Paul Kramer: Interviewed about his new book on imperialism

Historians in the News

The United States military overwhelms an outmatched opponent, easily taking the capital city of a country half a world away. Mission accomplished; or so it seems.

Actually, it was the beginning of a protracted guerrilla war, years of bloody fighting that led to allegations of brutality on the battlefield and widespread protests and political controversy at home.

It is not Iraq that Johns Hopkins University historian Paul Kramer is writing about; it is the Philippines. His newly published book, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines, tells the story of a war fought as the 19th century turned into the 20th that is largely left out of the history books.

Most know of the war that preceded it, the Spanish-American War of "Remember the Maine" and the Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill fame. Many know that it included Commodore George Dewey's sailing the American Pacific fleet into Manila, and his order "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley," taking out the Spanish ships guarding their Philippine colony.

But few can say they know much about what came next, a fight not with the Spanish but with Filipinos over the fate of their island. It is a story that quite obviously resonates a century later.

Why do people know so little about this war?

Sometimes it is referred to as a forgotten war, which sounds like a passive process, as if it eroded away in people's memory. Actually, it was hidden. There was a deliberate attempt to suppress its memory.

While the Spanish-American War was referred to as "a splendid little war" by Secretary of State John Hay, there was nothing splendid nor little about this war, which makes its suppression all the more striking.

It went on for at least three years by some measurements as long, as 10 — and involved over 120,000 U.S. troops, with almost 5,000 of them killed. There were 16,000 Filipino military deaths and, by conservative estimates, over 250,000 Filipino civilians died from malnutrition and disease.

One of the factors that led to its hiding was the name for it. From the very beginning, U.S. forces refused to call it a war, because that would give recognition to the forces of the Philippine republic. The U.S. administration wanted to believe that it was fighting a war to enforce a legitimate legal treaty with Spain, so the war was called an insurrection, a term for a domestic uprising within a legally constituted sovereign society.

That means veterans of the war were treated differently. It didn't become part of commemoration ceremonies; it doesn't make the list of U.S. wars. That was a decision made at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th that has, in a way, echoed across the decades in facilitating the erasure of the war from U.S.. memory.

How did this war come about?

It helps to see the occupation of the Philippines as a part of a much older set of prerogatives that has to do with the expansion of U.S. trade into Asia. In the 1890s, the U.S. suffered the worst economic depression it had ever experienced, and the theory that came up to explain it was under-consumption — the country was producing goods at a break-neck pace but did not have enough people to consume them. The government focused on over-seas markets. This was an era when most of Asia and Africa were colonized by European powers, so the U.S. was entering a very competitive environment. One of the things id did was develop its first modern navy in the 1890's, becoming one of the world's top three naval powers, along with Great Britain and Germany.

Then 1898 comes along, with rising tensions with Spain over its treatment of a Cuban independence movement. The Spanish were using very brutal tactics, including setting up concentration camps for Cuban civilians, warehousing people without adequate water or sanitation or housing. Americans were also concerned about their significant business interests in Cuba, even the possibility of annexing this rich sugar colony.

With the humanitarian concerns raising hell in the press, the U.S. sent the battleship Maine to Havana, where it mysteriously exploded in February 1898. A naval inquiry determined it was as a result of a torpedo, evidence of Spanish treachery. In some ways, this is the first time the question of weapons of mass destruction was raised in the U.S. It was subsequently determined that, in fact, internal technical failures led to the explosion. But at the time it was seen as an outrage against American honor, and there was a great popular upsurge for a war against Spain.

It turns out that at the same time the Spanish were fighting an independence movement in Cuba, they were also fighting in their largest Asian colony, the Philippines. When the war started, the order was given by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Teddy Roosevelt, to send the Pacific squadron into Manila Bay to engage the Spanish. Taking Manila would provide, at the least, a coaling station for U.S. commercial vessels. The Philippines were seen as a kind of steppingstone to China.

The Navy quickly defeated the Spanish on May 1, 1898, and President McKinley sent over 10,000 U.S. troops for the occupation of Manila. This is a very ambiguous moment. It is not clear how much of the islands the U.S. planned to occupy. Admiral Dewey, the head of the Pacific squadrons, engaged in very delicate negotiations — still not completely understood — with Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the revolt against the Spanish, who had gone into exile to Hong Kong with his comrades when the revolt failed in 1897.

Aguinaldo was enthusiastic about the U.S. being a possible ally with the forces of liberation and saw the destruction of the Spanish fleet as helping to get the revolution back on its feet. Dewey brought Aguinaldo back to the Philippines, where he reorganized the revolution and defeated the Spanish troops on land. In June 1898, a month after the U.S. defeated the Spanish navy, he declared an independent Philippines. There was sort of a sham battle that let the U.S. occupy Manila while the independence movement occupied much ofthe zone surrounding. There was a lot of suspicion on both sides.

Then, in treaty negotiations with Spain in Europe, neither side would recognize diplomats from the independent Philippines. On the ground, the two armies begin to get to know one another. There is fascinating stuff in the archives, as many U.S. soldiers tell how impressed they are with the Filipinos, especially the elites, and express sympathy for their cause. But others resort to racial epithets. So there is tension as well. in 1899, U.S. sentries fired on Filipino troops outside Manila; they fired back, and war broke out.

It is an enormously controversial moment in American political history because the Senate was debating the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish American War, and many senators opposed the U.S. taking over any colonies, becoming an imperial power. But once war broke out, there was no longer any backing away.

So was it immediately a guerrilla fight?

No, the leadership of the independence movement came from the elite Filipinos, and they found it very important to convey to the United States and the international community that the Philippines were civilized and thus deserved independence. So they tried to fight a conventional war. it was disastrous for them. So they reluctantly adopted a guerrilla strategy, taking the battle into the countryside where Filipino fighters were familiar with the land, fighting soldiers who were not familiar with the language and subject to disease. This proves to be a very successful strategy in military terms. From late 1899 through 1901, the U.S. would occupy a town, the opposing forces would evaporate and pick them off in hit-and-run attacks. Local authorities aided both sides, waiting to see who would win.

The result was U.S. forces were caught in a quagmire while anti-imperialist groups at home were gearing up their opposition to the war. William Jennings Bryan made it one of the paramount issues of the 1900 presidential election. When Bryan lost catastrophically, McKinley saw it as a mandate to break the back of the insurrection and introduced tougher tactics, opening up attacks not just on toe insurgents but on anyone seen as aiding them. Reports of atrocities begin to increase — looting and burning of civilian homes, the torture of prisoners, sometimes for interrogation, sometimes for sadistic pleasure.

And the U.S. began to use the tactics that the Spanish were condemned for in Cuba, setting up con-centration camps to isolate the revolution's civilian supporters. Tens of thousands died of starvation and disease.

Many in the army begin to think of the entire Philippine population as the enemy. One thing I argue in the book is that it becomes a race war for many soldiers.

Was this reported in the United States?

The war was major news, headlines virtually every day..But much of the news came from letters written home by soldiers that were published as dispatches from the front by many small-town newspapers. They often contained records of atrocities....

Do you think this war has lessons that apply to the United States' war in Iraq today?

I am always hesitant to draw any kind of easy lessons. If history is anything, it is a series of strands that emerge in the past and converge in complex patterns that are not repeated. But those strands may be present later on, even if they do not come together in the same way.

Some patterns are remarkably similar. Both wars were waged for abstract principles, in the name of defending civilization — in the case of the Philippines, from savagery; in Iraq, from terrorism. That approach exempts the United States from certain international norms. It was clearly true in both of these wars that the United States fights them because it is an exceptional society with exceptional values that it declares to be the world's values.

In both cases, there is the sense that this is a different kind of war. When you read the reports of U.S. commanders in the Philippines about targeting civilians, how you don't understand this new kind of war, it has eerie echoes with the present.

One of the clear lessons is that the United States has repeatedly underestimated the power of peo-ples' desire for self-determination. In the Philippines, you read of this kind of naive surprise on the part of the U.S. military when they find out that self-determination and freedom did not include U.S. occupation.

Ultimately, the tragic lesson of this war is that to win a guerrilla struggle on a political timetable determined within the United States has a cost in lives to the other, society that is usually not taken into account.

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