When in 1927 the University of Oregon’s three-man debate team came to the Philippines to argue that we weren’t quite ready for self-government, they were—to use the American vernacular—really asking for it.
Walter E. Hempstead was a senior at Oregon, and general forensic manager. He recalled how his team went head-to-head with the University of the Philippines in what was “the most dramatic evening of [his] life.”1
Having been colonized by foreign powers for more than four centuries, and–even more stinging–having been double-crossed by Americans posing as allies against Spain just thirty years before, no topic incited Filipino passion more than a nation’s right to sovreignty. It is not surprising, then, that no less than ten thousand people descended on the Opera House that night, and two radio stations broadcasted the event across Asia. According to Hempstead, the police came, too, not just to keep an eye on the jampacked theater but also to control the people outside fighting to buy tickets off scalpers.
The Philippine question elicited intense debate even among Americans, many of whom felt they had no business annexing seven thousand islands on the opposite side of the globe in the first place. “There must be two Americas,” Mark Twain said sardonically in 1924, “one that sets the captives free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”
But those who favored colonial rule—among them some Filipinos—argued that we were incapable of self-government. They also feared that if the U.S. didn’t take control, another power, like Japan, might.
My grandfather, Carlos P. Romulo, was the UP team’s coach in the debate against the University of Oregon. Twenty-nine years old and already an outspoken anti-imperialist, he was probably as shocked as everybody else was as spectators erupted into “cat calls, boos, hisses, thunderous applause,” and even fist fights in the gallery.
The “verbal battle of the century,” as the Philippine press called it, ended with the Oregon team losing, predictably, by unanimous audience decision. The American debaters went on to China, leaving the UP team energized, inspired, and wanting to travel around the world to continue the debate.
Lolo had already traveled to the U.S. several times before, and he knew all too well that most “regular” Americans had no idea what a Filipino was; or, worse, they thought we were half-naked savages living in trees (no thanks, in part, to the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, which featured a sprawling human zoo of Filipino tribal people). In 1919 he traveled to New York to get his master’s at Columbia University. He went again with the Philippine Parliamentary Mission. Led by Senate President Manuel L. Quezon, for whom Lolo served as private secretary, the 1922 mission was the second of what would be a series of eight independence missions.
In addition to assisting Quezon at this point in time, Lolo was working his way up the editorial ladder at The Philippines Herald. He was also an associate professor in the English department of UP, which eventually led him to teach a course in public speaking and coach the debate team.
By the end of 1927, Lolo was sending letters out to universities in the United States, with a request for “immediate action.”
“The youth of the Philippine Islands covet the friendship and goodwill of the youth of the United States,” he wrote, explaining the purpose of the trip. “It is by the interchange of ideas between their representatives and by contact with the national institutions of both countries that the American and Filipino students will learn to know each other, and knowing each other, understand the ideals of each nation. . . .”
Lolo hoped to tour the U.S. with the same three men who had out-debated the University of Oregon on the question of Philippine independence. I am not sure how he managed to pull it off, as the historic debate in Manila had “provoked so much discussion that [U.S.] Secretary of War Davis frowned on the affair and notified Henry L. Stimson, governor-general of the Philippines, that no more debates on that subject could be tolerated by the government.”2
Somehow Lolo managed to organize a team of the three men plus one alternate. All four–Pedro Camus, Deogracias Puyat, Teodoro Evangelista, and Jacinto C. Borja–were law students; each had an impressive record of successful debates. By March 3, 1928, they were aboard the S.S. President McKinley, bound for Seattle, on a fifteen-university tour sanctioned by the U.S. Bureau of Insular Affairs.
On April 4, 1928, dressed in tuxedo, as was the custom for forensic events held in the evening, the UP debaters faced their first opponent, the Varsity Debate Quad of Stanford University, and won by audience vote 178 to 52. The main contention of the team was that the Philippines had a stable government, and was capable of maintaining this government if granted independence.
From California the team traversed the country by train, crushing opponents at the Nevada Bar Association, Universities of California, Minnesota, Utah, and Michigan, Colorado, Illinois, as well as George Washington University and Indiana University. Their eighth debate was against the University of Wisconsin, where acclaimed writer and Philippine national artist Carlos Quirino was an eighteen-year-old journalism student covering the event. On April 24 he wrote that the debate tour offered audiences the opportunity of finally “hearing the Philippine question debated on a basis of first-hand information.” 3 Three days later he wrote another story with the headline, “Philippine Team Wins in Stirring Plea for Liberty.”
When the team arrived at Miami University, Ohio, they discovered that their reputation had preceded them—and they were allowed to give speeches but not to engage in debate. Since the contest was not being sponsored by the public speaking department, the university authorities expressed concern that “any group of students [would] be outclassed by the gifted Filipinos.”
The student newspaper hinted that the real reason was that the “political gentlemen” who had control over the state university’s annual budget might be annoyed by the topic of the debate. After all, the newspaper pointed out, US Republican President Coolidge had categorically stated that the Philippines would not be independent “for an indefinite term of years.”4
By the time they reached home at the end of July, the UP team had drawn a combined audience of a few thousand. They had threatened no less than the Secretary of War and, indirectly, the president of the United States. They had challenged–and defeated–six of the Big Ten schools, along with several southern and eastern universities, including Bates College, Cornell and Harvard.
“We were given a dazzling reception at the pier,” Lolo recalled in his memoirs. “The entire student body from the university turned out along with students of other schools, and we were cheered as heroes and draped with floral necklaces. . . .”
In his 1929 report to the UP Board of Regents, Lolo wrote, “Our mission was purely educational and we consistently kept out of the forbidden ground of politics.” It seems all he wanted was to drive home the point that the Philippines’ right to sovereignty was not about nationality or politics but, rather, justice and truth.
1 Hempstead, Walter E. (November 27, 1927). “Manila Engagement Heated for Oregon Debate Squad: Ticket Scalpers Get Cash.” World Debate Tour Collection, Division of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon: Eugene, Oregon.
2 “Oregon-Philippine Debate Draws Ire of United States Secretary of War.” World Debate Tour Collection, Division of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon: Eugene, Oregon.
3 The Daily Cardinal (the campus paper of University of Wisconsin). April 24, 1928.
4 From the column “Slants before the Walk” by Milton L. Farber. The Miami Student, Feb. 7, 1950.