Back to the Future: the US in Iraq and the Philippines

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. colonial governance.

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."

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