U.S. Water Boarding, 1899 Style
In World War II Japan and Germany routinely used water boarding on prisoners. In Viet Nam U.S. forces held bound Viet Cong captives and “sympathizers” upside down in barrels of water. Water boarding also has been associated with the Khmer Rouge.
An extensive record of its use by the United States land forces exists in the records of the invasion and occupation of the Philippines that began in 1898. As the U.S. encountered armed resistance by the liberation army of Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo, and sank into a 12-year quagmire on the archipelago, U.S. officers routinely resorted to what they called “the water cure.” Professor Miller's study of the Philippine war reveals this sordid story through Congressional testimony, letters from soldiers, court martial hearings, words of critics and defenders, and newspaper accounts. The pro-imperialist media of the day justified the “water cure” as necessary to gain information; the anti-imperialist media denounced its use by the U.S or any other civilized nation.
Fresh from their recent victories in the Indian wars, the Philippine invasion of 1898 began with a war whoop. U.S. forces landed in the Philippines in 1898 led by American officers such Pershing, Lawton, Smith, Shafter, Otis, Merritt, and Chafee, who had fought “treacherous redskins.” At least one officer had taken part in the infamous 1891 massacre of 350 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee. A U.S. media that had supported the Army's brutal Indian campaigns rhapsodized about this new opportunity for distant racial warfare. The influential San Francisco Argonaut spoke candidly: “We do not want the Filipinos. We want the Philippines. The islands are enormously rich, but unfortunately they are infested with Filipinos. There are many millions there, and it is to be feared their extinction will be slow.” The paper's solution was to recommend several unusually cruel methods of torture it believed “would impress the Malay mind.”
President William McKinley dispatched Admiral Dewey to the Philippines with a pledge to bestow civilization and Christianity on its people, and promise eventual independence. Perhaps he was unaware that most Filipinos were Catholics. Perhaps he did not know that General Aguinaldo and his 40,000 troops were poised to remove Spain from the islands. Dewey supplied Aguinaldo with weapons and encouraged him, but that soon changed.
From the White House and the U.S. high command to field officers and lowly enlistees the message became “these people are not civilized” and the United States had embarked on a glorious overseas adventure against “savages.” Officers and enlisted men - and the media -- were encouraged to see the conflict through a “white superiority” lens, much as they viewed their victories over Native Americans and African Americans. The Philippine occupation unfolded at the high tide of American segregation, lynching, and a triumphant white supremacy ideology.
U.S. officers ordered massacres of entire villages and conducted a host of other shameful atrocities as the Philippine quagmire dragged on for more than a decade. “A white man seems to forget that he is human,” wrote a white soldier from the Philippines.
Atrocities abounded. To produce “a demoralized and obedient population” in Batangas, General Franklin Bell ordered the destruction of “humans, crops, food stores, domestic animals, houses and boats.” He became known as the “butcher” of Batangas. General Jacob Smith, who had been wounded fighting at Wounded Knee, said his overseas campaigns were “worse than fighting Indians.” He promised to turn Samar province into a “howling wilderness.” Smith defined the enemy as anyone “ten years and up” and issued these instructions to Marine Commander Tony Waller: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” He became known as “Howling Jake” Smith.
The “water cure” was probably first instituted when U.S. forces encountered local resistance. Professor Miller states that General Frederick Funston in 1901 may have used it to capture the Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo. A New York World article described the “water cure” as forcing “water with handfuls of salt thrown in to make it more efficacious, is forced down the throats of patients until their bodies become distended to the point of bursting . . ..” This may have been only one on the versions used.
The water cure became front-page news when William Howard Taft, appointed U.S. Governor of the Philippines, testified under oath before Congress and let the cat out of the bag. The “so called water cure,” he admitted, was used “on some occasions to extract information.” The Arena, an opposition paper, called his words “a most humiliating admission that should strike horror in the mind of every American.” Around the same time as Taft's admission a soldier boasted in a letter made public that he had used the water cure on 160 people and only 26 had survived. The man was compelled by the War Department to retract his damaging confession. But then another officer stated the “water cure” was being widely used when he reported, “the problem of the 'water cure' is in knowing how to apply it.” Such statements leave unclear how often the form of torture was used for interrogation and how often it became a way to exhibit racial animosity or display contempt.
During a triumphal U.S. speaking tour General Frederick Funston, bearing a Congressional Medal of Honor and harboring political ambitions, bellicosely promoted total war. In Chicago he boasted of sentencing 35 suspects to death without trial and enthusiastically endorsed torture and civilian massacres. He even publicly suggested that anti-war protestors be dragged out of their homes and lynched.
Funston's words met far more applause than criticism. In San Francisco he suggested that the editor of a noted anti-imperialist paper “ought to be strung up to the nearest lamppost.” At a banquet in the city he called Filipinos “unruly savages” and (now) claimed he had personally killed fifty prisoners without trial. Captain Edmond Boltwood, an officer under Funston, confirmed that the general had personally administered the water cure to captives, and had told his troops “to take no prisoners.”
President Theodore Roosevelt reprimanded Funston and ordered him to cease his inflammatory rhetoric. Facing a political challenge from General Nelson Miles based in the Philippines, TR, who rode into the White House on his heroic exploits at San Juan Hill, did not intend to nourish more competition. The President privately assured a friend the water cure was “an old Filipino method of mild torture” and claimed when Americans administered it “no body was seriously damaged.” But publicly TR was silent about the “water cure.”
In an article, “The 'Water Cure' from a Missionary Point of View,” Reverend Homer Stunz justified the technique. It was not torture, he said, since the victim could stop it any time by revealing what his interrogators wanted to know. Besides, he insisted, it was only applied to “spies.” The missionary also justified instances of torture by pointing out that U.S. soldiers “in lonely and remote bamboo jungles” faced stressful conditions.
Mark Twain, a leading anti-imperialist voice, offered this view of the water cure:
"Funston's example has bred many imitators, and many ghastly additions to our history: the torturing of Filipinos by the awful 'water- cure,' for instance, to make them confess -- what? Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless. Yet upon such evidence American officers have actually -- but you know about those atrocities which the War Office has been hiding a year or two...."
U.S. military trials for what are now known as war crimes all resulted in convictions. Waller was acquitted because he followed the orders of Smith, and later retired with two stars. “Howling Jake” Smith was convicted, but he returned to a tumultuous citizens' welcome in San Francisco. When the convicted U.S. war criminals received only slaps-on-the-wrist U.S. prestige abroad sunk to new lows.
A San Francisco park was named after General Funston. TR appointed General Bell of Batangas infamy as his chief of staff. And the President continued to wave the banner of aggressive imperialism. In 1903 he flagrantly seized a broad swath of Columbia's Isthmus of Panama so he could link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans under U.S. control. This boosted his popularity and splintered the anti-imperialist movement. TR also worked to undermine efforts to grant the Philippines independence, which finally took place after World War II.
TR easily won a return to the White House in 1904, and in 1908 he chose Taft as his successor. By the time Taft left the White House in 1913, military resistance in the Philippines had ended, and so presumably had the “water cure.” TR had become a Mount Rushmore-size American icon.
The “water cure” was accepted as a necessary embarrassment in wartime. Appeals to muscular patriotism had exonerated the “water cure” and reduced a crime of torture to a misdemeanor. Is the U.S. headed the same way in 2007?
comments powered by Disqus
male india - 4/30/2008
what attrocities are perpetrated by our respective countries in the name of civilisation and honour is appalling,what gets reported and what doesn't?what is furnished to feed public opinion and what isn't?is this how we still see each other,as countries,people of a different race.it's not the politicians who are to blame but we the people who have become so valueless,values which are prejudiced based on colour and region.Instead of trying to save the world it's better to celebrate our acts of humanity everywhere,as people of the world,we are united in our sharing the same ideas of torture,cruelty and finding pleasure in another's pain,wow,la viva humans
Benjamin Jones - 11/10/2007
I've read Twain on the subject and I agree with you. He was eloquent and spoke against the war because he believed it was counter to America's nature to be involved in the Philippines. Seeing how it played out, I understand his argument and find it sound in many ways. What I did not care for in Katz's piece is his argument that is looking for evidence.
On the Philippine War read Brian Linn, and be wary of the book by Miller Katz swallows whole, probably because it fits his notions on the matter.
Jon Albert Alexander - 11/8/2007
The park may have been named for General Funston because of his role in the San Francisco earthquake. Ever plucky and adventury General Funston took a leading role in the crisis.
Carol Hamilton - 11/7/2007
General Sherman didn't say, "War is good, bad, and ugly." He said, "War is hell," meaning that it brings out the worst in human beings, as atrocities in every war testify. Of course, there are episodes of brotherhood, bravery, and nobility on each side, but that doesn't make war less hellish for civilians and the opposing army. (I say this as someone whose ancestors fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars as well as modern wars.)
In my view, this piece is not a "polemic" but a reasonable piece of historical analysis. I especially like the Mark Twain quotation; Twain was vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League, and he had a lot of scathing things to say about mindless patriotism in essays that Benjamin Jones should read.
Like Jones, too many people have forgotten that it is regimes like the Soviet Union & Nazi Germany that insisted on a black-and-white, generally laudatory account of their own history. What distinguishes, or should distinguish, us from them is that our historians are capable of criticizing our nation's past and present.
Benjamin Jones - 11/7/2007
Stuart C. Miller's book on the Philippines is a poor one. He argues an agenda. See Brian Linn's book for more precise critisicm of Miller and a more balanced account on the good, the bad, and the ugly of that war.
But it seems this article also argues an agenda by uttering such ahistorical things as: "President William McKinley dispatched Admiral Dewey to the Philippines with a pledge to bestow civilization and Christianity on its people, and promise eventual independence." This is very fuzzy history and merges time and space.
McKinley did no such thing, Asst Sec of the Navy Roosevelt sent Dewey to the Philippines to destroy the enemy's fleet.
And this: "U.S. officers routinely resorted to what they called “the water cure.”
Really? What is "routinely"? Just how often did this occur? Was it policy from the White House or the Army or occupation commanders to use it? President Roosevelt, as the article in one fair moment points out, told Funston off.
Where is the author's (and HNNs) judgement regarding a valid source? "A New York World article described the “water cure” as forcing “water with handfuls of salt thrown in to make it more efficacious, is forced down the throats of patients until their bodies become distended to the point of bursting . . ..” This may have been only one on the versions used." The New York World is a source worthy of serious consultation regarding the nature and description of this?
I'm tired of these kind of polemics where someone is, based upon what they think they know about the current President, angry about it and, because they're historians, try to find similar historical examples to beat up on the current President and his policies. What does it mean that the US army fought in the Philippines for an extended period? The war got nasty and brutal but today the Philippines run their own affairs. And considering their neighborhood, apparently do a very competent job of it too. I'd have no idea from this article as it is apparent the author is not interested in historical meaning or understand but instead just angered by what they think the current administration is doing in this country and in Iraq. Let's stick to history.
- Martin Kramer blasts MESA and Steven Salaita
- L.A. schools adopt history curriculum from Stanford University
- Raleigh Trevelyan, Chronicler of a Notable Family, Dies at 91
- Former spokesman of B.C. anti-immigration group wants UBC history prof fired
- Harvard's Steven Shapin Wins History of Science Award