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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 War.

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 alone.

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 possessions.

"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,

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 with Spain.

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.

U.S. betrayal

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 U.S. support.

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 revolutionary government.

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 likewise rebuffed.

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" missions.

"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, [email protected]) 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 very high.

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." (PAWCI)

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 side.

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 neocolonialism.

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.

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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