Decision on the Philippines
Digital History ID 1257
President William McKinley was deeply ambivalent about war against Spain. The last president to have served in the Civil War said he had seen too much carnage at battles like Antietam to be enthusiastic about war with Spain. "I've been through one war. I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another."
Ultimately, however, the pressure of public opinion forced McKinley into the war that made the United States an international power. Newspaper publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer worked up war fever among the public with reports of Spanish atrocities against Cuban rebels. Then, Hearst's New York Journal published a leaked letter in which the chief Spanish diplomat in Washington, Enrique Duby de Lome, described President McKinley as "weak" and a "petty politician." Hearst publicized the DeLome letter under the screaming headline: "WORST INSULT TO THE UNITED STATES IN ITS HISTORY". Days later an explosion sank the U.S.S. Maine in Cuban's Havana harbor. A naval court of inquiry blamed the explosion on a mine, further inflaming public sentiment against Spain.
At the end of the Spanish-American war, pressure on President William McKinley to annex the Philippines was intense. After originally declaring that it would "be criminal aggression" for the United States to annex the archipelago, he reversed himself, partly out of fear that another power would seize the Philippines. Six weeks after Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay, a German fleet sought to set up a naval base there. The British, French, and Japanese also sought bases in the Philippines. Unaware that the Philippines were the only predominantly Catholic nation in Asia, President McKinley said that American occupation was necessary to "uplift and Christianize" the Filipinos.
When next I realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps, I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides-Democrats as well as Republicans-but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands, perhaps, also.
I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way-I don't know how it was, but it came:
(1) That we could not give them back to Spain-that would be cowardly and dishonorable;
(2) That we could not turn them over to France or Germany, our commercial rivals in the Orient-that would be bad business and discreditable;
(3) That we could not leave them to themselves-they were unfit for self-government, and they would soon have anarchy and misrule worse then Spain's was; and
(4) That there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.
And then I went to bed and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are and there they will stay while I am President!
Source: General James Rusling, “Interview with President William McKinley,” The Christian Advocate 22 January 1903, 17.
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