The decision to crush the Philippine independence movement put America firmly on the path to imperialism and all its consequences.
At the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States acquired various Spanish territories, including the Philippine Islands. It also acquired a home-grown independence movement. In 1896 an armed revolt against Spanish rule began in the Philippines, and by the beginning of June 1898 the Filipinos had gained control of all the country except the capital, Manila – and their army of 12,000 had the city surrounded. On June 12, Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the rebels, proclaimed the Philippines an independent republic.
American Occupation and Betrayal
Earlier in the year, anticipating war with Spain, various American diplomats had assured Aguinaldo that the United States would enter the Philippines only to protect the Filipinos; that it had no need for, nor interest in, colonies; and that it would certainly recognize the independence of the Philippine Republic. Admiral Dewey confirmed this pledge to Aguinaldo. But when Dewey’s fleet captured Manila on August 13, 1898, the admiral secretly arranged with the Spanish governor-general that he, rather than Aguinaldo, would accept the surrender of the capital, and that the Filipino army would not be allowed to enter the city.
American Conquest and Colonization
American army and naval forces thus replaced the Spanish forces in Manila, and now they were the ones surrounded by “insurgents,” as they now referred to the Filipinos. At first, the administration of President William McKinley urged the American forces not to engage in hostilities with the Filipinos. Early in 1899, however, once ratification of the peace treaty with Spain was assured, formally transferring the Philippines to the United States, this policy was reversed. American commanders were explicitly ordered to engage the “insurgents,” orders which they rapidly carried out. On June 2, 1899, the Philippine Republic declared war on the United States.
The Conduct of the War
The war lasted three years, until Aguinaldo’s surrender on July 4, 1902, although hostilities continued on a smaller scale for a dozen years after that. It was a brutal war. The Anti-Imperialist League, formed in opposition to it by such diverse figures as Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, and William James, published letters from American soldiers in the Philippines describing the extermination of whole villages of Filipinos, the torture of prisoners by pumping salt water into their bodies, the execution of soldiers who had peacefully surrendered, and explicit orders to kill everyone over the age of ten. To the New York World, on October 6, 1900, Mark Twain described the war, in terms which would echo throughout the new century and beyond, as “a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater.”
The Reasons for the War
President McKinley and his administration, as well as many newspapers, justified American intervention in the Philippines on humanitarian grounds: to free the Filipinos from Spanish tyranny and to guide them towards self-government. But that was largely political posturing. McKinley may have declaimed that “no imperial designs lurk in the American mind,” but Senator Albert Beveridge was more forthright when he told his colleagues, “Where shall we turn for consumers of our surplus? Geography answers the question. China is our natural customer…. The Philippines give us a base at the door of all the East….”
That base was purchased at the price of several hundred thousand Filipino lives; but as Beveridge pointed out, “Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals” [quoted in Zinn, p. 314].
- Leepson, Marc. “The Philippine War: in 1899, following its defeat of Spain, the United States fought against a guerrilla insurgency in the Philippines – a complex and still controversial conflict.” Military History Nov. 2007: 60+. Online at Expanded Academic ASAP (Gale Document Number:A213309807).
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492–Present. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.