The 20th century began with the United States engaged in a bloody, but largely forgotten, war in the Philippines that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The Philippine American War, fought from February 1899 to July 1902, claimed 250,000 lives and helped establish the United States as a power in the Pacific.
Today, few Americans are aware of the Philippine American War. The conflict was a sequel to the Spanish American War of 1898, which had been waged, in part, in support of Cubans fighting for independence from Spain. But it was also fueled by American desire to become a world power.
The Philippine American War prompted Mark Twain and other writers and artists to speak out against those who advocated American expansion. It fueled a bitter national debate over U.S. involvement overseas, a precursor to the outcry over the Vietnam War a half-century later. Some who opposed the occupation were motivated by racism, fearful that annexation of the Philippines would lead to an influx of non-white immigrants. One U.S. senator warned of the coming of "tens of millions of Malays and other unspeakable Asiatics." Many, who considered the occupation immoral and inconsistent with American traditions and values, joined the Anti-Imperialist League.
The conflict helped popularize the concept of the "white man's burden," the notion that the United States and Western European societies had a duty to civilize and uplift the "benighted" races of the world. A U.S. senator from Indiana declared: "We must never forget that in dealing with the Filipinos, we deal with children."
The Philippine American War also paved the way for migration from the Philippines. Shortly after the war, Filipino immigrants began arriving in the United States as students, U.S. military personnel, or farm and cannery workers. Today, there are more than two million Filipinos and Filipino Americans in the United States, making them one of the nation's largest Asian communities.
On May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey had entered Manila Bay and destroyed the decrepit Spanish fleet. In December, Spain ceded the Philippines to the Untied States for $20 million. Mark Twain called the $20 million payment an "entrance fee into society--the Society of Scepter Thieves." "We do not intend to free but to subjugate the people of the Philippines," he wrote. "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."
On June 12, 1898, a young Filipino, General Emilio Aguinaldo, had proclaimed Philippine independence and established Asia's first republic. He had hoped that the Philippines would become a U.S. protectorate. But 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 his stance, 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.
On February 4, 1899, fighting erupted between American and Filipino soldiers, leaving 59 Americans and approximately 3,000 Filipinos dead. With the vice president casting a tie-breaking vote, a congressional resolution declaring the Philippines independent was defeated. American commanders hoped for a short conflict, but in the end, more than 70,000 would fight in the archipelago. Unable to defeat the United States in conventional warfare, the Filipinos adopted guerrilla tactics. To suppress the insurgency, villages were forcibly relocated or burned. Non-combatant civilians were imprisoned or killed. Vicious torture techniques were used on suspected insurrects, such as the water cure, in which a suspect was made to lie face up while water was poured onto his face. One general declared:
It may be necessary to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords.
The most notorious incident of the war took place on Samar Island. In retaliation for a Filipino raid on an American garrison, in which American troops had been massacred, General Jacob W. Smith told his men to turn the island into a "howling wilderness" so that "even birds could not live there." He directed a marine major to kill "all persons...capable of bearing arms." He meant everyone over the age of 10. Smith was court-martialed and "admonished" for violating military discipline.
Aguinaldo was captured by a raid on the Filipino leader's hideout in March 1901. The war was officially declared over in July 1902, but fighting continued for several years. The Philippine war convinced the United States not to seize further overseas territory.
More than 4,000 American soldiers and about 20,000 Filipino fighters died. An estimated 200,000 Filipino civilians died during the war, mainly of disease or hunger. Reports of American atrocities led the United States to turn internal control over to the Philippines to Filipinos in 1907 and pledged to grant the archipelago independence in 1916.
U.S. leaders tried to transform the country into a showcase of American-style democracy in Asia. But there was a strong undercurrent of condescension. U.S. President William Howard Taft, who had served as governor-general of the Philippines, called the Filipinos "our little brown brothers." The Philippines were granted independence in 1946.
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