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The Ottawa Citizen

The Imperial U.S.: The 'Splendid Little War' That Prompted Americans To See Themselves As A World Power

Dan Gardner

29 January 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Ottawa Citizen. All rights reserved.

Some months after he invaded Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush invoked a long-forgotten chapter in history to explain what he was attempting to do in the Middle East. He recalled that the United States had liberated the Philippines from tyranny, and he predicted that Iraq would follow the Philippines' path to independence, freedom and democracy.

"Some say the culture of the Middle East will not sustain the institutions of democracy," said Mr. Bush. "The same doubts were once expressed about the culture of Asia. Those doubts were proven wrong nearly six decades ago."

The president was addressing the Filipino Congress and the speech was scarcely noticed in North America. But Filipino journalists were surprised by Mr. Bush's analogy between their country and Iraq. Some commentators argued that the story of how the Philippines became a modern democracy is far from a simple tale of benevolent U.S. intervention.

It began at the end of the 19th century, with Spain fighting insurrections in the largest remnants of its once-great empire, the Philippines and Cuba.

Spanish soldiers used brutal tactics, including a new system of what they called "concentration camps," camps or villages into which civilians were herded to deprive guerrillas of popular support in the countryside. The American public was particularly incensed at the brutality in Cuba, and to calm the popular clamour for war President William McKinley dispatched the battleship Maine to Havana harbour, where it promptly blew up. The Maine was almost certainly destroyed by an accident, but the press and public took it as an attack and so, with "Remember the Maine" as the rallying cry, the United States declared war.

It was a rout. The Americans quickly defeated the decrepit Spanish forces in Cuba and Puerto Rico. In the Philippines, the Spanish were beaten on land by Filipino rebels while the Spanish navy was smashed in Manila harbour by George Dewey's American fleet.

Believing freedom had finally arrived, the Filipino rebels issued a declaration of independence on the American model. But Dewey declined to attend the Filipino ceremonies. Instead, he arranged for the Spanish garrison in Manila to surrender to U.S. troops and refused the rebels a role in the surrender ceremonies or even permission to enter Manila. The Filipinos were furious.

"Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule," Mr. Bush told the Filipino Congress more than a century later. But, in fact, virtually all the dying had been done by the Filipinos: Dewey's victory cost the Americans nine wounded sailors and one dead of heatstroke.

With a speedy victory, most Americans agreed it had been "a splendid little war," as the secretary of state remarked. The mood across the United States was triumphant and Americans began to sense they were a new world power. Dreams of empire blossomed and the United States entered an imperial era that would last with varying degrees of fervour into the 1930s.

As a nation born in revolt against empire, Americans had traditionally rejected the idea of overseas colonies. But in the late 1880s, a small but influential group of intellectuals, including future president Theodore Roosevelt, began to argue that growing American might should be projected around the world.

In part, the new imperialism was about money. The U.S. had recently become the world's largest manufacturer and imperialists argued the country needed new markets overseas, particularly China. Trade routes had to be protected by maritime power, the argument went, and navies needed colonies as bases for worldwide operations.

But there was also genuine idealism behind the imperial impulse. Starting in the 1880s, a surge in religious feeling electrified the United States. At home, the new moral zeal produced the anti-vice movement, which demanded the prohibition of prostitution, alcohol, drugs and immoral plays and books. Abroad, the new spirit demanded an international crusade of moral "uplift." Protestant evangelicals campaigned for "the imperialism of righteousness," as one Christian publication called it. "Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus was the most imperial of imperialists?" asked another.

The conquests of the Spanish-American War forced Americans to accept or reject imperialism. Cuba had to be given its independence because a Senate resolution passed prior to the war called for it -- although many Americans still demanded annexation -- but there was no direction about what to do with the Philippines. A furious debate broke out between imperialists who called for annexation and anti-imperialists who demanded Filipinos be given independence. Rudyard Kipling weighed in with White Man's Burden, a poem that expressed the sentiment of the imperialists, while Andrew Carnegie spoke for opponents when he warned that Americans who enlist to "fight the oppressor" would wind up "shooting down the oppressed."

William McKinley agonized over which side to take. "I did not know what to do," he told a meeting of Methodist church leaders. "I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance on more than one night. And one night it came to me ... that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died."

Filipinos were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic at the time McKinley promised to Christianize them, a good indication of how little American policy-makers actually knew about the people whose fate they controlled. Big conclusions were often based on small evidence. If Americans believed they would be hailed as liberators by "our little brown brothers," that's because they had been told so by the only Filipinos they met: rich landowners eager for annexation.

As it turned out, most Filipinos did not want to be annexed by the U.S. The rebels turned their guns on the Americans and were easily defeated. But then the resistance turned to guerrilla warfare, which requires popular support to be effective, and which the guerrillas had.

"Everywhere one finds the same old hatred toward Americans, the same hope and belief in ultimate independence. With the exception of a mere handful, too insignificant, every Filipino is an insurrecto and wishes to drive the Americans from the islands," wrote American journalist Phelps Whitmarsh.

"The common (rebel) soldier wears the dress of the country," wrote an American general. "With his gun, he is a soldier; by hiding it and walking quietly down the road, sitting down by the nearest house, or going to work in the nearest field, he becomes an 'amigo,' full of good will and false information for any of our men who may meet him."

In one incident, an American soldier approached a farmer selling eggs. As the soldier eyed the farmer's basket, the Filipino pulled a machete and decapitated him on the spot. The rebels were also known to torture, mutilate and murder Filipino collaborators and American prisoners.

The American force, which hovered around 25,000 soldiers, faced perhaps 80,000 rebels moving invisibly among seven million Filipinos. In an effort to win what a later generation would call hearts and minds, the Americans built schools, roads and sanitation systems. They vaccinated children, set up Filipino courts and supervised municipal elections. A thousand young Americans even volunteered to teach school.

It made little difference in the broad countryside, where the guerrillas moved among the population like fish in the sea, as Mao said. The Americans became frustrated and increasingly vicious.

"American soldiers are determined to kill every Filipino in sight," wrote an American Red Cross official, who reported seeing "horribly mutilated Filipino bodies, with stomachs slit open and occasionally decapitated."

Shortly before he was assassinated in 1901, president McKinley told a friend he was beginning to have doubts. "If old Dewey had just sailed away when he smashed that Spanish fleet, what a lot of trouble he would have saved us."

But Dewey hadn't sailed away and it would only get worse for the U.S. Nothing seemed to work, not even the capture of the main rebel leader. American troop levels were too low. Small contingents stationed in the countryside -- the term "boondocks" comes from the Filipino word for mountain -- grew resentful and savage.

In January, 1902, a U.S. major ordered the execution of 11 civilian prisoners he suspected of being rebels. In a subsequent court-martial, the major revealed he had been ordered by a general to kill everyone they captured. "I want no prisoners," the general had said. "I wish you to kill and burn." The major had asked what the age limit was on prisoners to be killed. Ten years old, he was told.

The major was acquitted and the general forced to retire.

The court-martial caused a sensation in the United States. Senate hearings revealed U.S. soldiers had burned whole villages, killed civilians and tortured prisoners. Mark Twain, a leading anti-imperialist, suggested the American flag be redesigned with black stripes instead of red and a skull and crossbones in place of the stars.

"We have offered (Filipinos) many verbal reassurances of benevolent intentions," wrote an American journalist, "but at the same time, we have killed their unresisting wounded; we hold 1,500 to 2,000 in prison ... and we are resorting directly or indirectly to Spanish Inquisitorial methods ... That the present generation of Filipinos will forget these things is hardly to be expected."

Slowly, however, the leaderless rebels were ground down.

In a key province, the American commander resorted to the same Spanish tactic of "concentration" that had outraged the U.S. public a few years earlier. Peasants were ordered to move into approved "zones of protection" -- concentration camps -- and warned that any able-bodied male spotted outside would be arrested or shot. About 300,000 Filipinos were corralled. Deprived of popular support, the rebels were quickly wiped out when American troops swept the countryside.

At least 11,000 Filipinos died in the concentration camps, mainly from disease and malnutrition.

The worst of the struggle ended in July, 1902, although sporadic rebellions continued until 1912. The insurrection cost the Americans 4,234 dead and 2,818 wounded. The entire Spanish-American War, by contrast, took the lives of just 379 Americans.

About 16,000 Filipinos were killed in battle. At least 200,000 civilians were killed by famine, disease or the cruelty of both sides.

Independence was finally granted in 1946, after the defeat of Japan. This is the year Mr. Bush had cited as the beginning of a democratic Philippines, but in reality, power was controlled

by a handful of rich families allied with American corporations. And the Americans retained major military bases on the islands. The era of quasi-democracy was followed by the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, whose fall in 1986 ushered in the Philippines first indisputably free and democratic government -- 88 years after the splendid little war.

Among the intellectuals who support the foreign policy of George W. Bush, the saga of the Philippines is well known. It is also well known among those who oppose the Bush administration. Curiously, both sides are convinced the Philippines bolsters their respective cases.

In his book, The Folly of Empire, John Judis expressed shock that Mr. Bush drew a favourable parallel between the Philippines and Iraq. "If the analogy between America's 'liberation' of the Philippines and of Iraq were to hold true, the United States can look forward to four decades of occupation, culminating in an outcome that is still far from satisfactory."

But Max Boot, a leading neoconservative, finds that prospect quite satisfactory. In his 2002 book, The Savage Wars of Peace, Mr. Boot acknowledged that the Asian struggle was sometimes "very ugly business," but that it was not only one of the finest counter-insurgencies ever fought, it also successfully spread liberty and democracy.

Mr. Boot has also argued that what he calls "liberal imperialism" should be studied and emulated today. The Bush administration's denials of imperial ambitions are "fine for public consumption," Mr. Boot has written, but he likes to think of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as merely the "latest bout" of the old Rooseveltian spirit.

What Mr. Bush makes of this debate is anyone's guess. But if his speech to the Philippine Congress in 2003 is a reflection of his own thoughts rather than his speechwriter, it seems Mr. Boot has a supporter in the White House.


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