Imagining Independence: The United States, Public Diplomacy, and Philippine Freedom in the Age of Decolonization, 1945-1960

Report from Elliot Newbold, 2019 Research Impact Award Recipient

In 2019, I was awarded the ASEAS(UK) postgraduate travel grant to undertake archival research at several libraries and documentary repositories in the Philippines’ capital city, Manila. The visit was in support of my PhD thesis, tentatively titled ‘Imagining Independence: The United States, Public Diplomacy, and Philippine Freedom in the Age of Decolonization, 1945-1960’.

My research explores the decolonization of the Philippines via public diplomacy; that slippery term for the ways states and actors use outward facing propaganda to communicate ideas and actions to a foreign audience. It asks three questions: how did Filipino and American actors sell Philippine decolonization during the Cold War? What were the responses from elite and popular perspectives? And how did these responses influence the development of nationalism and nonalignment in the global south?

The project probes the tension between engagement and isolation that underscores current American approaches to the continent. It impacts enduring foreign policy conversations around American imperialism, where the rise of China and the onset of an “Asian Century” has illuminated the contested nature of American leadership across the globe. Asking how the United States constructed and construed its influence in Asia offers salient lessons for understanding America’s future in the region, particularly amidst a perceivably withdrawing America and an increasingly powerful Asia.

I began with three days at the University of the Philippines – Diliman library, before spending a day at the Jorge B Vargas Library. I then travelled to Ermita to work at the Jose P Laurel Library, as well as to visit the archive of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. Finally, I travelled to Makati to interview David Guerrero, son of the late Filipino diplomat Leon Ma Guerrero, as well as work on his personal papers.

The visit proved fundamental in advancing my thesis. The material I gathered informs the entirety of my project, providing critical Filipino perspectives on such pressing topics as the Cold War, decolonization, and the role of propaganda in selling the postcolonial Philippine state. I was able to network effectively with Filipino scholars and policy practitioners, developing lasting contacts with archivists and other important figures within the Philippine foreign policy scene. I was lucky enough to be granted the first foreign access to the Carlos P Romulo Papers at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, where I talked to staff about the challenges of locating and preserving historical materials in the islands.

I am grateful for ASEAS(UK)’s support in helping to fund the visit, and thank the committee for their interest in my research.

Elliot Newbold is a PhD researcher in the American & Canadian Studies Department at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on the United States, public diplomacy, and the decolonization of the Philippines. He is funded by the Midlands 4Cities doctoral training scheme. He tweets @enewbold1992.

Image 1: David Guerrero, son of Leon Ma Guerrero, after our interview at his home in Makati.

Image 2: The staff of the DFA archives after working on the Carlos P Romulo Papers.