Why a War You’ve Never Heard of Matters More Than Ever

The president of the Philippines announced a “separation from the United States” because “America has one too many [misdeeds] to answer for.” Which misdeeds? And why have so many Americans not heard of them before?

American soldiers of the 20th Kansas in trenches in the Philippines during the insurrection. Note the open baked beans can in the left foreground. Photo from the Library of Congress.

The Philippine-American War (1899-1913) was America’s first great-power conquest and its first overseas insurgency. It was first time the US tried to exert American authority and values abroad. (See my previous post on New Imperialism.)

This war was not a small one. As a percentage of the contemporary population, three times as many American soldiers died in the Philippine-American War as did in the recent Iraq War. More than three-quarters of a million Filipinos died from war and related causes, nearly 10% of the population.

Despite this startling fact, many Americans would have told you that they went to the Philippines with what they believed were good intentions. (They still accepted the legitimacy of imperialism and racial discrimination, though, both which have been a part of the United States narrative from the beginning. If you are looking for non-fiction on this topic, I highly recommend How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr and Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.)

An American teacher, Mary Scott Cole, is pictured with her class in Palo, Leyte. Photo from the University of Michigan Bentley History Library.
An American teacher, Mary Scott Cole, is pictured with her class in Palo, Leyte. Photo from the University of Michigan Bentley History Library.

The United States sent over 1000 schoolteachers—and not just to Manila, but to any “pacified” town in the islands. These teachers are usually regarded as the best import of all, especially by the young women of the islands who had been only sparingly educated by the Spanish—and that only if they were wealthy enough to afford it. In my novel Under the Sugar Sun, I reimagined one of these teachers as a Boston schoolmarm named Georgina Potter. Georgie is sent to Bais only to find her fiancé straying, her soldier brother missing, and a prominent nationalist flirting. Adventures (and love) ensue.

Girls playing basketball in the beginning of the twentieth century.
Girls playing basketball in the beginning of the twentieth century.

There were other investments in infrastructure and human capital made by the Americans, from roads to ports to the development of the Philippine Supreme Court. Philippine universities founded in this era have become regional attractions, particularly for their science and medical educations.

But it was not all bailes and basketball—though basketball is still wildly popular. There was also a down side to imperialism, obviously, and this appears in my books, too. The second book of the Sugar Sun series, Sugar Moon, features a character who never wanted to be a soldier in the Philippines and will struggle with drug abuse and thoughts of self-harm. (Full content warnings available on this website.) He tries to stop some bad stuff from happening, but the events unfold as history tells us they did—to everyone’s detriment:

In 1901, the American captain of the Balangiga garrison imprisoned the men of the town and used them for forced labor. The town’s retaliatory attack left forty-eight Americans dead, the biggest loss for the Army since Little Big Horn. The American military machine retaliated disproportionately. General Jacob “Hell Roaring Jake” Smith told his men to turn the whole island of Samar into a “howling wilderness”:

I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.

When asked the limit of age to respect, General Smith said “Ten years.” Smith declared the coasts of Samar to be “safe zones,” but anyone inland was assumed hostile to the United States and therefore a valid target. The entire island was embargoed. Cities grew crowded and diseased, and many starved. There is still a lot of debate about the number of Samareños who died in this period, with figures ranging from 2500 to 50,000. A reasonable judgment is about 15,000, according to historian Rolando O. Borrinaga.

editorial_cartoon_about_jacob_smiths_retaliation_for_balangiga
Smith’s order “Kill Everyone Over Ten” became a caption in the New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902. The Old Glory draped an American shield on which a vulture replaced the bald eagle. The caption at the bottom proclaimed, “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.”

Samar was the My Lai—or the Abu Ghraib—of the Philippine-American War. Newspaper readers in both countries would have been fed daily reports on General Smith’s court-martial, which happened only after a round-about investigation of a totally different incident. With the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, people could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. As a result, even though General Smith received only a slap on the wrist, popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement.

Why such a light punishment? The dirty secret was that Smith’s commanding officers wanted this “chastisement” policy because they agreed with him that “short, severe wars are the most humane in the end. No civilized war…can be carried on on a humanitarian basis.” And the leaders of the insurgency in Samar did surrender in April 1902, only seven months after the attack at Balangiga. The Americans thought the ends justified the means. (Keep in mind that while General Orders No. 100 did allow for severe war, much of what Hughes, Chaffee, Smith, Waller, and Glenn did in Samar violated this code of conduct.)

General Vicente Lukbán, center, who led the revolution on the islands of Samar and Leyte. He is seated with 1st Lt. Alphonse Strebler, 39th Philippine Scouts, and 2nd Lt. Ray Hoover, 35th Philippine Scouts. Image in the public domain from the Library of Congress, scanned by Scott Slaten.
General Vicente Lukbán, center, who led the revolution on the islands of Samar and Leyte. He is seated with 1st Lt. Alphonse Strebler, 39th Philippine Scouts, and 2nd Lt. Ray Hoover, 35th Philippine Scouts. Image in the public domain from the Library of Congress, scanned by Scott Slaten.

The incident that President Duterte likes to talk about the most was not in Samar, though. The president is from the island of Mindanao, where the United States fought its first war against Muslim separatism. Islam was the primary Filipino religion before the arrival of the Catholic Spanish, and still today about five percent of Filipinos are Muslim. Ninety-four percent of Filipino Muslims, dubbed Moros by Spanish, still live on the large southern island of Mindanao. When the Americans first arrived in the Philippines in 1898, they had enough problems on their hands with the Filipino Christians, so they made a “live and let live” agreement with the Moros. Once the rest of the islands were pacified, though, the Americans tried to extend their rule over Mindanao. They wanted to issue identity cards, collect taxes, outlaw slavery, and disarm the population.

Not all of these are bad things—I’m thinking mostly of the abolition of slavery—but to the Moros these laws struck at the heart of local autonomy. In the resulting fight, young warriors attacked anyone considered an enemy of Islam—and though they were not specifically bent on suicide, they were not afraid of death, either. They were so relentless, in fact, that the American Army had to requisition a whole new firearm, the .45-caliber—the only pistol with enough stopping power to fight Moros armed only with knives. This pistol, named the 1911 after the year it was adopted, was a standard-issue firearm until 1985, and it still remains a favorite of many in the military today.

Bodies of dead Filipino Muslims killed at the First Battle of Bud Dajo during the Moro Rebellion.
Bodies of dead Filipino Muslims killed at the First Battle of Bud Dajo during the Moro Rebellion.

Americans fought their largest engagements against the Moros, and this meant some of the worst massacres happened against the Moros. At Bud Dajo in 1906, the Moros had retreated to the interior of an extinct volcano and were surrounded by American forces who had the high ground. Instead of a slow siege, the Americans fired down into the crater and killed 900 Moros, including women and children. Reports of the event shocked Americans at home, but it did not stop the war, which would rage on for seven more years, until 1913.

Part of the reason the Moro War stretched on so long was that it was all “chastisement” and relatively little “attraction.” In other words, there were fewer hospitals, almost no teachers, less infrastructure, and so on. Today, the Moros have the same complaint against the majority Catholic government of the Philippines—they are not getting the public works and development projects they see in the rest of the islands, but they cannot run their own affairs, either. Though part of Mindanao has been made an autonomous region, such a compromise has not brought an end to the violence. Some groups aim for legitimate political goals, some groups are professional kidnappers-for-hire, and a few are eager hangers-on of the latest Islamist terror organizations, including al Qaeda and ISIS.

Duterte has not cut off ties with the United States. According to the Agence France-Press:

A frequent pattern following Duterte’s explosive remarks against the United States, the crime war and other hot-button issues has been for his aides or cabinet ministers to try to downplay, clarify or otherwise interpret them.

And within a few hours of Duterte’s separation remarks, his finance and economic planning secretaries released a joint statement saying the Philippines would not break ties with Western nations.

Moreover, the White House insists no one has officially asked for a change in relations. The real test will be to see if the Philippines really buys weapons from China and Russia, settles its legal dispute with China over the Spratly Islands bilaterally (cutting out the United States and United Nations), and ceases joint exercises with the US military in the South China Sea.

Sailors signal to an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter attached to the “Golden Falcons” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 12 as it hovers over the flight deck of the Arleigh-Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbel in the South China Sea. Photo by the US Navy.

None of this is happening in a vacuum. It is more like a family dispute, where discussions and disagreements today are affected by the baggage of our shared history over the last 120 years. If we approach the news only with an eye on today and ignore the way that relationships have developed over time, we miss all the important subtext.

I have an illustrated talk—“America in the Philippines: Our First Empire”—that shows how our experience in Asia fundamentally changed the U.S. role in the world and launched some of our best known political and military figures, to boot. I will tell you more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of how Americans ruled—and why, despite it all, the Filipino-American friendship has been so strong for so long. I will also show how recent stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and national security are actually reprises from the turn of the century.

Tell your local librarian, community college, high school, veterans group, historical society, book club, or other non-profit. My talk is free to these groups…as long as I can get there.

Carabao photograph from the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.
Carabao photograph from the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.

[Featured photograph of a Filipino soldier blowing a horn to call for formation, from the University of Michigan Special Collections Library.]

What’s So “New” about Imperialism?

The Gilded Age was an age of New Imperialism. The age of empires began over five thousand years ago, so what was so “new” about imperialism, you ask? Well, there were new players: Germany, Japan, and the United States, to name three. And there were new technologies: industrial transport and communication opened up the interiors of Africa and India, as well as tying together the disparate islands of the Pacific.

New Sea Power

But one of the most puzzling aspects of New Imperialism was its doctrine: “Yes, we are here in your country, ruling your people, and pilfering your resources—but it is all meant to help you, not us.” Cue the rest of the world saying: “Are you kidding me?”

Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.
Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.

Well, no, the imperialists were not kidding. In fact, they wrote poetry about how much they were not kidding. In “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling famously instructed the Americans that it was their turn to play the game in 1899, after seizing Manila in the Spanish-American War.

White-Man-Black-Burden-Comparison
A comparison of two stanzas of different burdens at the turn of the twentieth century. Rudyard Kipling’s poem (1899) is one of the most famous defenses of “New Imperialism,” but African American editor Henry Theodore Johnson’s critique entitled “The Black Man’s Burden” (1899) reflects the reality of who bore the weight of colonization.

The people may hate you for it, Kipling was saying, but it is the Americans’ duty to colonize the Philippines and refashion the islands in the mold of Anglo-American civilization. African American editor Henry Theodore Johnson responded with “The Black Man’s Burden” (1899), which hit every note of opposition in the African American community, including: (1) the unnecessary nature of the war; to (2) how it fits into a long history of oppression of non-white peoples in the name of US expansion; and ends with (3) a reminder that Black Americans were already at war in their own country, not by their own choice. In the end, it would be African American regiments who would save the army in Cuba and serve in significant numbers in the Philippines.

December 1898 Puck cartoon shows Uncle Sam welcoming world trade in his off-shore entrepôt.
December 1898 Puck cartoon shows Uncle Sam welcoming world trade in his off-shore entrepôt.

The authorities in the United States took up Kipling’s standard. They also believed the Philippines could be the Americans’ own foothold in Asia, an economic entrepôt to compete with the Great Powers in China. And, unlike those gauche Spaniards, the Americans would be enlightened rulers. President McKinley proclaimed:

…we come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights….[The American military must] win the confidence, respect and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines…by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule. [emphasis mine]

William Howard Taft, the first civil governor of the Philippines (and eventual President of the United States), was credited with saying that the Filipinos would be our “Little Brown Brothers,” which—get this—was too generous for the tastes of most Americans. U.S. soldiers on the march in the Philippines sang in response: “He may be a brother of Big Bill Taft, but he ain’t no brother of mine.” (The ditty was eventually prohibited by officers because it did not make a great first impression, to say the least.)

its-up-to-them-web
“It’s ‘up to’ them.” Uncle Sam gives the Filipinos the choice of either a soldier or a schoolteacher: the stick or the carrot. This Puck centerfold was published on 20 November 1901.

To be fair, there were some attempts at benevolence by the Americans. To name a few: the establishment of the first truly national and secular coeducational public school system in the islands; the creation of American university scholarships for the brightest Filipino youth; the building of ports, roads, telegraph lines, irrigation systems, hospitals, schools, and universities; the creation of a Filipino National Assembly; several Filipino Commissioners to advise the American governors; and a Supreme Court of the Philippines, led by a Filipino chief justice. This was not really democracy, but it was not the Belgian Congo, either.

american-chastisement
From left to right: The trench of dead Moro soldiers and civilians at Bud Dajo (1906); a demonstration of the “water cure” by the 35th Volunteer Infantry; and the news headlines about General Smith’s orders to kill all Filipinos capable of bearing arms, which he defined as over the age of ten.

Still, there were plenty of ugly aspects to American rule in the Philippines, as you can see above. Occupation is always dirty. There was the Moro War, the water cure, and the Howling Wilderness of Samar. And, of course, there were the double-standard economic policies of the insular regime. The Americans set up a system by which American goods were sold in the Philippines tariff-free, but Filipino goods were taxed twice, both when they were exported from the Philippines and when they arrived in the United States. Where did that tariff revenue go? To pay the tab of the American administration, of course.

(Side note: The only US Treasury money spent for civilian reconstruction in the Philippines was the million dollars paid to farmers to compensate for the lost of their water buffalo to the rinderpest epidemic. The disease wasn’t the Americans’ fault, but the loss of 90% of these beasts of burden would hold economic progress back. Note that the US did not reimburse loss of carabao to military action or even deliberate slaughter in counterinsurgency actions.)

The hypocrisy of New Imperialism also prompted English writer and politician Henry Labouchère to write his own version of the “Brown Man’s Burden,” which included this stanza:

Pile on the brown man’s burden,
compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes
Reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly
He dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom,
Don’t hesitate to shoot.

Before you pat Labouchère on the back for his progressive skewering of Kipling’s motives, do know that he was a homophobic campaigner whose most lasting legacy was the Labouchère Amendment that made all sexual activity between men a crime. (This is the law that Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were prosecuted under.) And Labouchère was not the only anti-imperialist who might disappoint our modern sensibilities. Both Andrew Carnegie and William Jennings Bryan were anti-imperialists, but their opposition was actually based on racist visions of nationhood. Carnegie wanted us to only take land that would “produce Americans, and not foreign races,” and Bryan worried about Chinese and Filipino immigration “exciting a friction and a race prejudice” that would damage America’s homogeneity.

In fact, some of the most vociferous anti-imperialists were racist Southern Democrats, many of them ex-Confederates. A former major in the Confederate Army, Senator John W. Daniel is quoted in the Congressional Record as saying:

We are asked to annex to the United States a witch’s caldron. . . . We are not only asked to annex the caldron and make it a part of our great, broad, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, American land, but we are asked also to annex the contents and take this brew—mixed races, Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Negritos—anybody who has come along in three hundred years, in all of their concatenations and colors; and the travelers who have been there tell us and have written in the books that they are not only of all hues and colors, but there are spotted people there, and, what I have never heard of in any other country, there are striped people there with zebra signs upon them. This mess of Asiatic pottage 7,000 miles from the United States, in a land that we can not colonize and can not inhabit, we are told today by the fortune of a righteous war waged for liberty, for the ascendency of the Declaration of Independence, for the gift of freedom to an adjoining State, we must take up and annex and combine with our own blood, and with our own people, and consecrate them with the oil of American citizenship.

Images of Carnegie, Bryan, and Twain from the public domain.

Before you despair, though, let’s move onto Mark Twain, who “updated” the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Howe’s abolitionist hymn, to more properly reflect what he felt Americans had been doing in the Philippines:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

mark_twains_american_flag_1901
The American Flag as redesigned in 1901 by Mark Twain. Image found here.

And, if that was not enough, Twain redesigned the American flag to include skulls and crossbones instead of stars. His essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is a brilliant piece of political satire:

Shall we? That is, shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest? Shall we bang right ahead in our old-time, loud, pious way, and commit the new century to the game; or shall we sober up and sit down and think it over first? Would it not be prudent to get our Civilization-tools together, and see how much stock is left on hand in the way of Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim Guns and Hymn Books, and Trade-Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion), and balance the books, and arrive at the profit and loss, so that we may intelligently decide whether to continue the business or sell out the property and start a new Civilization Scheme on the proceeds?

Both Johnson and Twain give us some faith that not every American bought into the plunder-but-call-it-progress ideology of New Imperialism. But most did.

Featured image at the top of the page is the 20 March 1901 cover of Puck.