Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Philipine-American War (1899-1902); America's Last 'Frontier Outpost' And First Asian War

"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: 


From Wikipedia:          

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.


  1. I have long been of the opinion that the British Empire never ended really it just morphed into the American Empire and that is what is destroying the global economy today, making vast profits for the arms dealers while wars rage out of control across half of the planet. I think this Philippine-American conflict was part of the early transfer of power and the switch of globalist industrial transnationalism's power base from London to Washington. The British Empire simply relocated its headquarters to the New World and thereby moved away from the chaos of two world wars the captains of industry nurtured, resourced and exploited to the max, Prescott Bush for a perfect example.

    In the 18th and 19th centuries the flight of capital from Europe to America means that the same suspects appear on both sides of the Atlantic, the Winston Churchills, the William Averell Harrimans and dear Mrs Wallis Simpson are the harbingers of the emerging Atlanticism.

    This Philippino war was an early blooding of the American empire, the means by which American cannon fodder demonstrated that they were at least as willing as their British counterparts to die for the profit motive and count it an honour. It proved that America was ready to take up the cause of global domination and so for the royals, socialites, railroad men, speculators, oil producers, con artists and bankers a new dawn whose sun rose in the west was cobbled together across the now well established (since the late 16th century) globalising Anglosphere.

    The current Washington strategy of 'full spectrum dominance' shows nothing much has changed except the complete impoverishment of the planet and the collapse of capitalism into gangsterism. Enter Africa stage right.

  2. Yes, I think 1898 is a good point of departure for the transfer your writnig about, AA. Conventional histories usually put it after the end of the first World War. But that conventional view overlooks the power surge that American business and military might could project across the Pacific to the doorway of China, the most lucrative foreign market available for US-Euro trade.

    Britain's baning and trade interests for the Far East were already in the catbird seat in Hong Kong, Burma, Malaya and Singapore. With the Americans taking over the decaying Spanish colonies (instead of her obvious next foe, Imperial Germany, British interests had little or no fear of a threat of Pacific encirclement. (Until Japan increased its own colonial aspirations later in the century.) The very fact that Admiral Dewey and his ships were in the friendly British territorial port of Hong Kong when he was cabled to attack Manila shows the shift as it were was well under way, and, if not made formally official, it was quite real!

  3. Yes, AA. I'm thinking of the "White Man's Burden" poem by Kipling being the most memorable and then popular example of Anglosphere collaboration. Never mind that black soldiers in the Army carried out the dirty work as well, most well aware of the working for an establishment that only considered them citizens in full when their was an enemy force to contain.

    One hundred years of depletion and a growing human population, much of it needing resources in yet underdeveloped lands, prove we have not seen the last of the dirty not-so little wars.

  4. Here's the last part of a five-part documentary on the war.

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  5. Thanks for posting this very interesting video clip Doug. I watched another part of the series which had more to say about domestic anti-imperialism and made an interesting point about the American women's involvement, suggesting that their own feelings of political impotence were projected onto Philippino insurgents, making common cause with them. I found that a very interesting observation Doug.

  6. I think we may well have seen a quantum- leap in imperialist aspirations and the fully emergent American globalism about then, it would seem that not a year has passed since 1775 when the US military has not been deployed in one war or another. It has been an engine for hostility, declared and undeclared warfare at home and abroad for getting on for 250 years now.

    If Orwell was right and Britain (or England at least) is now Airstrip One, then the continent of North America was the British Empire's military test area, the implications of which, viewed from an Anglospheric perspective, is that the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the 'American War of Independence', or whatever we choose to call it..... should really be called the First American Civil War.
    The linguistic hegemony held despite the various ambitions of the French, the Spanish and the Dutch, there was no geopolitical advantage from American independence to any of Britain's main colonial rivals.

  7. Yes, I found that connection quite interesting as well, AA. No book or article I can recall had made that connection. The informal alliance between the non-enfranchised female voters of America and those the men who favored the war called the "Indians" or "N-----rs" or "Little Brown Brothers" across the sea pointed up yet another schism in the country over this dirty business---a business those our age recall all too well in Vietnam 60 during the long war there. As well as US-engaged wars in the surrounding nations of Southeast Asia.

    Interesting analysis you've brought to this, AA. I'll get a chance to comment more later...

  8. Or "The War Between the Cousins", AA, to borrow a phrase from Christopher Hitchens.

    The "First American Civil War" should also include blacks who fought for the British in exchange for their freedom as well as "Tory" forces who stayed loyal to the Crown. Both groups went to Nova Scotia after the war, although some of the former slaves were relocated to Africa I believe after promise of land in Canada proved to be unsatisfactory.

    I think it;'s safe to say all three European governments which aided the Continental Army and Navy against Britain during the American War of Independence gained, in the end, nothing.

    Napoleon couldn't hold Louisiana and fight the British and Russia so he sold his new world empire away ; the Dutch and the Spanish were driven from North America, et al.

  9. Whomever put together that list did quite a job. And it doesn't take into account the number of CIA operations, included in other works, such as Gore Vidal's very interesting breakdown of his views on 9/11 and the whole enumeration of the CIA in the post WWII "National Security State" in "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace". ( 2002)

  10. Although I don't always agree with the late Mr Christopher Hitchens, that quote could be the very definition of what a 'civil war' is I think.

    Atheism was always a very broad church Doug :-)

  11. Nor do I, AA. Hitchens certainly cut a noticiable path, for sure.

    Yes, non-belief is a big tent, isn't it? I'm always uncertain which type of non-belief I should assume an athiest I've just been introduced to much disagreement among that flock, I'm afraid. ;-)

    Well, always better to stay on the subject of the weather and everyone's general health as my Aunt Winifred used to say.

  12. I shall come back to this Doug as I had watched a show on this is one topic which as you put it is not discussed but is apart of the history which was seemingly missed.