Fighting for the “Nation”?
War at Home and Abroad
For fifty-four years, we, the Puerto Ricans, have lived under the political tutelage of our co-citizens of the North. We have assimilated their entrepreneurial spirit and industrial skills and fed our soul and thoughts with the most sacred of men’s attributes: their admiration and respect for freedom, justice, and equality . . . without adulterating our Hispanic heritage, nor have we soiled it with artificial trends of Sajonic assimilation, and without relegating our Hispanic culture, sentiments, and traditions, which we conserve pure, like the most precious legacy of our gallant and noble ancestors.
—Juan César Cordero, August 13, 19521
During the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, military mobilization served both as a political bargaining chip and as a tool with which to advance Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic restructuring. Luis Muñoz Marín and the Populares also relied on the popular sectors’ sheer electoral power to demand and embark on a reform of such a grandiose scale. The combination of economic imperatives—the effect of the Great Depression and the New Deal on the island and military expenditures and rum tax excises during the war—made Puerto Rico even more dependent on U.S. capital and federal transfers. The military in Puerto Rico became an essential instrument for political and socioeconomic modernization as the island shifted closer to the United States. Not only was Puerto Rico increasingly more dependent on federal transfers to effectively run reconstruction and relief agencies (not to mention the military), but as shown by the tens of thousands of peasants and urban workers who became soldiers, there was a growing acceptance of U.S. values and institutions (which were mostly led by Puerto Ricans) throughout the island. This phenomenon curtailed the ability of Muñoz Marín to move toward independence, and soon after becoming Puerto Rico’s first elected governor in 1948, he began to work on a third option between federated statehood and independence.2 That third option would eventually be known as the Commonwealth formula, or Estado Libre Asociado. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 would not only provide the opportunity to mobilize tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans and to make them part of the socioeconomic reconstruction of the island (as their World War II counterparts had been). It would also provide a space where the Puerto Rican soldier would incarnate the ideals of the Commonwealth formula. However, the symbolism of such participation with regard to national identities and the ppd’s project of decolonization, and thus the acceptance of the Commonwealth formula, was of the utmost importance. That the Estado Libre Asociado came into existence in 1952 is well known. The part played by the Puerto Rican soldiers fighting in Korea to advance this formula, however, has been almost completely ignored.3
From Point Four to Public Law 600
In his inaugural address of January 20, 1949, President Harry Truman made public to the world that the United States, as leader of the free world, was bent on combating the “false philosophy” of communism, not just by strengthening its military alliances with “peace-loving” countries but by its determination to “work for a world in which all nations and all peoples are free to govern themselves as they see fit, and to achieve a decent and satisfying life.” He emphasized that the United States sought no territory, that “we have imposed our will on none,” and that “the old imperialism—exploitation for foreign profit—has no place in our plans.” Moreover, the United States was to embark on a new plan to make its technology and expertise, as well as its capital, available to the underdeveloped world. This policy, known as Point Four, was a global version of the Good Neighbor policy. Truman believed that to defeat communism, the United States had to convince the world that it did not intend to create a world empire, nor did it want to possess colonies. Accordingly, decolonizing Puerto Rico became a priority for his administration.
On March 13, 1950, the new Puerto Rican resident commissioner in Washington and ppd ideologue Antonio Fernós Isern, inspired by Truman’s Point Four, introduced a bill in the House (H.R. 7674) to provide for the organization of a constitutional government in Puerto Rico. Senator Joseph C. O’Mahoney, then chair of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, introduced the bill in the Senate (S. 3336) that same day. In a statement before a joint Senate and House committee, Muñoz Marín declared that approving these bills would be of great value to the United States, “which is constantly accused by the Latin American countries and the Communists of running a colonial system.”6 Unlike his remarks regarding previous bills, Muñoz Marín’s statements were not adversarial. In fact, he had offered to make Puerto Rico into a world showcase of Truman’s Point Four.7 The gesture was reciprocated. The atmosphere during these hearings was congenial, at least between the Populares and the members of Congress.
Most congressmen agreed with Muñoz Marín’s views, and one even pointed out the positive effect that a recent visit to Haiti by elected Puerto Rican officials had on their Haitian counterparts. Moreover, members of Congress noted that passing this bill could only “elevate our position before the United Nations,” especially since the United States was a signatory to the United Nations charter and therefore had to adhere to the calling for self-government included in it. Others emphasized that its adoption would advance the “defense of democracy in the eyes of the world, and especially with our fellow Americans south of Rio Grande.” Although the Independentistas tried to call into question the legitimacy of the legislation and of Muñoz Marín’s government, Congress gave its blessing to the Senate version of the bill. On July 30, 1950, Truman signed the Congress Act of July 3 (S. 3336) into Public Law 600, giving the Puerto Ricans the right to create their own constitution and to establish a relationship with the United States in the nature of a compact. P.L. 600 authorized the people of Puerto Rico to organize a republican form of government pursuant to a constitution of their own choosing. That act, adopted by Congress, would become effective only when accepted by the people of Puerto Rico in a referendum. As these hearings were coming to an end, congressmen exhorted Inés Mendoza, Muñoz Marin’s second wife, to address the audience. She declared: “This growing solidarity will be paid back to the United States someday.” Her words could not have been more prophetic. Soon los hijos de este país would be fighting in the hills of Korea alongside the United Nations and against each other in the hills and towns of Puerto Rico.12
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