Back to the Future: the US in
Iraq and the Philippines
by William Loren Katz
Critics of the United States occupation
of Iraq usually find it analogous to the war in Vietnam, which
cost 60,000 American lives, deeply divided the country and ended
ignominiously. Certainly, White House rhetoric on Iraq recalls
the government's talk during the Vietnam era of fighting tyranny
and advancing freedom in Southeast Asia.
But although echoes of Vietnam can be
heard in the Iraq experience of 2006, both episodes beg for comparisons
to a much earlier U.S. occupation. More than a century ago, in
the 1890s the U.S. wrested from Spain, and occupied, the Philippines
-- an archipelago of 7,100 islands that is rich in natural resources
and strategically located a mere 600 miles from the rest of Asia.
In 1893, maneuvers by a handful of American
businessmen engineered the overthrow of the Hawaiian government,
thus bringing Hawaii into the U.S. economic orbit. By 1898, while
many in the business community feared that U.S. military activity
in Asia could increase economic instability at home, a group of
prominent bankers, industrialists and politicians had convinced
those in high government office that the U.S. economy faced stagnation,
widespread unemployment and possibly revolution unless moves were
made to penetrate Asian markets. Senator Albert Beveridge, for
example, indicated his support for aggressive efforts along those
lines by observing:
American factories are making more than the American people can
use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate
has written our policy for us . . . . The Philippines give us
a base at the door of all the East . . . . The power that rules
the Pacific . . . is the power that rules the world ....
"The mission of our race [is to control] the trade of the
world," proclaimed Beveridge, and the Philippines "logically
are our first target."
The government first deployed its military
forces against Spanish colonial rule not in the Philippines but
in Cuba. Public support for the government's moves grew as lurid
tales of Spain's cruelty toward the Cuban people began to appear
in newspapers owned by media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William
Randolph Hearst. Then in January 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine
sailed into Havana Harbor on a good will visit. Fortuitously,
on February 15th, the Maine mysteriously exploded and sank, with
258 officers and sailors perishing. The press charged that Spain
had used a "diabolical weapon" -- a torpedo -- to sink
the Maine. "Blood on the roadsides, blood in the fields,
blood on the doorsteps, blood, blood, blood," wrote the New
York World (Pulitzer). "The whole country thrills with war
fever," railed the New York Journal (Hearst).
U.S. investigators eventually discovered
that an explosion of the ship's boiler, not an enemy missile,
had sunk the Maine, but by then war hysteria had taken hold of
the nation. In April, at the urging of President William McKinley,
Congress declared war on Spain, including in its declaration a
promise to free Cuba. Privately, however, President McKinley admitted
to broader goals: "We must keep all we get; when the war
is over we must keep all we want."
An enthusiastic proponent of war was the
young and dynamic Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the
Navy, who believed that war per se stimulated "spiritual
renewal" and the "clear instinct for racial selfishness."
"I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country
needs one," TR wrote to a friend. Mexico, Chile, Spain, Germany,
England and Canada were on his list of favored targets. Eager
to participate, TR rushed to Cuba to lead his Rough Riders in
a charge at San Juan Hill that established his reputation for
fearless belligerence. "Cuba Libre!" and "Remember
the Maine!" were popular slogans of the day, exhorting young
Americans to join the campaign to liberate distant peoples from
the jaws of tyrants.
The domestic social context surrounding
these overseas pursuits was not pretty. In 1896, the Supreme Court
had enshrined racial segregation and Black disenfranchisement
as the law of the land in Plessy v. Ferguson, a decision that
matched in spirit the bellicose patriotism and racism of U.S.
officialdom and sanctioned decades of Jim Crow discrimination.
White leaders -- governors, senators and local sheriffs -- expressed
no qualms about the lynching of three or four Black people a week
by southern mobs. Indeed, Teddy Roosevelt called people of African
descent "a perfectly stupid race" and lectured Black
audiences that the rapists among them did their people more harm
than any lynch mob. On the very day that Congress declared war,
Missouri Congressman David A. De Armond stated that African Americans
were "almost too ignorant to eat, scarcely wise enough to
breathe, mere existing human machines."
Racial ideologies of inferiority and superiority
that produced violence against African Americans at home influenced
the perception that peoples of color abroad were equally undeserving
of respect, or sovereignty. "Self-government," Senator
Beveridge said, "applies only to those who are capable of
self-government. We govern the Indians without their consent,
we govern our territories without their consent, we govern our
children without their consent."
With only 379 U.S. combat deaths, the
U.S. conflict with Spain in Cuba ended in a mere ten weeks, prompting
Secretary of State John Hay to dub it a "splendid little
war." With its end, hundreds of thousands of miles of territory,
along with the peoples of Cuba and Puerto Rico, came under U.S.
A far longer campaign, however, lay ahead
in the Philippines. While U.S. troops were still engaging the
Spanish in Cuba, the McKinley administration had dispatched Admiral
George Dewey to the Philippines. Upon his arrival, Dewey found
that General Emilio Aguinaldo's guerrilla army of 40,000 had been
battling Spain for two years and was poised to rule the islands.
In keeping with U.S. Secretary of State William R. Day's stated
objective of "independence for the Philippines," Dewey
informed Aguinaldo that the U.S. intended to "free the Filipinos
from the yoke of Spain." In his report home, Dewey even described
Filipino soldiers as intelligent and "capable of self-government."
But as soon as U.S. troops landed in force
on Luzon, President McKinley appointed a puppet government and
ordered Dewey and General Wesley Merritt to prevent Aguinaldo's
troops from marching victoriously into Manila. In mid-June, when
Aguinaldo declared independence, it was clear that what had begun
as a slam-dunk expulsion of Spain from Cuba had morphed into a
no-end-in-sight war against Filipino self-determination that would
last for more than a decade and involve 70,000 U.S. troops.
President McKinley called the Philippine
mission "benevolent assimilation." Unfortunately, it
bore the earmarks of a colonial project seasoned with racial warfare.
A U.S. press that initially had lauded Filipinos as freedom-fighters
in their battles with Spain now demonized Aguinaldo. The occupation
grew more aggressive as U.S. corporate investors arrived, and
clashes with armed and unarmed Filipinos became more frequent.
The San Francisco Argonaut, an influential Republican paper, wrote
candidly: "We want the Philippines. The islands are enormously
rich, but unfortunately, they are infested with Filipinos."
The paper went on to advocate, as part of a pacification program,
forms of torture that would "impress the Maylay mind"
-- "the rack, the thumbscrew, the trial by fire, the trial
by molten lead, boiling insurgents alive."
Aguinaldo commanded only 20 regiments,
primitively armed, but since he enjoyed "almost complete
unity of action of the entire population," according to the
U.S. War Department, his fighting confounded U.S. forces. The
Philippines, General Arthur MacArthur prophesied, would need "bayonet
treatment for at least a decade."
U.S. officers told their troops the Filipinos
were "niggers," no better than the Native Americans
at home. A private wrote home: "The weather is intensely
hot, and we are all tired, dirty and hungry, so we have to kill
niggers whenever we have a chance, to get even for all our trouble."
Atrocities quickly accumulated, including massacres of prisoners,
soldiers, civilians and entire villages. Marine General Littleton
Waller, later known as "the butcher of Samar," issued
orders to "punish Filipino treachery with immediate death."
General William Shafter told a journalist it might be necessary
to kill half the native population to bring "perfect justice"
to the other half.
General Robert Hughes, speaking to the
U.S. Senate about the army's treatment of civilians: "The
women and children are part of the family and where you wish to
inflict punishment you can punish the man probably worse in that
way than in any other." Asked if this was "civilized
warfare," he responded, "these people are not civilized."
On the island of Samar, Marine Brigadier
General Jacob Smith announced that the enemy was 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." A popular method of torture
was "the water cure," which involved forcing water into
the stomachs of victims. One soldier admitted applying this technique
to 160 Filipino prisoners,134 of whom had died. A U.S. Red Cross
worker said, "American soldiers are determined to kill every
Filipino in sight." Numerous reports from the field repeatedly
confirmed a war without rules.
Stuart Creighton Miller's study of the
Philippine occupation found that on the island of Luzon, the U.S.
Army uprooted entire rural populations, burned homes and destroyed
property, including livestock. As in Vietnam, surviving villagers
were herded into fenced camps ringed by what General Franklin
Bell called a "dead zone" -- meaning "[e]verything
outside . . . was systematically destroyed -- humans, crops, food
stores, domestic animals, houses and boats." "These
tactics," Miller concluded, "were the cheapest means
of producing a demoralized and obedient population."
Widespread abusive treatment of the Filipinos
so appalled the editor of the Detroit Journal that he felt compelled
to ask if U.S. policy would "win us the respect and affection
of a people who are saying almost unanimously that they do not
like us and our ways and that they wish to be left to themselves?"
In contrast, A Philadelphia Ledger reporter applauded the atrocities,
saying of the Filipinos: "The only thing they know and fear
is force, violence and brutality, and we give it to them."
The Philippine occupation was the first
war, historian Gail Buckley has pointed out, in which "American
officers and troops were officially charged with what we would
now call war crimes." In 44 military trials, all of which
ended in convictions, "sentences, almost invariably, were
light." The Baltimore American editorialized that the U.S.
occupation "aped" Spain's cruelty and committed crimes
"we went to war to banish."
The capture of Emilio Aguinaldo in March
1901, his signing an oath of allegiance to the U.S. and urging
fellow officers to accept amnesty, raised U.S. hopes that the
resistance was finished. Well, not yet. Six months later, the
occupation forces suffered their greatest defeat when Filipino
guerillas, armed with little more than bolos, slaughtered 45 U.S.
officers and enlisted men in Samar. General Adna Chaffee conceded
it was "utterly foolish to pretend that the war was over
or even that the end is in sight."
After governing New York State, Teddy
Roosevelt ascended to the Vice-Presidency. With the assassination
of McKinley in 1901, he entered the Oval Office, from which pulpit
he justified the occupation of the Philippines in even stronger
language than had his predecessor. The Filipinos are "Chinese
half-breeds," he said, and the conflict was "the most
glorious war in our nation's history." Meanwhile, back in
Asia U.S. forces remained hip-deep in the nation's first overseas
quagmire, troops lived in fear, and morale continued to sink as
guerillas picked off two or three U.S. troops weekly. These deaths,
a U.S. correspondent reported, created a "spirit of bitterness
[in] the rank and file of the army." The writer concluded
that "the Filipino hates us ... and permanent guerilla warfare
will continue for years." Military engagements finally ended
in 1911. In a dozen years of war, the United States had fought
2,800 engagements, more than 200,000 Filipinos and 4,234 U.S.
soldiers had died, and the Congress had spent $170 million dollars.
Historical hindsight reveals that the
Philippine occupation not only marked the debut of U.S. imperial
ambitions on the world stage, but by providing a template for
European conquests in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe it was a
fitting introduction to humanity's most violent century.
For a different view, we can turn to President
George W. Bush. On a state visit to Manila in October 2003, he
told a joint session of the Philippine parliament: "Together
our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule."
William Loren Katz based this essay on
research for two books, "The Cruel Years: American Voices
at the Dawn of the 20th Century" and the revised edition
of "The Black West" [Harlem Moon/Random House, 2005].
He is the author of forty U.S. history books, and wishes to thank
Jean Carey Bond, whose editorial diligence brought this essay
to completion. The Katz website is WILLIAMLKATZ.COM