The Complexities of Collaboration and Colonialism: Claro M. Recto's Bid for 'Real' Philippine Independence, 1944

Priscilla Robert (Hong Kong), Associate Professor (History)

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The Second World War posed complicated dilemmas in terms of loyalty for political leaders in countries that had been colonized by Western powers and were then occupied by Japan. Where should their loyalties lie? And how should they best protect their own countries’ interests? From the 1930s onward, Japanese politicians sought to win over nationalist forces in Asian countries which had been colonized by European states, presenting Japan as the guardian of pan-Asian interests, seeking to drive out Western imperialists and restore Asia to solely Asian rule. In 1938 Japanese Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro appealed for a “New Order in Greater East Asia”, to encompass Japan, Manzhouguo (Manchukuo or Manchuria), China, and Southeast Asia, a vision paralleling Adolf Hitler’s proclamation of a “new order” in Europe that would unite the continent politically and economically under German leadership. Two years later, on the traditional 2,600th anniversary of the founding of Japan, the Konoe cabinet called for the establishment of a Japanese-led “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in this area, which would implement political and economic integration throughout East and Southeast Asia in order to combat and repel Western imperialism. In China they sought to attract nationalists who resented the economic concessions and legal privileges granted Westerners, though many Chinese found Japanese behavior at least as imperialist as that of their European and American rivals and their tactics were considerably more brutal. Perhaps ironically, however, the experience of Japanese rule often strengthened indigenous nationalist forces, greatly intensifying their determination to reject outside domination of every kind, whether European or Asian, and to run their own affairs once the war had ended. [1]

As Japanese forces moved into much of Southeast Asia in 1941 and 1942, they urged the leaders and peoples of the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), Malaya, Burma, together with those of India, whose territory Japanese troops never reached, to transfer their allegiance from their former imperialist overlords to Japanese- sponsored governments of national liberation. While some Asian leaders resisted all such siren calls, others found these invitations hard to resist, if only in some cases on the purely pragmatic grounds that the Japanese now controlled their countries, and it was far from certain that their former American, British, or Dutch overlords would ever return. The rapid Japanese victories of 1941-1942 against Western forces also did much to destroy the prestige of their defeated opponents. [2] For Koreans and Chinese, the imposition of Japanese colonial rule upon Korea in 1905, and Japan’s territorial and political aggrandizement at China’s expense in the first four decades of the twentieth century, largely discredited Japan’s ideological espousal of pan-Asianism. This was less true of Southeast Asia, where western imperialism held sway. Nationalist leaders, among them Ba Maw and General Aung San of Burma, Soekarno of Indonesia, and Subhas Chandra Bose of India, were particularly susceptible to Japanese arguments. [3] As Japanese troops swept brutally into his country in December 1941 and the United States government confessed it could send no additional reinforcements, even the normally pro- American President Manuel Quezon of the Philippines toyed with the idea of negotiating mutually acceptable peace terms with Japan. Quezon ultimately escaped to safety in Australia, but in January 1942 thirty-two prominent Filipino politicians who had remained behind accepted a Japanese invitation to cooperate, behavior for which Quezon himself publicly stated they should not be condemned, given the extremely difficult situation facing the Philippines. [4]

In every country occupied by Japan, some politicians and many among the general population were prepared to collaborate with the new overlords, while others joined the resistance movements which fought against Japanese rule. [5] In August 1943 a pro- Japanese government headed by Ba Maw, who in 1937 had become the first Burmese premier to hold office under the British, was put in place in Burma (Myanmar). In October 1943 Japan formally established a supposedly independent Filipino government, headed by former interior minister Dr. José Laurel. In the same month Bose proclaimed Azad Hind, his Provisional Free Indian government-in-exile. These moves were preliminaries to a broader Japanese effort to cement the loyalties of its clients around Asia as the fortunes of war began to turn in favor of the Allies. This campaign reached its peak in early November 1943, when representatives of seven Asian nations, Japan, China, Thailand, Manchukuo, the Philippines, Burma, and Free India, met together in Tokyo on the invitation of the Japanese government, to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The conference issued a declaration that its member states would fight to the finish in the war against British and American imperialism, and then establish a mutually cooperative postwar order conducive to the prosperity and stability of all. [6]

In practice, Japanese rule frequently proved considerably more oppressive even than that of Western imperialists, provoking much popular resentment and resistance. During the war Japan subordinated the economic interests of the areas it occupied to its own, looting them of oil, rice, rubber, tin, and other supplies. Although individual politicians and others collaborated with Japan in Malaya and Indonesia, in neither country did Japan contemplate establishing even a quasi-independent government, since like Korea, annexed by Japan in the early twentieth century, these resource-rich areas were to be reserved for direct Japanese rule and exploitation. Even in those countries where Japan encouraged the formation of supposedly independent governments, the occupying forces denied those administrations any genuine authority and often treated the inhabitants with great severity, helping to provoke popular resistance. Many decades after the war, throughout East and Southeast Asia Japanese rule was remembered as a brutal and humiliating interlude and still deeply resented. [7] On occasion, strategies of tacit and covert resistance were implemented by the occupation governments that were supposedly working with the Japanese. The Laurel government in the Philippines, for example, implemented educational reforms and cultural policies that encouraged a sense of national Philippine identity, implicitly rejecting Japanese domination and identification with Japan. [8]

Even so, the issue of collaboration was extremely sensitive, opening issues of imperialism and legitimacy most were reluctant to scrutinize too closely. Selected Japanese officials were put on trial by the various Allied powers, usually on charges of involvement in atrocities or crimes against humanity. The Nationalist Chinese government also held trials of prominent hanjian, those Chinese working for the occupation government led by Wang Jingwei that had collaborated with the Japanese. [9] After the Allied victories of 1945, by contrast, returning colonial overlords rarely contemplated serious reprisals against those who had collaborated with the Japanese. In Burma Lord Mountbatten, British commander-in-chief for Southeast Asia, issued specific orders that only those Burmese who had participated in actual atrocities during the Japanese occupation should be punished. In the Philippines, Allied commander-in-chief General Douglas MacArthur and President Sergio Osmeña issued similar instructions. Comparably non-vindictive policies were enforced in most areas of Southeast Asia liberated by Allied forces from Japanese rule. Extremely few were penalized for mere acquiescence in Japanese occupation, while many of those leaders who had joined Japanese-sponsored governments later enjoyed successful political careers. Despite pressure upon the Philippines from the American government, which had compiled wartime dossiers on prominent Filipinos charged with collaboration, individuals the Americans subsequently arrested, ultimately very few who stood trial were convicted, and of those almost all were subsequently amnestied. [10]

Claro M. Recto (1890-1960)

Prominent among those accused of collaboration was the Filipino politician Claro M. Recto (1890-1960), a lawyer, poet, writer, and former Philippine Supreme Court justice. During the 1930s he served as both minority and majority floor leader in the Philippine Senate, switching parties in the mid-1930s in nationalist protest against the economic and military terms on which, under the 1932 Hare-Hawes Cutting Act, the United States was prepared to grant the Philippines independence. In 1934 Recto presided over the convention which drafted the new Philippine constitution. In 1941 Recto, who had spent some years in private practice, won re-election to the Philippine Senate. In January 1942 he was among those thirty-two leading Filipino politicians who accepted a Japanese invitation to cooperate. From 1942 to 1943 Recto served as Commissioner for Education, Health and Public Welfare, and then as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the Laurel government. In the first position, he was responsible for many of the educational and cultural policies that sought to promote a sense of Philippine national identity. At the end of the war Recto was accused of collaboration with Japan, arrested, and charged with treason. Rather than taking advantage of the subsequent amnesty proclamation of President Manuel Roxas, Recto insisted on fighting his case in the courts, pleading not guilty and winning acquittal after proving that he had maintained connections with the underground resistance movement. He stated that he had only cooperated with the occupying authorities in order to serve as a buffer between the Japanese military and the Philippine people, mitigating the harshness of Japanese rule. [11]

Recto’s stance was in fact quite complex, placing Philippine interests ahead of all others. Protecting these, he believed, demanded that the Philippines perform a skilful balancing act among the great powers in the region. Both before and after World War II, Recto feared that, should the Western powers be driven from the Pacific, the Philippines would find itself at the mercy of either Japan or China, whichever power was strongest at that time. Despite his resentment of Western racism and imperialism, he felt that the economic and cultural presence of Westerners offered some protection to small Asian states, including the Philippines. In 1930, Recto published a pamphlet setting out his views on this subject, which became banned literature during the Japanese occupation. [12]

Recto's Letter to Lt. Gen. Takazi Wachi and Ambassador Soyzo Murata, 15 June 1944 [13]

During the Japanese occupation Recto undoubtedly made genuine efforts to try to protect the Philippine people and, by threatening non-cooperation, to force the occupying Japanese authorities to live up to the rhetorical promises of the Greater East Asia Co- Prosperity Sphere. On June 15, 1944, eight months after Japan formally granted independence to the Philippines and seven months after Japan’s formal establishment of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Recto sent a long and ostensibly “unofficial” letter to Takazi Wachi, Director General of the Japanese Military Administration in the Philippines, and Sozyo Murata, the Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines. Recto himself later remarked of this letter that, even though written at a point when the “enmity between [the Japanese and Filipinos] was already so deep and so bitter as to render any attempt to assuage it on the part of the Filipinos worse than futile,” for reasons of prudence it “necessarily had to be cloaked in some parts with diplomatic circumlocutions so as not to offend unduly the well-known Japanese sensibilities.” Its purpose was, he later claimed, two-fold. On the one hand, it represented “a last peaceful resort to alleviate and minimize the sufferings of the Filipinos at the hands of the military occupation.” Its primary purpose, however, was to serve “as propaganda for the people and the resistance forces, to bolster their determination and morale by depicting the Japanese as they really were and the independence which they forced upon the Filipinos as a mockery.” His letter was marked “Personal and Confidential,” but Recto arranged to have copies of it mimeographed and circulated surreptitiously within the Philippines, sometimes even from courts and other government offices, in an effort to rally nationalist forces. [14]

Recto’s letter was both interesting and remarkably frank, in that it depicted vividly and at length some of the realities of Japanese rule in the supposedly independent Philippines. Fundamentally, Recto was calling the Japanese bluff on the rhetorical promises enshrined in the November 1943 Greater East Asia declaration. One is, indeed, rather surprised that Recto even dared to write this letter, though the gradual Allied erosion of Japanese power and the increasingly desperate Japanese military situation in the Philippines may well have emboldened him to take this step. Recto’s position epitomized the dilemmas facing those Filipino and other collaborationist politicians who saw their behavior as regrettable but necessary, in that it facilitated their ability to protect their own people against oppression. He warned that a great many Filipinos felt nothing but “distrust and hostility . . . towards the present regime.” The reason for this, he explained, was above all the prevailing brutal Japanese treatment of both ordinary and higher-class Filipinos, including collective reprisals for guerrilla activities, coupled with the near-total Japanese disregard for the supposed authority of Philippine officials, which meant that the new government had lost all credibility with the general public and was considered a mere puppet regime. As Foreign Minister, he found himself constantly trying to mediate between the Japanese authorities and his own people. Almost, Recto wryly stated, as if he were an ambassador accredited to a foreign country trying to protect his nationals there.

Recto tactfully stated that Wachi’s own behavior and that of other top Japanese officials had been a model of “exemplary and statesmanlike conduct”, embodying the stated principles of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and regretted that this attitude had not “percolated [down] to the rank and file of the Japanese soldiers and civilians in the Philippines.” Politely but definitely resorting to implicit blackmail, he warned that Filipinos would not be prepared to fight enthusiastically against the Allies in the near future unless they believed that they were defending their own “real and authentic” independence. Something “concrete”, not just “such high principles as Asia for the Asians or such large ideals as the establishment of the Co-Prosperity Sphere”, would be required if his countrymen were to feel that they had “a real stake in the war.” As a description of the flaws in Japanese rule under the Co-Prosperity Sphere, Recto’s letter was detailed and enlightening. His diagnosis was the more convincing in that even writing such a missive exposed him to some personal risk. Although tactful, diplomatic, and overtly friendly and collegial in tone, its underlying message was unequivocal: unless the Japanese granted their Philippine “allies” genuine independence, at the first opportunity the Filipinos would simply abandon them. In effect, he was using the rhetoric of cooperation to threaten the Japanese occupation forces that, unless they lived up to the promises of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, their supposed partners would turn again them. The document’s surreptitious circulation around the Philippines also helped to encourage nationalist forces. [15]

Recto’s complaints had little impact, however, on the ostensible recipients, the top Japanese officials in the Philippines. Six months later, in December 1944, two months after the invasion of the Philippines by US forces had begun, the Japanese authorities, irritated by the absence of genuine cooperation on the part of the Filipino government, established the Makapili or League of Patriotic Filipinos, an organization that professed to be independent of the Philippine Republic, responsible only to the Japanese military commander. Laurel publicly spoke out against the Makapili, warning General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the newly appointed commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, that he could not acquiesce in the existence of any organization of Filipinos that was outside the control of the Philippine Republic. [16] His stance, like that of Recto, epitomized the dilemmas facing those Filipino elites who stayed behind and sought to influence and perhaps ameliorate Japanese policies during the occupation. Ultimately, they did not save the Philippines from a hard-fought campaign lasting six months, during which the capital city of Manila was devastated and up to one million Filipinos—as well as 336,000 Japanese and 14,000 Americans—were killed. [17]

Although he eventually insisted on standing trial for collaboration, rather than accepting an amnesty, and won acquittal, in the months immediately after World War II ended, Recto deeply resented American demands—reinforced by threats that otherwise US assistance for reconstruction would not be forthcoming—that the Philippine government force officials who had served in the Japanese occupation government to stand trial for collaboration, and exclude them entirely from political life. [18] This was, as Recto correctly noted, a very different position from the far more tolerant attitude that the British in India, Burma, and Malaya and the Dutch in Indonesia took toward wartime collaboration with Japan. Bitterly, he recalled how American forces had been driven from the Philippines, yet at great cost in Philippine lives and other suffering, the resistance had still assisted them when they returned in late 1944. The Philippines had only been involved in the war to begin with, he argued, because they were still under American sovereignty in 1941. Americans, Recto pointed out, had not endured Japanese occupation, and therefore simply could not “truly understand the bargainings, the evasions, the temporizings and the show of apparent cooperation with which the Filipinos had to placate the ruthless invader.” Nor were the real heroes of the occupation “those who were able to escape abroad to engage in profitable undertakings or who fled to the mountains and lived in comparative comfort, safety, ease of mind, coming out of their self-exile and hiding, enriched and acclaimed as heroes and superpatriots, only after the Japanese had all but surrendered to the returning victorious American armies.” Recto complained that American soldiers who had surrendered and made pro-Japanese statements under pressure had nonetheless been treated as heroes, whereas Philippine prisoners who had done likewise were being condemned as traitors. In legal terms, Recto argued, by leaving the Philippines, the United States had lost its claim to the loyalties of those it had abandoned. Yet many of the top Philippine officials who had stayed behind and served under the Japanese had nonetheless given “direct and indirect protection” to the underground resistance, funneling funds, medicines, and information to it and tolerating the involvement of their subordinates with the resistance. Philippine officials had also resisted Japanese pressure to conscript young Filipino men into the Japanese armed forces. Many of those top leaders who held public office under the Japanese were, Recto contended, “prompted by a desire to protect the people and comfort them in their misery, and to prevent the Japanese from governing directly and completely or utilizing unscrupulous Filipino followers capable of any treason to their people.” Faced with the presence of the Japanese, they “had to tax their ingenuity and make the most of their practical wisdom to meet the grave implications of the enemy invasion and occupation, in the face of the defenselessness and bewilderment of the people.” [19]

Given his experiences during and after World War II, it was perhaps not surprising that Recto subsequently opposed the presence of American military bases in the Philippines, arguing forcefully that these compromised Philippine independence, tying his country to US security and defense interests. He also spoke out against the siting of nuclear missiles on these bases, fearing that in any superpower confrontation these would serve as magnets exposing the Philippines to outside attack. Recto believed that, in order to be genuinely independent, the Philippine Republic should choose to be militarily strong itself, rather than relying upon American forces for protection, and that the islands should remain neutral in the Cold War. He also argued that the Philippines should recognize Communist China, rather than slavishly imitating the United States in refusing to do so. [20] Recto was elected twice more as senator, in 1949 and 1955 and ran unsuccessfully for the Philippine presidency in 1957, winning a substantial bloc of nationalist votes but losing to the far more pro-American Ramon Magsaysay. Recto’s vehement opposition to the continued presence of American bases in the Philippines led the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to contemplate assassinating him in 1954, an idea that was ultimately rejected on pragmatic grounds, and to conduct black propaganda intended to undermine his presidential bid. This went so far as the distribution of condoms, labelled “Courtesy of Claro M. Recto: The People’s Friend,” with very obvious holes in them. Schirmer and Shalom, eds., The Philippines Reader, 152. When Recto died suddenly of a heart attack in 1960, rumour—probably ill-founded—suggested that the CIA had murdered him. In death, he remained a nationalist hero to many Filipinos, a rallying symbol for those who sought—eventually successfully—to remove American bases from the islands.



Priscilla Roberts is an associate professor of history and honorary director of the Centre of American Studies at the University of Hong Kong. She read history at King’s College, Cambridge, where she also earned her doctorate in history. She has published numerous books and articles on Anglo-American relations, Asian-Western relations, and international history, among them Window on the Forbidden City: The Beijing Diaries of David Bruce, 1973–1974 (2001), Behind the Bamboo Curtain: China, Vietnam, and the World beyond Asia (2007), Lord Lothian and Anglo-American Relations, 1900–1940 (2010), and The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide (2012). She is currently completing a study of think tanks and US China policy after World War II, and working on a new project, “Contesting Imperialisms? Anglo-American Think Tanks and the Pacific, 1920-1945.” She is the Hong Kong coordinator of a HK-British group project on “China, Hong Kong, and the Long 1970s in Global Perspective.” She is also the Hong Kong co-investigator of the “Writing the War in Asia”-network.