The United States acquired the Philippines as a colony following the 1898 Spanish-American war. For American imperialists, acquisition of the Philippines was the start of the American empire and placed the United States into the world geopolitical scene as a power to contend with. The Americans were convinced that the Filipinos were a primitive, pagan people unable to govern themselves without the firm guiding hand of a Christian nation. Thus the United States and Spain drew up a treaty in which Spain agreed to sell the Philippines to the United States.
On the other hand, the Filipinos were not exactly happy about the transfer of their country from Spain to the United States. They had already written a constitution based on the U.S. constitution, and had formed a representative democratic government. On June 12, 1898, the Philippine Declaration of Independence had been issued and the first Philippine Republic had been established. Filipinos wanted to declare war on the United States, but President Emilio Aguinaldo urged patience as he did not think that the United States Senate would ratify the treaty.
On the night of February 4, 1899, just 36 hours before the treaty giving the Philippines to the United States was to go before the Senate, a group of happy Filipinos—usually described as “having been drinking”—approached a U.S. Army checkpoint. Private William Grayson told them to halt. One of the Filipinos was then reported to have called out “halto” in a mimicking voice. According to Grayson’s later testimony:
“Well, I though the best thing was to shoot him.”As a result, other soldiers began firing and then the U.S. warships in the harbor fired their guns. When the firing stopped, over 60 Americans and 3,000 Filipinos were dead. This was the start of the American-Filipino War.
The U.S. Secretary of War, Elihu Root, made the following statement about the fight:
“On the night of February 4, two days before the U.S. Senate approved the treaty, an army of Tagalogs, a tribe inhabiting the central part of Luzon, under the leadership of Aguinaldo, a Chinese half-breed, attacked in vastly superior numbers, our little army in possession of Manila, and after a desperate and bloody fight, was repulsed in every direction.”The statement contains a number of factual errors and the usual American ignorance of indigenous peoples. First, “our little army” was composed of 16,000 well-armed soldiers, all in Manila. The “vastly superior numbers” is debatable. It is estimated that there were about 80,000 insurgents in the Philippines at this time, but they were spread through the islands with about 30,000 on Luzon, the largest island. Only half had rifles. If we assume that all of the rebels on Luzon with rifles were in Manila, this would put an American force of 16,000 up against a Filipino force of 15,000.
Calling President Emilio Aguinaldo a “Chinese half-breed” reflects on American racism. Americans assumed that Filipinos were racially inferior and thus incapable of leadership. Thus, Aguinaldo must be a “half-breed” if he was capable of leadership. While Aguinaldo did have some Chinese heritage, it was not his “race” that made him a leader.
There was not “an army of Tagalogs” involved in the fight. There was no organized group that initiated the attack. Tagalog, by the way, is an ethnic group rather than a tribe.
In debate on the situation in the Philippines, Senator Albert Beveridge said:
“We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world.”With regard to the potential for Philippine self-government, Senator Beveridge stated:
“My own belief is that there are not 100 men among them who comprehend what Anglo-Saxon self-government even means, and there are over 5,000,000 people to be governed.”Aguinaldo quickly realized that his poorly trained and poorly armed Filipino rebels could not compete against the Americans in regular warfare. The Filipinos discarded their uniforms, scattered across the island, and began a campaign of guerilla warfare.
The American troops swept through villages and towns, killing men, women, and children, and burning all homes. One volunteer from Washington state wrote home:
“This shooting human beings beats rabbit hunting all to pieces.”Since the Americans couldn’t tell which Filipinos were friendly and which were rebels, they turned to torture to make people identify the guerillas. The favorite American techniques included: dragging people behind horses; hanging them until they passed out, reviving them, and then hanging them again; tying people to a tree, shooting them in the leg, and then returning the next day to see if they would talk; inserting a hose into a person’s mouth and then forcing in water until the body was distended. People often died during the torture sessions.
The Manila correspondent for the Philadelphia Ledger reported:
“The present war is no bloodless, 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 up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino as such was little better than a dog.”In response to accusations of American cruelty in the conflict, Senator Beveridge replies:
“It has been charged that our conduct of the war has been cruel. Senators, it has been the reverse…Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals.”Secretary of War Elihu Root replied to the charges of brutality:
“The war in the Philippines has been conducted by the American army with scrupulous regard for the rules of civilized warfare…with self-restraint and humanity never surpassed.”Emilio Aguinaldo was captured by the Americans in 1901 and brought back to Manila. While many Americans called for him to be hung, General MacArthur treated him as an honored guest. A month later, Aguinaldo formally surrendered and other rebel leaders followed suit. Scattered fighting on both sides continued for several years, but in 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt declared that the war was over. Roosevelt proclaimed a full and complete pardon and amnesty to all Filipinos who had participated in the conflict.
Historian Howard Zinn, in his book A People’s History of the United States, summarizes the war this way:
“It took the United States three years to crush the rebellion, using seventy thousand troops—four times as many as were landed in Cuba—and thousands of battle casualties, many times more than in Cuba. It was a harsh war. For the Filipino, the death rate was enormous from battle casualties and from disease.”Mark Twain summarized the situation this way:
“We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages; and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining ten million by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket; we have acquired property in the three hundred concubines and other slaves of our business partner, the Sultan of Sulu, and hoisted our protecting flag over that swag.”The actions of the United States in the Philippines mirror their earlier pacification, genocide, and assimilation of Native American nations.
The final result, according to Mark Twain:
“And so, by these Providences of God—and the phrase is the government’s, not mine—we are a World Power.”