Moral Low Ground

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‘On This Day’ 1899: Philippine-American War Begins

Battle of Manila; Feb. 4-5, 1899. (Artist unknown)

Battle of Manila; Feb. 4-5, 1899. (Artist unknown)

By the late 1890s, the age of American overseas imperialism was underway in earnest. Following the conquest, annihilation and subjugation of this continent’s indigenous peoples, American leaders were not content to let Manifest Destiny end at the shores of the Pacific. In Hawaii, powerful US business interests overthrew the archipelago’s monarchy and installed a wildly unpopular government, which outlawed the teaching of the native language and even banned the hula. American annexation followed, and American eyes looked longingly eastward toward Asia.

The United States was bursting at the seams. Domestic industrial output was fast outgrowing domestic demand and American military might had grown to rival that of the great European powers. The itch for empire was stronger than ever. In 1897, Theodore Roosevelt, then Secretary of the Navy, confided to a friend that he “should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.”

Racism and notions of divine favor heavily influenced growing American acceptance of empire. “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration,” declared Sen. Albert Beveridge in 1900. “No, He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples — He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.”

The Washington Post perfectly captured the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist:

A new consciousness seems to have come upon us — the consciousness of strength — and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength… Ambition, interest, land hunger, pride, the mere joy of fighting, whatever it may be, we are animated by a new sensation. We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood [is] in the jungle.

A Boston Globe cartoon from May 28, 1898 showing far-flung lands that would soon become part of a burgeoning American Empire.

A Boston Globe cartoon from May 28, 1898 showing far-flung lands that would soon become part of a burgeoning American Empire.

And oh, how we tasted blood in the jungle! Most Americans think of the Spanish-American War as a quick and relatively painless affair, the “Splendid Little War” of our high school history textbooks. The truth is rather different. Yes, America defeated Spain in short order, conquering Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines in what was basically one fell swoop. But despite America’s high-minded talk of liberating far-flung peoples from Spanish tyranny, Filipinos realized that President William McKinley’s proclamation of Benevolent Assimilation, under which “the future control, disposition, and government of the Philippine Islands are ceded to the United States” and Filipinos were forced to “accept the supremacy of the United States,” simply meant exchanging one colonial overlord for another.

Feeling betrayed by his erstwhile ally in the war against Spain, General Emilio Aguinaldo, the first Philippine president, blasted the United States in January 1899:

“My government cannot remain indifferent in view of such a violent and aggressive seizure of a portion of its territory by a nation which arrogated to itself the title of champion of oppressed nations. Thus it is that my government is disposed to open hostilities if the American troops attempt to take forcible possession of the Visayan islands. I denounce these acts before the world, in order that the conscience of mankind may pronounce its infallible verdict as to who are true oppressors of nations and the tormentors of mankind.”

General Elwell S. Otis, the American military governor of the Philippines, considered Aguinaldo’s words a declaration of war against the US occupiers. Those words, however, energized Filipinos, and on February 4, 1899 the Battle of Manila erupted, with the Americans emerging victorious the following day.

For the following three years, the US waged one of the most brutal military campaigns in its history. American commanders implemented ‘scorched earth’ policies, under which entire villages were destroyed. General ‘Hell-Roaring Jake’ Smith ordered his men to turn the island of Samar into a “howling wilderness” and to kill everyone over the age of ten. “I want no prisoners,” General Smith told Major Littleton Waller, who was later court-martialed for executing Filipinos without trial. “I wish you to kill and burn, and the more you kill and burn the better it will please me,” Smith commanded him.

A New York Evening Journal editorial from the Philippine-American war criticizes Gen. Smith's order to "kill everyone over 10."

A New York Evening Journal editorial from the Philippine-American war criticizes Gen. Smith’s order to “kill everyone over 10.”

Wrote one soldier from New York:

The town of Titatia was surrendered to us a few days ago, and two companies occupy the same. Last night one of our boys was found shot and his stomach cut open. Immediately orders were received from General Wheaton to burn the town and kill every native in sight; which was done to a finish. About 1,000 men, women and children were reported killed. 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.

Racism was an ever-present component of the US war. Writing to his hometown newspaper in Maine, the Fairfield Journal, Sergeant Howard McFarland of the 43rd Infantry described his wartime exploits:

This is a very rich country; and we want it. My way of getting it would be to put a regiment into a skirmish line, and blow every nigger into a nigger heaven. On Thursday, March 29, eighteen of my company killed seventy-five nigger bolo men and ten of the nigger gunners. When we find one that is not dead, we have bayonets.

No Filipino was safe from the rampaging Americans. In November 1901, a correspondent for the Philadelphia Ledger wrote:

The present war is no bloodless, opera bouffe engagement; our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of ten up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino as such was little better than a dog.

There were also concentration camps, called reconcentrados, into which hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were forced. Overcrowding and disease led to tens of thousands of deaths; in some reconcentrados, as many as 20 percent of the population perished. In some areas, any Filipino caught outside of the camps was summarily shot.

Torture — by both sides — was commonplace. There were reports of insurgents burying American troops alive, or up to their necks in ant hills with their mouths propped open and stuffed full of sugar. A favorite American torture was known as the ‘water cure,’ known today as waterboarding, which President Theodore Roosevelt dismissed as a minor ordeal. But Lieutenant Grover Flint, who witnessed the ‘water cure’ first-hand, wrote that “a man suffers tremendously, there is no doubt about it. His sufferings must be that of a man who is drowning, but cannot drown.” Unlike today, when Americans who waterboarded suspected terrorists faced no consequences for torturing, US troops were punished for using the ‘water cure’ during the Philippine war.

US troops torture a Filipino with the 'water cure.' "Its a terrible torture," one soldier wrote. (Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library)

US troops torture a Filipino with the ‘water cure.’ “Its a terrible torture,” one soldier wrote. (Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library)

As has been the case in every US war since, American leaders roundly rejected charges of brutality.

“The war in the Philippines has been conducted by the American army with scrupulous regard for the rules of civilized warfare… with self-restraint and with humanity never surpassed,” insisted Secretary of War Elihu Root.

But after the war ended — with some 220,000 Filipinos and 4,000 Americans dead —  the Philippine Investigation Committee, a congressional inquiry led by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA), concluded that “the destruction of Filipino life during the war has been so frightful that it cannot be explained as the result of ordinary civilized warfare.” The inquiry also found that “from a very early day torture has been employed systematically,” that no one had been seriously punished for US war crimes and that Secretary Root “has shown a desire not to investigate, and, on the other hand, to conceal the truth touching the war and to shield the guilty, and by censorship and otherwise has largely succeeded.”

The US public, puffed-up with a sense of self-righteousness affirmed by the media of the day, mostly supported the war. But there was also a strong anti-imperialist movement at the time, and notable Americans, including William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Gompers and Mark Twain, vocally opposed the brutal war. Writing in the New York Herald on October 15, 1900, Twain captured the spirit of the anti-imperialists:

[I was] a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific. It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with the Rockies. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? And I thought it would be a real good thing to do.

I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.

But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem… And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

After the Philippine-American war ended in 1902, it would be another 44 years until Filipinos, who were subjected to yet another brutal foreign occupation when Japanese forces briefly supplanted the Americans in the early 1940s, would finally achieve the independence they had sought and fought for for centuries.

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