The Political Uses of Ambiguity: Statecraft and U.S. Empire in the Philippines, 1898-1946

This book project is about how U.S. state actors and elites managed the tensions of nominally being a nation state that had imperial ambitions in the Philippines. I trace the conflict over expanding territorially and limiting the rights of colonial subjects through U.S. conquest, rule, and decolonization of the archipelago. The point of departure for this project is Downes v. Bidwell (1901), in which the U.S. Supreme 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. In a second decision, Gonzales v. Williams (1904), the Court ruled that colonial subjects would be classified as nationals, blending responsibilities of citizens with the exclusions applied to aliens. These legal ambiguities allowed U.S. state actors to manage imperial tensions of claiming sovereignty over new territories while not extending the reciprocal rights for inhabitants. 

Drawing on data from over fifteen archives, I show how the United States took advantage of ambiguity. First, state agents interpreted “foreign in a domestic sense” in competing forms, producing co-existing classifications of Filipinos as citizens, nationals, and aliens. Second, drawing on the possibility of defining Filipinos as “foreign,” U.S. Congress revoked social and juridical citizenship from over 200,000 Filipino veterans of WWII. Third, U.S. Congress continued to treat the Philippine territory as “domestic” by securing a fifty-year lease on military bases and natural resources rights for U.S. investors (equaling those of Philippine citizens). 

Overall, I show how institutionalized ambiguity enabled the persistence of inequality in citizenship, social welfare benefits, and geopolitical arrangements in the first half of the twentieth century. I argue that institutionalized ambiguity, alongside legibility projects, enables state actors to negotiate the tensions of empire in the rule of colonial territories and peoples. 

The main findings and central argument of this project can be found in my working paper: “Institutionalized Ambiguity in Legal Status: Managing the Tensions of U.S. Imperial Rule in the Philippines.”

* Winner of the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship, Graduate Student Paper Award, ASA Section on Political Sociology
* Honorable Mention for the Reinhard Bendix Student Paper Award ASA Section on Comparative Historical Sociology