Philippine-American War of 1899
The brutal slaughter ignored in U.S. textbooks
By Lydia Bayoneta
The Philippine-American War of 1899 is
remembered by Filipinos and by working class and progressive
people around the world as the first national liberation
struggle fought in Asia against the United States. It serves as
an example of how U.S. imperialism, even in its infancy,
practiced genocide of a monstrous proportion.
Little or nothing can be found about the
Philippine-American War in public school textbooks in the
United States. In the Philippines, the schools were reorganized
by U.S. colonial administrators to make sure that an entire
generation of Filipinos was miseducated about the war. This is
remarkable in view of the tremendous resources committed to the
war by the U.S. government and the high number of casualties
suffered by both sides.
The U.S. military budget was increased at the
time to a record high $400 million. And 126,468 U.S. troops
were deployed in the war. Of these, 4,234 were killed--almost
twice as many as had died in the preceding Spanish-American
There were at least 20,000 Filipino battle
casualties, by the U.S. count. No official records were kept of
civilian casualties. However, in 1901 the New York Times
interviewed Gen. Franklin Bell, who was responsible for setting
up concentration camps in the province of Batangas. He
estimated that 600,000 Filipino civilians had been killed as a
direct or indirect result of the war on the island of Luzon
The entire population of the Philippines at
that time was 6.5 million. Although most organized fighting had
ceased by 1902, sporadic rebellions continued until 1913 with
additional casualties occurring on both sides, mostly of
civilians. The carnage and racist humiliation of this war was
second to none.
U.S. imperialism: 100 years old
In the last quarter of the 19th century, the
U.S. had become a powerful industrial country. Big business had
begun to dominate the economy and government. The big U.S.
capitalists looked overseas for new markets and the export of
capital. These were the driving forces behind the
Spanish-American War, and the conquest of Spain's colonial
"The first real foreign war of the U.S. [the
Spanish-American War] took place almost simultaneously with the
first real expansion in U.S. foreign investment. And that is
the real secret of understanding that war, as it is of
understanding all subsequent U.S. wars," wrote Vince Copeland
in "Expanding Empire," a history of U.S. imperialism (see
Workers World web page, www.workers.org).
There is evidence that sections of the U.S.
ruling class had the conquest of the Philippines in mind even
before the beginning of hostilities with Spain. In February
1898, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt
ordered Commodore George Dewey to take his fleet to Hong Kong
and prepare to capture the Philippines in the event of a war
The Spanish-American War was used by the U.S.
government not only to establish a protectorate over Cuba, but
to grab Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.
While negotiations for a treaty with Spain were
going on in Paris, the U.S. Congress formally annexed Hawaii.
This was obviously a war of expansion, but this knowledge did
not prevent U.S. officials from lying to both the Filipino
patriots and to their own people.
As in other cases in its history, U.S.
imperialism was ready and willing to use a legitimate struggle
for national liberation to further its own imperialist goals.
The Filipinos had already carried out an unsuccessful
revolution against Spain in 1896.
In November 1897, over five months before the
outbreak of war between the U.S. and Spain, the U.S.
consuls-general in Hong Kong and Singapore, along with
Commodore Dewey, met with the revolutionary government in
exile. They assured Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino leader, of
When war broke out, Dewey cabled the U.S.
consul-general asking that "Aguinaldo come as soon as
possible." (Stuart Miller, "Benevolent Assimilation," Yale
University Press, 1982, p. 36)
The Filipinos took the opportunity to renew the
revolutionary struggle against Spain. By May 1898--when Dewey
fought his famous battle of Manila Bay and defeated the
outmoded Spanish navy--the Filipinos were vigorously fighting
the Spanish all over the archipelago.
By Aug. 12, 1898, when the Spanish-American War
ended, they had issued a Declaration of Independence. Filipino
freedom fighters were in control of almost the entire country,
with the exception of the walled city of Manila. The Spanish
colonial government begged the U.S. military authorities to be
allowed to surrender to them rather than to the Filipinos. The
U.S. military secretly agreed, without notifying the
Following a bloodless "battle" to preserve the
"honor" of the Spanish imperialists, U.S. forces occupied the
city. They soon set up a military perimeter to keep out the
Filipino forces surrounding Manila.
At the Paris peace conference, which ended the
war with Spain, representatives of the Filipino government were
refused admission. Their representatives in Washington were
On Dec. 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris was
signed. It ceded the entire Philippines to the United States.
Twenty million dollars were given to Spain and the property and
business rights of Spanish citizens were guaranteed.
A racist war of conquest
The Philippine-American War began in February
1899 when the U.S. forces assaulted the Philippine positions
surrounding Manila. Because they were within range of the guns
of the U.S. fleet, casualties were high for the Filipinos.
A campaign during the next month forced further
retreats, but U.S. Gen. Elwell S. Otis soon realized that he
needed more troops. By the summer of 1899, the U.S. had 60,000
troops in the Philippines. A year later the number had grown to
more than 75,000--three quarters of the entire U.S. Army.
Although the Filipinos fought bravely, they
eventually realized that without the huge battalions and
equipment of the U.S. military, fighting in large units was
ineffective. They then turned to guerrilla warfare.
The U.S. response to the guerrilla war was
genocide and racism. Villages were systematically burned and
civilians were slaughtered in reprisals against guerrilla
attacks. Anticipating tactics that would later be used in
Vietnam, the U.S. sent its troops on "search and destroy"
"Our soldiers here and there resort to terrible
measures with the natives. Captains and lieutenants are
sometimes judges, sheriffs and executioners. `I don't want any
more prisoners sent into Manila' was the verbal order from the
Governor-General three months ago. It is now the custom to
avenge the death of an American soldier by burning to the
ground all the houses, and killing right and left the natives
who are only suspects." (New York World, Feb. 5, 1901)
Torture, such as the "water cure," was used to
interrogate captives. "[The `water cure'] consisted of forcing
four or five gallons of water down the throat of the captive
whose body becomes an object frightful to contemplate, and then
squeezing it by kneeling on his stomach. The process was
repeated until the `amigo' talked or died."
(Philippine-American War Centennial Initiative, Internet
Archive, 1998, firstname.lastname@example.org) Villagers were herded into
concentration camps called "reconcentrados" surrounded by
free-fire zones called "dead lines."
The conditions in these camps were dreadful.
They were overcrowded and filled with disease. Death rates were
In Batangas province, a correspondent covering
an operation called it "relentless." The U.S. soldiers killed
"men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active
insurgents and suspected people, from lads of 10 and up, an
idea prevailing that the Filipino ... was little better than a
dog" who belonged on "the rubbish heap." (Stanley Karnow, "In
Our Image, American Empire in the Philippines," (Ballantine
Books, 1989, p. 188)
After a U.S. platoon was wiped out in an
ambush, Brig. Gen. Jacob W. Smith--a veteran of the Wounded
Knee massacre of Native peoples--issued orders to kill "all
persons of 10 years and older."
"The interior of Samar must be made a howling
wilderness," Smith said. "I want no prisoners, I wish you to
kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will
please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing
arms [10 years of age and above] in actual hostilities against
the United States." (Teodoro A. Agoncillo, "A Short History of
the Philippines," New American Library, 1969)
Racism was an important part of the U.S. war of
genocide. As in other wars, the U.S. rulers attempted to
demonize their enemy in order to justify their actions. Racial
epithets were commonly used to refer to Filipinos by members of
the U.S. government, press and military personnel.
The racism inculcated by the U.S. ruling class
can be seen in the statement by Theodore Woolsey, a Yale law
professor: "Filipinos are incapable of gratitude, profligate,
undependable, improvident, cruel, impertinent, superstitious,
and treacherous; all are liars even in the confessional.
Granting such people constitutional rights would be a `reductio
ad absurdum,' and military rule was the only possibility."
Also suffering from racism were the 12,000
African American troops who served in the Philippines. Black
anti-imperialists identified closely with the Filipinos. That
was evident in the opposition of most of the Black press to
President William McKinley's Philippine policies and in the
high rate of desertion of Black troops serving in the
Philippines, some of whom went over to fight on the Filipino
An example was David Fagen of the Colored 24th
Infantry, who accepted a commission as an officer in the
Filipino army. The press heaped all sorts of invective on him
and a $600 bounty was placed on his head.
A meeting of African Americans in Boston in
1899 adopted a formal protest to the "unjustified invasion by
American soldiers in the Philippines":
"Resolved, That while the rights of colored
citizens in the South ... are shamefully disregarded; and,
while frequent lynchings of Negroes who are denied a civilized
trial are a reproach to republican government, the duty of the
President and country is to reform these crying domestic wrongs
and not to attempt the `civilization' of alien peoples by
powder and shot." (The Boston Post, July 18, 1899)
Other voices were raised against the U.S. war
in the Philippines. The Anti-Imperialist League was founded in
November 1898 to oppose the acquisition of the Philippines by
the United States.
As the war dragged on year after year, as the
casualties mounted, and as news of U.S. military atrocities
filtered through the official censorship, the opposition grew.
However, the anti-war movement--seriously flawed because it
relied on ruling-class figures such as Andrew Carnegie for its
leadership--was unable to do more than expose some of the
horrors of the conflict.
Although Commissioner William Howard Taft
officially proclaimed an end to the Philippine "insurrection"
in 1902--there had been several similar previous
declarations--resistance continued for over a decade,
particularly in the southern islands. It was this resistance,
combined with more organized resistance during the 1930s and
during World War II, that led the U.S. to turn to a policy of
In 1946, a sham independence was granted to the
Philippines, giving formal independence but reserving vital
economic and military rights to the U.S. This method of control
through "military assistance" and economic domination, by U.S.
corporations and such agencies as the International Monetary
Fund, has continued down to the present day. The liberation
struggle has also continued and today reflects the growth of
the Filipino working class.
Filipinos, along with other oppressed and
exploited peoples around the world, look forward to the day
when U.S. imperialism will be smashed and they can at last
achieve true national liberation.
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