The US conquest of the Philippines, 1898-1902

Filipino casualties on the first day of the war

An account of the American takeover of the Philippines, beginning with the US defeating Spain, and ending with it brutally suppressing Filipino resistance, written by Stephen Kinzer.

No American alive in 1898 could have had any doubt about why the United States had gone to war with Spain. The conflict was fought to resolve a single question: Who would control Cuba? Conditions in Cuba led to the war, Cuba was the battleground, and Cuba was the prize. But when American and Spanish diplomats met in Paris to negotiate a treaty ending the war, they had to consider the fate of another land, one that was very large, unknown to Americans, and far distant from their shores.

Cuba had exerted a hold on the American imagination for many years, at least since Thomas Jefferson wrote of his hope that it would one day become part of the United States. The Philippine Islands were quite another matter. Few Americans had the faintest idea of where they were. Nonetheless, as a result of Commodore Dewey’s victory at Manila, the United States suddenly exercised power over them. No one had planned this. President McKinley had to decide what the United States should do with the vast archipelago.

McKinley was known above all for his inscrutability. He gave almost all the people he met the impression that he agreed with them, and rarely allowed even his closest advisers to know what he was thinking. Historians have described him as an “enigma” whose inner mind was “well concealed” and who “obscured his views by a fog of phraseology, conventional or oracular.”

At first, McKinley seemed to want only enough territory in the Philippines to build a naval base at Manila. Then he considered the idea of granting the islands independence, perhaps under an international guarantee. In the end, less worldly considerations dictated his decision.

McKinley was a devout Christian living in an era of religious revivalism. He would later tell a group of Methodist missionaries that while he was wrestling with the Philippines question, he fell to his knees in the White House on several evenings “and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance.”

“One night late, it came to me this way,” he said. “There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift them and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could for them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.”

With that, the momentous decision was made. Historians still wonder why McKinley made it. He was deeply religious, and may truly have felt moved by divine revelation. In a speech to the delegation he sent to negotiate in Paris, he gave another explanation, saying he was acting to seize “the commercial opportunity, to which American statesmanship cannot be indifferent.” What is certain is that McKinley, in the words of one historian, “knew the Filipinos not at all, and would misjudge their response with tragic persistence.” He himself admitted that when he heard news of Dewey’s victory at Manila, he “could not have told where those darned islands were within two thousand miles.” His fervor to “Christianize” the Filipinos, most of whom were already practicing Catholics, suggested his ignorance of conditions on the islands. He certainly had no idea that they were in the throes of the first anticolonial revolution in the modern history of Asia.

“The episode marked a pivotal point in the American experience,” Stanley Karnow wrote in his history of the Philippines. “For the first time, U.S. soldiers fought overseas. And, for the first time, America was to acquire territory beyond its shores—the former colony itself becoming colonialist.”

On May 1,1898, three weeks after destroying the Spanish fleet, Dewey welcomed the Filipino guerrilla leader Emilio Aguinaldo aboard his flagship, the Olympia. Their versions of what transpired are contradictory. Aguinaldo said they agreed to fight the Spanish together and then establish an independent Republic of the Philippines. Dewey swore that he made no such commitment. Neither man spoke much of the other’s language and no interpreter was present, so the confusion is understandable. Whatever the truth, when Aguinaldo declared the independence of the Philippines, on June 12, neither Dewey nor any other representative of the United States turned up at the ceremony.

That snub led Aguinaldo and other Filipino leaders to fear that the United States would not recognize their country’s independence. General Thomas Anderson, a Civil War veteran who was the first commander of American troops in the Philippines, sought to reassure them. “I desire to have amicable relations with you,” he wrote to Aguinaldo on July 4, “and to have you and your people cooperate with us in military operations against the Spanish forces.”

General Anderson may have been sincere, but as he was writing his letter to Aguinaldo, policy in Washington was changing. President McKinley, obeying what he took to be the word of God, had decided that the United States should assume ownership not simply of an enclave at Manila but of the entire Philippine archipelago. He directed his negotiators in Paris to offer the Spanish $20 million for it. Spain was in no position to refuse, and on December 10, American and Spanish diplomats signed what became known as the Treaty of Paris. It gave the United States possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the distant Philippine archipelago, which had more than seven thousand islands and a population of seven million.

On December 21, McKinley issued an “executive letter” proclaiming American sovereignty over the Philippines. Rebels there were already proceeding along their own path. They had elected a constituent assembly that produced a constitution, and under its provisions the Republic of the Philippines was proclaimed on January 23, 1899, with Aguinaldo as its first president. Twelve days later, this new nation declared war against United States forces on the islands. McKinley took no notice. To him the Filipinos were what the historian Richard Welch called “a disorganized and helpless people.”

McKinley was well aware of Aguinaldo’s insurgents and their claims. It is probable that he still underestimated the extent of territorial control exercised by Aguinaldo’s forces, but in McKinley’s opinion it was unimportant how much territory the insurgent government claimed. . . . McKinley could not believe that Aguinaldo’s insurgents would be so stupid as to resist the power and benevolence of the United States. McKinley seems to have entertained the self-contradictory notions that Aguinaldo was an evil, self-seeking bandit chieftain and that he could be as easily managed as an office-seeker in Canton, Ohio.

The Treaty of Paris gave the United States sovereignty over the Philippines, but it could not come into force until the Senate ratified it. The debate was long and heated. Opponents denounced the treaty as an imperialist grab of a distant land that shamed American ideals and overextended American power. Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts warned that it would turn the United States into “a vulgar, commonplace empire founded upon physical force, controlling subject races and vassal states, in which one class must forever rule and the other classes must forever obey.” Supporters countered with three arguments: that it would be ludicrous to recognize Filipino independence since there was no such thing as a Filipino nation; that it was America’s duty to civilize the backward Filipinos; and that possession of the archipelago would bring incalculable commercial and strategic advantages.

As this debate was reaching its climax, in what the New York World called “an amazing coincidence,” news came that Filipino insurgents had attacked American positions in Manila. It later turned out that there had indeed been a skirmish but that an American private had fired the first shot. That was not clear at the time, however, and probably would not have mattered anyway. Several senators declared that they now felt obligated to vote for the treaty as a sign of support for beleaguered American soldiers on the other side of the globe. “We come as ministering angels, not as despots,” Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota assured his colleagues. Evidently convinced of that, the Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris by a margin of fifty-seven to twenty-seven, barely more than the required two-thirds majority.

President McKinley may well have believed that God wished the United States to “uplift” and “Christianize” the Filipino people. Speeches by senators during the treaty debate, along with many articles in the press, however, offered a more tangible rationale for taking the Philippines. Businessmen had become fascinated with the prospect of selling goods in China, which, after losing a war with Japan in 1895, had become weak and incapable of resisting intervention. They saw a magnificent confluence of circumstances, as this vast land became available for exploitation at the same time they were casting desperately about for new markets.

“We could not turn [the Philippines] over to France or Germany, our commercial rivals in the Orient,” McKinley told Congress in his message asking ratification of the Treaty of Paris. “That would be bad business and discreditable.”

When the United States assumed sovereignty over the Philippines, it inherited Spain’s confrontation with the rebel army. Soldiers of the United States had never before fought outside North America. Nor, with the arguable exception of the Indian wars, had they ever fought against an army defending its country’s independence. They had no idea of what they would be facing in their campaign against the “goo-goos,” as they called the Filipinos, but they launched their war with supreme selfconfidence.

It began in February 1899, with a pitched battle for Manila. From the beginning, there was little doubt about how it would end. The insurgents had the advantage of numbers, but by every other standard the Americans were clearly superior. Aguinaldo and his troops were crippled by a lack of weaponry, enforced by an effective American naval blockade. American soldiers landed in waves, by the tens of thousands, eager to fight against an enemy of whose motivations they were blissfully unaware. In letters home, they told friends and relatives that they had come “to blow every nigger to nigger heaven” and vowed to fight “until the niggers are killed off like Indians.”

Faced with these handicaps, the guerrillas turned to tactics unlike any the Americans had ever seen. They laid snares and booby traps, slit throats, set fires, administered poisons, and mutilated prisoners. The Americans, some of whose officers were veteran Indian fighters, responded in kind. When two companies under the command of General Lloyd Wheaton were ambushed southeast of Manila, Wheaton ordered every town and village within twelve miles to be destroyed and their inhabitants killed.

During the first half of the Philippine War, American commanders imposed censorship on foreign correspondents to assure that news of episodes like this did not reach the home audience. Only after censorship was lifted in 1901 were Americans able to learn how the war was being waged. Newspapers began carrying reports like one filed early in 1901 by a correspondent from the Philadelphia Ledger.

Our present war is no bloodless, fake, opera bouffe engagement. Our men have been relentless; have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten and up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino, as such, was little better than a dog, noisome reptile in some instances, whose best disposition was the rubbish heap. Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to “make them talk,” have taken prisoner people who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show that they were even insurrectos, stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop into the water below and float down as an example to those who found their bullet-riddled corpses.

The turning point in this war may have come on the afternoon of March 23, 1901, when a thirty-six-year-old brigadier general named Frederick Funston staged one of the boldest counterguerrilla operations in American military history. Funston, who had won the Medal of Honor in Cuba three years earlier, was commanding a district on the island of Luzon when he received news, extracted from a captured courier, that Aguinaldo was encamped at a village in his district. He came up with the idea of using a group of Filipino scouts to help him penetrate the village and capture Aguinaldo. The scouts were from the Macabebe ethnic group, which considered itself a rival of the Tagalogs, to which Aguinaldo and many other rebels belonged.

General Funston and four other officers set out on their mission with seventy-nine Macabebe scouts. Their plan was for the scouts to pose as rebels and tell Aguinaldo that they were bringing him a group of American prisoners. When the group was about ten miles from Aguinaldo’s hideout, he sent word that the Americans should be kept away. He did invite the “rebels” to come, though, and as his honor guard was welcoming them, they suddenly began firing.

“Stop all the foolishness!” Aguinaldo shouted from inside his headquarters. “Don’t waste ammunition!”

One of the scouts turned, burst into Aguinaldo’s office, and, with pistol drawn, told him, “You are our prisoners. We are not insurgents. We are Americans! Surrender or be killed!”

Aguinaldo and his officers were too stunned to respond. Within minutes, they had been subdued and disarmed. General Funston appeared soon afterward and introduced himself to the rebel leader.

“Is this not some joke?” Aguinaldo asked.

It was not. Aguinaldo was arrested and brought to Manila, which Funston later said “went wild with excitement.” Americans back home were thrilled with their new hero. Their satisfaction deepened when, less than a month after Aguinaldo’s capture, he issued a proclamation accepting American sovereignty and urging his comrades to give up their fight.

Several thousand did, leading the American commander in the Philippines, General Arthur MacArthur, to proclaim the rebellion “almost entirely suppressed.” He spoke too soon. Rebels who were still in the field fought with intensifying ferocity. In September 1901, a band of them overran an American position on the island of Samar with a brutality that set off some of the harshest countermeasures ever ordered by officers of the United States.

The episode began with what seemed like a routine landing of infantrymen at a beach near the village of Balangiga. Some seemed to realize that they were in uncertain territory. As they approached the shore, one lieutenant gazed ahead and told his comrades, “We are bound for goo-goo land now.”

The Americans occupied Balangiga for several weeks, subduing it, according to later testimony, through imprisonment, torture, and rape. At dawn on the morning of September 28, they rose as usual to the sound of reveille. A few remained on sentry duty while the rest ate breakfast. The town’s police chief strolled up to one of the sentries, said a few pleasant words, and then suddenly produced a long knife and stabbed him. Immediately the church bells began ringing. Scores of rebels who had infiltrated the town poured out of their hiding places. They fiercely set upon the unarmed Americans, stabbing and hacking them to death. Within minutes the campground was awash in blood. Some Americans managed to escape in boats, and made their way to a base thirty miles up the coast. Of the seventy-four men who had been posted in Balangiga, only twenty survived, most with multiple stab wounds.

News of the “Balangiga massacre” was quickly flashed back to the United States. It stunned a nation that was only beginning to realize what kind of war was being fought in the Philippines. American commanders on the islands were just as shocked, but they were in a position to react, and react they did. They ordered Colonel Jacob Smith, who had participated in the Wounded Knee massacre in the Dakota Territory a decade before, to proceed to Samar and do whatever was necessary to subdue the rebels. Smith arrived, took charge of the remaining garrisons, and ordered his men to kill everyone over the age of ten and turn the island’s interior into “a howling wilderness.”

“I want no prisoners,” he told them. “I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and the more you burn, the better you will please me.”

American soldiers carried out these orders with gusto. They started by razing Balangiga, and then rampaged through the countryside. Knowing that the assailants at Balangiga had disguised themselves as civilians, they took little care to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Fueled by a passion to avenge their comrades, they killed hundreds of people, burned crops, slaughtered cattle, and destroyed dozens of settlements.

During one long and amazingly ill-conceived march through the Samar jungle, eleven marines perished from a combination of starvation and exposure. Their captain, delirious and only intermittently conscious, became convinced that their Filipino porters had contributed to their deaths by withholding potatoes, salt, and other supplies. He singled out eleven of them, one for each dead marine, and had them shot.

Americans had used harsh tactics since the beginning of the Philippine War, but the summary execution of eleven Filipinos who were working for them, and who had committed no apparent crime, was too much for commanders to ignore. They ordered the offending officer court-martialed on charges of murder. He was eventually acquitted, but the case set off an explosion of outrage in the United States.

Until this episode, many Americans had believed that their soldiers were different from others, operating on a higher moral plane because their cause was good. After Balangiga, however, a flood of revelations forced them out of their innocence. Newspaper reporters sought out returned veterans and from their accounts learned that American soldiers in the Philippines had resorted to all manner of torture. The most notorious was the “water cure,” in which sections of bamboo were forced down the throats of prisoners and then used to fill the prisoners’ stomachs with dirty water until they swelled in torment. Soldiers would jump on the prisoner’s stomach to force the water out, often repeating the process until the victim either informed or died. This technique was so widely reported in the United States that the Cleveland Plain Dealer even published a joke about it.

MA: What’s the sound of running water out there, Willie?

WILLIE: It’s only us boys, Ma. We’ve been trying the Philippine water cure on Bobby Snow, an’ now we’re pouring him out.

Others took the matter more seriously. “We have actually come to do the thing we went to war to banish,” the Baltimore American lamented. The Indianapolis News concluded that the United States had adopted “the methods of barbarism,” and the New York Post declared that American troops “have been pursuing a policy of wholesale and deliberate murder.” David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University, declared that Filipinos had done no more than rebel against “alien control” and that therefore “it was our fault and ours alone that this war began.” The revered Harvard professor William James said that Americans were guilty of “murdering another culture” and concluded one of his speeches by declaring, “God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippines!” Mark Twain suggested that the time had come to redesign the American flag with “the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by skull and crossbones.”

This spasm of recrimination continued for several months, but soon a countercampaign began. Defenders of American policy, who at first were too overwhelmed by the onslaught of horrific revelations to respond, finally found their voice. Extreme conditions, they insisted, had forced soldiers to act as they did. The New York Times argued that “brave and loyal officers” had reacted understandably to the “cruel, treacherous, murderous” Filipinos. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said that American soldiers had done nothing in the Philippines that they had not done during the Civil War and that “in view of the provocation received and the peculiar nature of the task to be performed, the transgressions have been extremely slight.” The Providence Journal urged its readers to accept “the wisdom of fighting fire with fire.”

A second theme that echoed through the press was that any atrocities committed in the Philippines had been aberrations. They were “deplorable,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press conceded, but had “no bearing on fundamental questions of national policy.” The New York Tribune said only a few soldiers were guilty and “the penalty must fall not upon the policy, but upon those men.”

By the time this debate reached its crescendo, in the early months of 1902, President McKinley had been assassinated and replaced in office by Theodore Roosevelt. To Roosevelt fell the task of defending the honor of the troops he loved, and he embraced it even though he had never been enthusiastic about the Philippine operation. He enlisted his close friend and ally Henry Cabot Lodge to lead the defense. In a long and eloquent speech on the Senate floor, Lodge conceded that there had been cases “of water cure, of menaces of shooting unless information was given up, of rough and cruel treatment applied to secure information.” But Americans who lived “in sheltered homes far from the sound and trials of war,” he warned, could not understand the challenges of bringing law to a “semi-civilized people with all the tendencies and characteristics of Asiatics.”

“Let us, oh, let us be just, at least to our own,” Lodge begged the Senate.

At Roosevelt’s suggestion, Lodge arranged for the Senate to hold hearings into charges of American misconduct in the Philippines. It was a clever move. Lodge himself ran the hearings, and he carefully limited their scope. There was much testimony about operational tactics, but no exploration of the broader policy that lay behind them. The committee did not even issue a final report. One historian described its work as “less a whitewash than an exercise in sleight-of-hand.”

On July 4, 1902, soon after the investigating committee ended its work, President Roosevelt declared the Philippines pacified. He was justified in doing so. The important guerrilla leaders had been killed or captured and resistance had all but ceased. It had been a far more costly operation than anyone had predicted at the outset. In three and a half torturous years of war, 4,374 American soldiers were killed, more than ten times the toll in Cuba. About sixteen thousand guerrillas and at least twenty thousand civilians were also killed. Filipinos remember those years as some of the bloodiest in their history. Americans quickly forgot that the war ever happened.

Excerpted from: Overthrow: America's century of regime change from Hawaii to Iraq - Stephen Kinzer. We recommend you buy this book: