We Are Repeating the Mistake We Made in the Philippines 100 Years Ago

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Mr. Katz has been affiliated with New York University for more than twenty years and is the author of forty books on US history.

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Weapons of mass destruction, a slam-dunk war followed by a no-end-in-sight occupation? We’ve been here before when a century ago the U.S. first sent an army overseas to accomplish regime change and liberate a resource-rich land from tyranny.

It began in February, 1898 when an explosion sunk the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor. Since Cubans lived under a cruel Spanish colonialism, a pro-war U.S. press felt free to claim that Spain unleashed a weapon of mass destruction, and to whip up"Remember the Maine" fever. No weapon was ever found -- it was a boiler explosion that sank the Maine -- and though Spain agreed to President McKinley’s main demands, Congress declared war with a promise to free Cuba.

Secretary of State John Hay called it"a splendid little war" because in less than a hundred days the U.S. liberated 13 million people and 165,000 square miles of colonies from Puerto Rico to Guam and the Philippines, and with only 379 combat deaths. But disease and embalmed meat war profiteers sold to the Army killed another 5,462 U.S. soldiers.

Leading the hawks in 1898 was a young, flamboyant Teddy Roosevelt, an assistant secretary of the Navy who claimed war stimulated"spiritual renewal," and the" clear instinct for racial selfishness." Not a man to hide in the National Guard, TR personally led his"Rough Riders" at San Juan Hill, and returned from Cuba with one regret –"there was not enough war to go around."

Now he was riding to the White House.

For two years General Emilio Aguinaldo and his freedom-fighting guerilla army had fought Spain’s cruel occupation fully ready to govern a free Philippines. But before he left for Cuba, TR sent Admiral George Dewey’s U.S. fleet to Manila Bay where it sank the Spanish fleet. Dewey assured Aguinaldo the U.S."had come to . . . free the Filipinos from the yoke of Spain." But U.S. troops landed on Luzon, prevented Aguinaldo from entering Manila, and Washington appointed a puppet government.

Filipinos first welcomed Americans as liberators. But in June when Aguinaldo issued a declaration of independence, the pro-war U.S. press began to demonize Aguinaldo, and a U.S. general told Congress that Filipinos who wanted freedom had"no more idea of its meaning than a shepherd dog."

President McKinley said he spent many sleepless nights agonizing about the Philippines. The president called his program"benevolent assimilation." The influential San Francisco Argonaut was more candid:"We do not want the Filipinos. We want the Philippines. The islands are enormously rich, but unfortunately, they are infested with Filipinos."

A U.S. army of 70,000 [including 6,000 Black troops] was sent to pacify the islands and, as more than one white soldier said,"just itching to get at the niggers." General William Shafter told a journalist it might be necessary to kill half the population to bring"perfect justice" to the other half.

After General Jack Smith promised to turn the Philippines into a"howling wilderness" most casualties were civilians. Smith defined the foe as any male or female"ten years and up," and told his soldiers:"I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better it will please me."

U.S. officers encouraged the use of torture, murder of prisoners, and massacre of villagers, including women and children. A Kansas soldier wrote"The country won’t be pacified until the niggers are killed off like the Indians."

Another white soldier reported brutal"sights you could hardly believe" and he reached this conclusion:"A white man seems to forget that he is human."

The U.S. had entered a quagmire."The Filipino masses are loyal to Aguinaldo and the government he leads," conceded U.S. General Arthur MacArthur. He thought the foe"needed bayonet treatment for at least a decade." His time assessment proved prophetic. In early 1901 a U.S. journalist concluded"that the Filipino hates U.S. . . permanent guerrilla warfare will continue for years."

He reported endless guerilla attacks that took one or two U.S. lives at a time and created a"spirit of bitterness in the rank and file of the army." A U.S. Red Cross worker reported"American soldiers are determined to kill every Filipino in sight" and said he saw"horribly mutilated Filipino bodies."

In March, 1901 U.S. officers saw victory when Aguinaldo was captured, agreed to swear allegiance to the United States, and to persuade his officers to accept amnesty. But quagmires can sink fond hopes. Six months later guerillas on Samar attacked a U.S. garrison and massacred 45 U.S. officers and enlisted men with bolos and bare hands. The occupation’s most shocking defeat exposed U.S. propaganda about a defeated foe and a easy occupation. The U.S. media compared Samar to General Custer at the Little Big Horn, pro-imperialist editors talked about being"hoodwinked," and The San Francisco Call reminded Americans"a conquered people" do not remain conquered for long."It is utterly foolish to pretend . . . the end is in sight," admitted General Adna Chaffee.

By 1902 U.S. Senate hearings and scores of Army court martial trials found that U.S. occupying forces were guilty of"war crimes." General Robert Hughes admitted he ordered the burning of villages and murder of women and children. When asked by a Senator if this was" civilized warfare," he answered,"these people are not civilized." The Baltimore American wondered why the U.S. carried out"we went to war to banish."

President Teddy Roosevelt followed McKinley to the White House and continued to justify the occupation, dismiss Filipinos as"Chinese half-breeds," and to insist this was"the most glorious war in our nation's history." Congress spent $170 million on its occupation.

Mark Twain, two former presidents and other prominent citizens formed an Anti-Imperialist League that had tens of thousands attending protest meetings and signing petitions that denounced U.S. atrocities and imperial designs. One prominent African American bravely declared:"We shall neither fight for such a country nor with such an army," and many others spoke out as well. The African American press stood united against a U.S. government that exported its racist"deviltry" overseas, and some labor unions began to connect the dots between overseas imperialism and government suppression of strikes at home.

Nearly three thousand military actions continued until 1911, took 200,000 Filipino lives, and the U.S. suffered 4,234 combat deaths. More than a dozen US servicemen defected to Aguinaldo, and half of these were African Americans although soldiers of color comprised less than ten percent of the US army of occupation.

Filipino independence came in 1945 but bitterness continued with Washington support for brutal dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos who looted his country for twenty years. Vice President George Walker Bush arrived in Manila to praise Marcos"adherence to democratic principles" and the next year a massive, nonviolent uprising forced Marcos to flee.

On October 18, 2003 President George W. Bush came to Manila to promote his war on terrorism. For the Philippine Congress, he rewrote history when he said:"Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines."

Our first overseas venture a hundred years ago offers insights into our occupation of Iraq. People always prefer self rule to a foreign master. Resisting self-determination was unpleasant long ago, and it has not and will not be pleasant now. Presidential lies come around to bite again.

This piece was first published by The Black Word Today and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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More Comments:

Jeff Moses - 5/12/2004

You are right Ken! I agree. The examples you sight are correct and only prove that the power of the day has the means to do whatever it wants. Perhaps the trappings of democracy can slow the process down or give it the illusion of legality or ethicality, but it happens nonetheless. Britain did the same sort of thing; even thumbing its nose at the U.S. over the "Venezuala" incident, citing it's priviledge of power. They redrew lines on the map at will. This practise certainly won't stop any time soon.

Jeff Moses - 5/11/2004

Another historian wrote an excellent account of American involvement in the Phillipines. "The Proud Tower" by Barbara Tuchman...author of "The Gun's of August", has a chapter called " The End of a Dream", which aptly describes the transition of America from the 19th to the 20th century; gives a factual description of American involvement in the Phillipines and the resulting disillusionmnet. This confusion of foreign policy in Asia would rise it's ugly head again, and again. Case in point, Ho Chi Minh asking Major Frank Patti at the end of the war for U.S. support in fighting against the returning French. He passed it along the chain of command but it was put on the "back burner", ("The Ten Thousand Day War..Dwyer), France as an ally would not have any obstacles to returning to Indochina on the part of the U.S. eventually leading to U.S. involvement until 1975.

My humble opinion on Iraq and U.S. involvement; without a U.N. mandate ? I believe that something had to be done in light of 911, on a political basis. The administration needed to do something right away and found Saddam Hussein to be the perfect targe..of course this is all obvious and certainly he brought a lot of it on himself. I don't believe that conquering Iraq would neccesarily help rid the world of terrrorism. It would rid the U.S. of an annoyance to be sure, yet world terrorism is too big an issue for one nation to tackle alone.

Thanks for letting me mention these things, it's very nice to know there are other history buffs out there who feel it important for us to remember the past.

Kenneth T. Tellis - 5/8/2004

The US government did not only set up puppet governments in the Philippies alone, as they are doing in Iraq today, but also set up puppet governments in Cuba before Castro, in Panama, Guatemale, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Brazil. So what is new in this area of US foreign policy? Even the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai is a US puppet aministration. So in effect asbsoutely nothing has changed! The more things change, the more they remain the same.

chris l pettit - 5/7/2004

I often screw the two up...forgive the slip of the tongue.

I do believe the point made is still relevant due to the oppressive nature of some previous regimes of governance in the Philippines...as well as the long course the nation had to take to come to some semblence of a functioning democracy.

Of course my intellectual sloppiness does bring up another example in the course of debate...that of East Timor and US struggles there and support of mass atrocities...but I would venture that the topic is a tangent to the current discussion and better suited for another time.

Again...apologies for the mistake in framing the issue.


Jonathan Dresner - 5/7/2004

Suharto is Indonesia. The president of the Philippines is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

Ben H. Severance - 5/7/2004

Good point, Chris. Maybe the shared suffering at Bataan and MacArthur's "I Shall Return" is where the real turning point occurred in U.S.-Filipino relations.

chris l pettit - 5/6/2004

I would partially agree that the Philippines is a democracy in the present time...although SUharto's party did just return to power...segue...would you say it was a democracy and time prior to maybe 5 years after Suharto? I am just curious as to when you would term democracy to have begun and how you define it. I do not really have an answer that I would be confident in putting forth and am interested in the viewpoint of a respected colleague.

One other thing...and what my title refers to...the Japanese also had imperial designs on the Philippines when they fought with us against Japan. In times of trouble, don't you seek out the better of two evils in that sort of situation? In addition, we had slaughtered many of their population and installed a regime that was rather favourable to the US government. There are interesting cultural parallels and comparisons as well to be made.

I guess I just find the post a little vague...although you definitely qualified your statements by saying a little comfort.

As for Max Boot...do we need to go into his reputation as a scholar and rather large shortcomings in certain academic areas? I only say this because credibility is a rather large issue when speaking of imperial conquests and their outcomes.


Ben H. Severance - 5/6/2004

Could you please provide a synopsis of Boot's conclusions on the Phillipine Insurrection? From your post, he sounds less negative than Katz. Personally, while I acknowledge and decry the often brutal U.S. occupation, I take a little comfort in knowing that the Phillipines have emerged as a genuine democracy, albeit many decades later. And I can't help but think of U.S. Marines and Filipino Scouts fighting together against Japan; hardly an image of animosity.

R K McCaslin - 5/5/2004

A glance at Max Boot's *Savage Wars of Peace* will reveal obvious parallels between American policy now and American policy then- see his chapter on the Philippines, "Attaction and Chastisement." Boot's perspective regarding the success of the policy is very different from that of Professor Katz.