MANILA — A gentle breeze caressed the long rows of white marble crosses, while a carillon solemnly chimed the noon hour for 53,485 U.S. and Philippine World War II servicemen buried or commemorated here in America's largest military cemetery overseas.
Inside the vaulted memorial, Arnold Cual studied the giant battle maps of the bloody Pacific campaign and spoke emotionally of his own links to America. He fought with U.S. troops against the Japanese, then served under U.S. officers in the Philippine army. He later lived 16 years in San Francisco and worked with the U.S. Army at the Presidio.
Now, like his homeland, 67-year-old Cual wants to cut the ties. He supports the attempt by President Corazon Aquino's government during four days of negotiations last week to remove the giant U.S. military bases in the Philippines, the most visible and controversial symbol of America's long presence here.
"America should let go the Philippines," Cual said. "I think it's high time to leave the Philippines alone. Without America, we'll be forced to stand alone. We'll be sovereign."
The search for a Philippine national identity is inextricably linked to the future of the U.S. bases. Growing nationalism means the bases are caught in the tangled web of emotions and history that tie the United States to its only former colony. Resentful of America's role here, many Filipinos say their nation can never be independent as long as Washington keeps troops here.
Most Filipinos are taught, as few Americans are, that the bases date back to the turn of the century, when the United States sent 70,000 soldiers here to cruelly subjugate the colony it had "won" from Spain. At least 200,000 Philippine civilians were killed in America's first, now forgotten, overseas war.
But unlike the Spanish who had ruled despotically for 400 years, Americans gave the Philippines universal education, a common language, roads and bridges, and republican--if not quite democratic--political institutions. World War II brought the shared horrors of Corregidor and the Bataan Death March. Formal independence came in 1946.
A longtime opponent of the bases, Leticia Ramos Shahani, chairwoman of the Philippine Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recalled over lunch recently how she cried as a 14-year-old girl when the U.S. flag finally came down. Suddenly misty-eyed again, she began singing "God Bless America," warbling more verses than her American guest knew.
"People are so obsessed with Mother America," Shahani said later. "Even though America has so many other interests."
Indeed, Filipinos speak wistfully of their "special relationship" with America. Peculiar is another word for it. Jeepneys, the ubiquitous form of public transportation that began as U.S. war surplus jeeps, still often carry U.S. flags and names like California Dreaming.
Manila's English-language papers are obsessed with news about the United States or even about U.S. diplomats and businessmen in the Philippines, virtually ignoring the country's Asian neighbors. Nor, considering America's economic and political clout here, does anyone complain when columnists invariably assume that the bases are the motivation behind every American act.
More than 300,000 Filipinos apply for visas to the United States every year. On most days, far more visa applicants line up outside the U.S. Embassy than show up down the street to protest the presence of the bases. At last count, there was a four-decade wait for immigration visas to America.
Manila remains a wacky testament to U.S. influence. Public buildings were copied from those in Washington. Forbes Park, Taft Avenue and Harrison Plaza are among the neighborhoods and streets named after U.S. Presidents and colonial governors.
"The U.S. is where it's at," explained a young policeman in Basco, an island north of Luzon. "I think we should be the 51st state."
America's presence was heightened last December when two American F-4 Phantom jets from Clark Air Base provided air cover for government troops during an attempted coup in Manila. Although they helped save Aquino's government, many complained that the Americans were only trying to pressure Aquino to extend leases for the bases.
Thus it was no surprise when the Philippine foreign minister and chief negotiator, Raul Manglapus, entitled his opening remarks for the bases talks "A Question of Sovereignty." He bitterly cited the "American atrocities" of the 1899-1901 Philippine war of independence as well as the shared hardships and triumphs of World War II.
"Repeated emotional references to the glorious joint U.S.-Philippine effort in World War II sometimes now only serve to provoke the longer memory of the American Philippine war. . . ," said Manglapus, a guerrilla fighter during World War II.
Americans here tend to cite more recent memories, such as last week's State Department warning of "an imminent terrorist bombing" by Communist rebels.