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The Wall Street Journal

In 1901 Philippines, Peace Cost More Lives Than Were Lost In War

By Cynthia Crossen

July 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 


It was the catalyst for a brief war and then a longer occupation of a foreign country that claimed far more casualties than the war itself.

The American battleship Maine was standing by in Havana harbor in February 1898, as the U.S. and Spain went toe-to-toe over Cuba's independence. For several years, Cuban insurgents had been revolting against Spain's colonial government, and the country was a wreck. Thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire.

Some Americans fervently wanted President McKinley to help Cuba renounce its mother country. American investors were losing fortunes in the conflict.

But others, equally fervently, opposed intervening in another nation's revolution. The U.S. economy had barely recovered from a recession, and if Spain were able to enlist Old World allies, America's military could be routed.

President McKinley began putting diplomatic pressure on Spain to end the war and declared he wouldn't tolerate a prolonged conflict.

Then, on Feb. 15, 1898, the Maine blew up.

History has never definitively fixed the blame for the explosion and death of 260 American sailors, but prowar forces quickly denounced the "cowardly Spanish conspiracy," as one newspaper put it. In Congress, militants forced the moderates into retreat, and on April 25, Congress declared war on Spain.

It was "a splendid little war," John Hay, America's ambassador to England, later wrote. It was brief (four months long), inexpensive, and "only" 460 American soldiers died in battle. Late in 1898, representatives of Spain and America met in Paris to negotiate a peace treaty. The U.S. paid Spain $20 million to vacate not only Cuba, but also Guam, Puerto Rico and the 7,100-island archipelago of the Philippines. Although Filipinos were barred from negotiations, the U.S. decided to take control of their country.

MCKINLEY, WHO had earlier confessed he couldn't locate the Philippines on a map "within 2000 miles," claimed, "there was nothing left for us to do but to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them." A policy of "benevolent assimilation," he called it.

Over the next three years, some 4,000 Americans -- about 10 times the number killed in the war itself -- died trying to quell Filipino resistance. More than 200,000 Filipinos, mostly civilians, also died.

In 1901, the U.S. established a civilian colonial government in Manila, and quickly made advocating independence a crime punishable by prison.

From the Filipinos' point of view, their country had simply been passed from one oppressor to another. Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the country's independence movement, condemned the "violent and aggressive seizure" of the Philippines "by a nation which has arrogated to itself the title `champion of oppressed nations.'"

The Sedition Law, passed the same year, went so far as to impose long imprisonment, even death, on anyone who spoke, wrote or published "scurrilous libels" against the colonial government.

In America, meanwhile, a debate raged over whether the U.S. had the right to govern another country without its citizens' consent. Andrew Carnegie, arguing against the occupation, said, "Our young men volunteered to fight the oppressor; I shall be surprised if they relish the work of shooting down the oppressed."

Mark Twain also sympathized with the Filipinos, pitying them for having "progress and civilization" foisted on them by the "Blessings-of-Civilization Trust."

THOSE WHO SUPPORTED America's presence in the Philippines used both moral and economic arguments. "The Philippines are ours forever," proclaimed Republican Sen. Albert Beveridge of Indiana. "And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world."

The conflict in the Philippines was neither little nor splendid. Outmanned and outgunned, Filipino forces used guerrilla tactics, picking off U.S. soldiers in small skirmishes.

American soldiers responded by turning some areas of the country into "a howling wilderness," as Gen. Jacob Smith put it. Col. George S. Anderson conceded that American soldiers killed indiscriminately during raids on villages. "Many men were shot as they fled," he said, "but they probably all deserved it."

Three years after the battle for the Philippines began, the U.S. declared the war over, and slowly began to withdraw its forces.

Gradually, life began to return to normal. But many Americans never understood what their country wanted with the Philippines. As the comic character Mr. Dooley pondered in 1898, "I don't know what to do with th' Ph'lippeens anny more thin I did las' summer, befure I heerd tell iv thim . . . `twud be a disgrace f'r to lave befure we've pounded these frindless an' ongrateful people into insinsibility."

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