Dissertation | “The Political Uses of Ambiguity: Statecraft and U.S. Empire in the Philippines, 1898-1946.”
Committee: Mara Loveman, Pamela Oliver, Myra Marx Ferree, Jenna Nobles, Cindy I-Fen Cheng, Mike Cullinane, and Francisco Scarano

My dissertation addresses the state-led project of nation-making in the United States’ conquest, rule, and decolonization of the Philippines. The point of departure for this project is the 1901 Supreme Court Decision, Downes v. Bidwell, in which the Court decided that the Philippines and other colonies were “foreign in a domestic sense.” This phrase meant that the territories belonged to but were not part of the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court institutionalized a legal ambiguity and evaded giving a clear definition of both U.S. sovereignty over the Philippine territory and the citizenship rights of Filipinos as colonial subjects. This legal ambiguity produced multiple, co-existing classifications of the Philippines vis-à-vis the U.S. empire state, which in turn had profound consequences not only for the rights of colonial subjects, but also for U.S. geopolitical supremacy. I show how ambiguity itself is important for providing mechanisms of domination that might otherwise be self-contradictory and incompatible.

I trace the institutionalized ambiguity of the status of Philippine subjects from 1901 until the end of U.S. rule in the Philippines in 1946. Contrary to much work that locates state control in legibility projects, I argue that institutionalized ambiguity can increase a state’s ability to pursue its interests. Drawing on data from over fifteen libraries and archives, I show how U.S. state actors took advantage of this ambiguity in law. First, ambiguity produced multiple classifications, or polysemy. Different state agents and agencies interpreted “foreign in a domestic sense” in competing forms, as evidenced in the simultaneous classification of Filipinos as citizens, nationals, and aliens. Second, ambiguity was a tool of exclusion. Because of polysemy and the option of defining Filipinos as foreign, the U.S. Congress could break the promise of social welfare benefits to Filipino veterans, excluding them from social and juridical citizenship. Filipinos are the only people in U.S. history to have their military benefits revoked. Third, ambiguity served as means for maintaining U.S. sovereignty over the archipelago and securing global supremacy. Although the U.S. Congress viewed Filipinos as “foreign,” in social and juridical citizenship, Congress continued to treat the Philippine territory as “domestic” by securing a fifty-year lease on military bases and rights for U.S. investors (that equaled those of Philippine citizens) to develop natural resources. Overall, I show that the institutionalized ambiguity of Philippine legal status enabled the persistence of inequality in citizenship, social welfare benefits, and geopolitical arrangements in the first half of the twentieth century. In a theoretical elaboration of the insights from this work, I show that ambiguity has been and continues to be a key feature of the United States’ treatment of other subordinated minorities, as well.