"There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it—perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands—but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector—not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now—why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.”---Mark Twain (founding member of The Anti-Imperialist League) from a letter in "The New York World", circa 1900.)
Starting in 1898, the United States, under President William McKinley, annexed the islands of Hawaii as a United States territory. (There had been a coup backed by US business interests there in 1893.) It was the first stirrings of American power beyond the continental frontier that stopped at the West Coast.
In February ,1898, after years of hyperbolic anti-Spanish "yellow journalism" in the big city papers of William Randolph Hearst and other publishers of "the yellow press", war broke out two months after the US battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, with the loss of 200 sailors.
Soon ,despite attempts to placate the US government, Spain was locked in a war with the young nation over the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, the little island of Guam in the remote central Pacific and the large archipelago of the Philippines in Southeast Asia.
The United States intelligentsia, government and business officials paid very little attention to the Philippines in the decades before the war, according to Professor Richard Sibley in his 2007 book, "A War For Frontier and Empire". Indeed only a few dozen articles about the enormous chain of islands had even been published in American periodicals for the decades prior to the conquest.
By the Summer of 1898, the Spanish forces--which faced defeat from Filipino Independence fighters in all but its capital of Manila--were suddenly faced with defeat at sea. This came fromm American Admiral George Dewey's Pacific Fleet in Manila Bay itself. Spainish forces surrendered to the Americans after a one-sided sea battle. The "Battle for Manila" that shortly followed the loss of the Spanish fleet was more of a hand-over between high officials of two governments than an actual fight.
The point of the battle was to prevent the imposition of forces from The First Philippine Republic, led by President Emilio Aquinaldo, into the city. The new president was suffering under the impression that the Americans had no interest in an empire in his country--or so he had been led to believe reportedly by US officials in Hong Kong before the firing started.
But now he was frustrated from taking control of the capital city---the main conduit of commerce and information to the outside world. By early 1899--shortly before the US Senate in Washington was ready to vote to accept the annexation of the islands from Spain---a shooting incident on a bridge on the outskirts of Manila, started by one American soldier, precipitated an exchange of volleys between Alquinaldo's forces and the Yankees.
The second phase of the war, called "The Philippine Insurrection" by some historians, had begun.
The US Army and Marines drove the often lightly-armed Philippinos back in conventional attacks on the main island of Luzon. One of the American commanders was General Arthur MacArthur, the father of the more famous "American Caesar" of World War II and Korea, Douglas.
A bloody war became bloodier when the local forces broke into guerrilla groups later in 1899 to try and fight back against the Americans. To counter the "hit-and-run" strategy and the casualties brought on by unconventional warfare, the Americans became more aggressive. Torture techniques such as "the water cure" were introduced to get suspicious men to talk. This was like the water-boarding methods of today, only you put a man on the ground and force-filled him with water until his stomach was extended. If he didn't talk, as happened often according to reports, the torture was repeated.
Word of these techniques (as well as mass shootings in villages by soldiers and Marines ) were leaked out of the war zone by American soldiers and newspapermen from the USA, Britain, France, et al. Soldiers themselves risked court-martials by writing about what was taking place in their units to family members back home. They told of the "water cure" tactics and regular firing squad reprisals against villagers suspected of harboring "rebels". Then there were the camps:
Filipino villagers were forced into concentration camps called reconcentrados which were surrounded by free-fire zones, or in other words “dead zones.” Furthermore, these camps were overcrowded and filled with disease, causing the death rate to be extremely high. Conditions in these “reconcentrados” are generally acknowledged to have been inhumane. Between January and April 1902, 8,350 prisoners of approximately 298,000 died. Some camps incurred death rates as high as 20 percent."
"One camp was two miles by one mile (3.2 by 1.6 km) in area and 'home' to some 8,000 Filipinos. Men were rounded up for questioning, tortured, and summarily executed"
"In Batangas Province, where General Franklin Bell was responsible for setting up a concentration camp, a correspondent described the operation as “relentless.” General Bell ordered that by December 25, 1901, the entire population of both Batangas Province and Laguna Province had to gather into small areas within the “poblacion” of their respective towns. Barrio families had to bring everything they could carry because anything left behind—including houses, gardens, carts, poultry and animals—was to be burned by the U.S. Army. Anyone found outside the concentration camps was shot. General Bell insisted that he had built these camps to "protect friendly natives from the insurgents, assure them an adequate food supply" while teaching them "proper sanitary standards." The commandant of one of the camps referred to them as the "suburbs of Hell."
Estimates vary over how many Philippine civilians died, but the numbers were in the hundreds of thousands. Most of them died from cholera and typhus outbreaks in the camps. As in all wars, atrocities were committed on both sides, but the suffering fell harder on least trained and out-fitted forces.
The US military lost 4,200 men in the war and 20,000 Philipinos combatants fell officially in action. By the end of the main part of the war (July, 1902) General Alquinaldo had been captured and the islands were on their way to becoming Americanized--with English-language schools, an American style court system and a lower house of elected representatives to bring a measure of democracy to the whole affair of American conquest. The Upper House remained in the hands of the American Commissioners, acting much as the viceroys and district commissioners of another empire.
The Philippine-American war is not much discussed in American schools, and is low on the radar of major US conflicts. But in it contains all the seeds of the modern wars in American history from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan. It's not surprise that this is so, given that the "frontier attitude" of many Americans combined well with the colonial aspirations of any emerging industrial nation of the time.
There seems little in this chapter of imperialism of just over a century ago that is becoming of a republic. And the words of Mark Twain above could have been said of Iraq and Vietnam and our extended time in other areas as well.