The One Other Country That Celebrates the Fourth of July (Sort Of)

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Since the Philippines won their independence from U.S. colonial control on July 4, 1946, it's been a national holiday -- though not always the same one.

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A Filipino man marches in a Philippines Republic Day parade on July 4. (AP)

The Fourth of July is the most uniquely and intrinsically American of holidays. Thanksgiving is also observed in Canada and Liberia, after all, but surely only the United States could celebrate the anniversary of its revolutionary declaration of independence. Except that Americans are not the only ones marking the holiday today: thousands of miles away, on the opposite end of the Pacific, the Philippines have the Fourth of July on their calendars as well. Or, they did for a while, anyway; 50 years ago, they either changed the holiday's name or moved it up a few weeks, depending on how you look at it. This is the story of the Philippines' Fourth of July.

The Philippines actually declared their independence on June 12, 1898, after four centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Unfortunately for them, Spain was in the middle of fighting a war with the United States. When Spain lost, it "sold" the Philippines to America for $20 million, about one quarter of what Americans spend on cheese every Fourth of July weekend. The U.S. invaded, crushed the Filipino independence movement, and declared the Pacific island nation a U.S. territory.

The U.S. was an awkward colonial master, nowhere near as practiced or comfortable as the European powers, but from the beginning it worked to instill the importance of July Fourth in the Philippines. Though American forces effectively defeated the Filipinos in April 1902, President Teddy Roosevelt waited until July 4, 1902, to declare victory. That's right: the U.S. celebrated independence day that year by taking away the independence of another country; perhaps an early sign that America was not suited for colonialism. But it gave the thousands of American soldiers still in the Philippines two reasons to celebrate the Fourth. In Manila, the 30th U.S. Infantry Regiment held a parade to mark them both.

That same week, the U.S. Congress passed the Philippine Organic Act, which engineered the colonial Philippines' government as a semi-democratic, joint American-Filipino body. The legislature was split between a "Philippine Commission" of White House appointees and a less powerful "Philippine Legislature" of elected Filipinos. But overseeing them both was a Governor-General, hand-picked by the U.S. president. The first Governor-General was William Howard Taft. So, even if actual Filipinos did not observe the Fourth of July, their government certainly did.

But a number of Americans were uneasy with the colonial effort, among them The Atlantic, which that month published a long meditation on the contradiction of celebrating the Fourth of July while revoking another country's independence, and on "the attempts we are making to impose that organization by force upon Asiatic peoples." The unsigned piece argued, "It is plain enough now that we are holding the Philippines by physical force only, and that the brave and unselfish men we have sent there have been assigned to a task which is not only repellent to Americans, but bitterly resented by the supposed beneficiaries of our action." The magazine that had opposed slavery less than 50 years earlier, like many Americans, found colonialism a poor fit.

After five years -- the same time span between the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2008 election of a presidential candidate who had opposed the war -- President Roosevelt and his government began to give in to public pressure. "We shall have to be prepared for giving the islands independence of a more or less complete type much sooner than I think advisable," Roosevelt said that year. In Congress, Democrats began discussing a bill to re-write the Philippine Organic Act, giving the Philippines a more independent government and, eventually, actual independence. But Republicans held a majority in the Senate and, in 1908, the former Governor-General of the colony, William Howard Taft, was elected president. Independence would have to wait.

In 1912, President Taft was defeated by Woodrow Wilson, who supported the Democrats' plan. A few months after Wilson took office, the House of Representatives passed a bill with his backing that replaced the Philippines' White House-appointed legislature with a native, democratic one, and made the eventual independence of the island nation official U.S. policy. But negotiations in the Senate took years, and Wilson did not sign it into law until 1916.

After almost 20 years of political wrangling in Washington and Manilla, President Franklin Roosevelt finally made good on America's promise. In 1935, he sat alongside the Philippines' native governor and signed a bill that would formally grant the country independence in 10 years, on July 4, 1945. The idea was that the two nations would share their independence days. But the Japanese army later invaded the Philippines, which became the site of some of World War Two's most horrific violence (Americans and Filipinos died alongside one another during the Bataan Death March). The U.S. missed its deadline, but by only one year. As Americans' celebrated their first post-war Fourth of July in 1946, Filipinos enjoyed their first day of true independence since the early 1500s.

The U.S. and the Philippines only really shared 15 independence days, though. In 1962, with Filipino nationalism on the rise, President Diosdado Macapagal officially changed the independence celebration to June 12 -- the date, in 1898, when the Philippines had briefly declared independence from Spain.

"July 4 seemed tantamount to the celebration of Philippine subjection to and dependence on the United States which served to perpetuate unpleasant memories," President Macapagal wrote, years later. "I felt, too, that July 4 was not inspiring enough for the Filipino youth since it recalled mostly the peaceful independence missions to the United States. The celebration of independence day on June 12, on the other hand, would be a greater inspiration to the youth."

Macapagal kept July 4 as a national holiday, though: Philippine Republic Day, which is still on the books but scantly observed. It is sometimes referred to as Filipino-American Friendship Day. Despite the colonial history, relations between the one-time colony and master are still good; many Filipinos remember how hard the U.S. fought to end Japanese occupation.

If you happen to be in the Philippines today, you can wish people a happy Fourth of July in their native Tagalog by declaring, "Maligayang ika'apat ng hulyo." But on June 12, their actual independence day, you would wish them, "Maligayang araw ng kalayaan." Either way, try to make it to a parade.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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