, only partially explains the underlying interests of postwar importation of Filipino labor (ibid., 122). Despite being the victims of racism in the US, Filipino scholars and laborers developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome, what Du Bois would call “a double consciousness.” Rare exceptions changed their mindsets during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Choy’s taking on the predicament of Filipino nurses is an exciting intervention that opens up the floodgates for further investigation but her conclusions only manage to hint at the larger picture of Filipino migrant labor in the twenty-first century and leaves the impression that Cold War diplomacy is a monolithic entity, impervious to the agency of people and institutions. What remains to be considered is a bottom-up view of the migrant reality: the historical specificity of each segment of the Filipino-American diaspora and their class composition, historical roots, and ideological views. It is not possible to pronounce judgments on the character of labor importation without paying attention to the complex dialectical interaction between neoliberal agenda and the personal-political motivations of migrant laborers. Reflecting on my own research work on the Filipino-American cultural-critical formations, ethnographic approaches to the colonial legacy of immigrant labor could be placed in dialogue with recently declassified CIA documents pertaining to the positions and interests of state actors. For decades, it’s been believed that parts of the developing world transitioned peacefully into the US-led capitalist system. Renovating Choy’s approaches and evidence in light of new data can further reveal the inextricable link of the brutal support given by the US government to the Marcos dictatorship and the extraction of Philippine overseas contract labor as mutually reinforcing features of Washington’s triumph in the Cold War.


Berger, Mark T. 2001. “The Post-Cold War Predicament: A Conclusion.” Third World Quarterly 22:1079-085.
Choy, Catherine C. 2000. “Exported to Care: A Transnational History of Filipino Nurse Migration to the United States.” In Immigration Research for a New Century: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 113-133. New York, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Frank, Ninkovich. 2001. The United States and Imperialism. London, United Kingdom: Wiley.
Harvey, David. 2007. “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 610:22-44.
San Juan, E. 2003. Imperial Terror, Neo-Colonialism and the Filipino Diaspora. New York, New York: St. John’s University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.