Richard Reeves: Bush Should Study Up on the History of the Philippines

Roundup: Historians' Take

Richard Reeves, writing on (Oct. 23, 2003):

"America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people," said President Bush (news - web sites) to a joint session of the Congress of the Philippines last week. "Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule."

Unfortunately, we then killed more than 200,000 Filipinos. Almost all of the dead were civilians, killed in the two years after we liberated them from the Spanish in 1898. One of our generals there, a cranky Civil War veteran named Jacob Smith, told his men: "I wish you to kill and burn ... I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States."

"How young?" asked Maj. Waller Tazewell Waller (cq) of the U.S. Marines. "Ten years and up," said Gen. Smith.

None of this was secret at the time. American soldiers -- we sent 70,000 there after the Spanish colonial authority surrendered when Commodore George Dewey's fleet sailed into Manila Harbor -- wrote of the details in letters to hometown newspapers. Here are samples quoted in a new book, "Flyboys," by James Bradley:

"We bombarded a place called Malabon, and then went in and killed every native we met, men, women and children" ... "This shooting human beings is a 'hot game' and beats rabbit hunting all to pieces" ... "Picking off niggers in the water is more fun than a turkey shoot" ... "I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger. Tell all my inquiring friends that I am doing everything I can for Old Glory and for America I love so well."

Back in Washington, President Theodore Roosevelt was calling that "the most glorious war in our nation's history." The Filipino victims he dismissed as "a syndicate of Chinese half-breeds."

George W. Bush knows all this. At Yale, he got a B in History 35, a study of that era, taught by John Morton Blum, a biographer of Theodore Roosevelt. And if he has forgotten, he could look up some of it in Bradley's book. This president's father, Lt. George H.W. Bush, U.S. Navy (news - web sites), is a hero of "Flyboys" (and of a CNN documentary with the same title), which includes a frightening section on American anti-Asian attitudes and Japanese anti-American and anti-Christian attitudes that fed slaughter, massacre and even cannibalism in World War II.

We are, more often than not, relatively decent people in war and occupation. The Spanish rulers of the 7,000 islands of the Philippines were worse than the Americans, and there was a significant anti-war movement at home between 1899 and 1902. On July Fourth of that year, Roosevelt declared victory, after 4,234 Americans were killed in guerrilla attacks during the first three years of occupation. Mark Twain proposed that the stripes of Old Glory should be black and red. Gen. Smith was court-martialed and Maj. Waller tried (and acquitted) on murder charges. During Smith's court-martial, one of his aides said, "If people know what a thieving, treacherous, worthless bunch of scoundrels these Filipinos are, they would think differently."

That quote, in Stanley Karnow's 1989 book, "In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines," illustrates one of the more important historical lessons of occupation: Not only do the occupied inevitably come to hate the occupiers, the occupiers come to hate the occupied. Last Wednesday, a New York Times story by John Tierney -- the headline began "Baffled Occupiers ..." -- quoted a GI watching over a Baghdad market as saying: "If you really want to know, I'm sick of being in a country where lying is the national pastime."

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Nathaniel Savella Ramirez - 10/17/2004

I have been saying the same thing for the last few years way before we got to Iraq. As a Filipino-American originally from the Philippines. I did not learn about the Philippine American War until I got to the United States. It took about seven years before I ran into the book "In our Image" by Stanley Karnow. What struck me as odd was that Americans except the military members that have been stationed there did not know where the Philippines was. Which is exactly the reverse in the Philippines. Where every white man is thought to be an American. Which in the last few years was more often not true. With the prevalence of European backpackers and beachcombers. Most recent reminder of this phenomenon is when one of the couples in the Amazing Race, upon knowing that the next destination is Manila, Philippines. Commented that "she does not even know where the Philippines is". If she does not know where it is, moreso about the history of America in the Philippines. Not all Americans are like her though. Thanks to fellow Americans, Steven Szwick, David Haward Bain and the aforementioned Stanley Karnow. But most of all that quintessiential American Mark Twain. People like me who have been kept in the dark about this history finally knew. Hopefully, more Americans find out about this hidden part of American history. Because what is happenning now is somewhat reminiscent of that era. I would hasten to say that if you know about William Mc Kinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft's actions in the Philippines. You could say that George W. Bush is reading the same script in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact they use to say the same thing about William McKinley that they are saying to George W. Bush.