Tragic Dawn of Overseas Imperialism

“The Charge of the Rough Riders” by Frederic Remington (1898) depicts a scene from the Spanish-American War, showing future President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry advancing over the bodies of Spaniards in Cuba.
This article originally appeared at TruthDig.
Empire. It is a word that most Americans loathe. After all, the United States was born through its rebellion against the great (British) empire of the day. American politicians, policymakers and the public alike have long preferred to imagine the U.S. as, rather, a beacon of freedom in the world, bringing light to those in the darkness of despotism. Europeans, not Americans, it is thought, had empires. Some version of this myth has pervaded the republic from its earliest colonial origins, and nothing could be further from the truth.
According to the old historical narrative, the U.S. has always been a democratic republic and only briefly dabbled (from 1898 to 1904) with outright imperialism. And, indeed, even in that era—in which the U.S. seized Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii and the Philippines—the U.S. saw itself as “liberating” the locals from Spanish despotism. This wasn’t real imperialism but rather, to use a term from the day, “benevolent assimilation.” Oh, what a gloriously American euphemism!
The truth, of course, is far more discomfiting. The U.S. was an empire before it had even gained its own independence. From the moment that Englishmen landed at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, theirs was an imperial experiment. Native tribes were conquered and displaced westward, year in and year out, until there were no sovereign Indians left to fight. In 1848, the U.S. Army conquered northern Mexico and rechristened it the American Southwest. Yes, the U.S. was always an empire, what Thomas Jefferson self-consciously called an “Empire of Liberty.” Only the American Empire looked different from the British and Western European variety. Until 1898, the U.S. lacked the overseas possessions and expansive naval power that have come to define our contemporary image of empire. That was the British, French and Spanish model. No, the U.S. was a great land empire most similar (ironically) to that of Russia, but an empire nonetheless.
Still, there is something profound about 1898 and the years that followed. For it was in this era that the American people—and their leaders—became sick with the disease of overseas imperialism. With no Indians left to fight and no Mexican lands worth conquering, Americans looked abroad for new monsters to destroy and new lands to occupy. Britain and France were far too powerful and were not to be trifled with; but Spain, the deteriorating Spanish Empire in the Caribbean and Pacific, proved a tempting target. And so it was, through a brief—“splendid,” as it was described—little war with Spain, that the United States would annex foreign territories and join the European race for colonies.
1898 is central to our understanding of the United States’ contemporary role in the world, for it was at that moment that the peculiar exceptional millenarianism of American idealism merged with the Western mission of “civilization.” The result was a more overt, distant and expansive version of American Empire. And, though the U.S. no longer officially “annexes” foreign territories, its neo-imperial foreign policy is alive and well, with U.S. military forces ensconced in some 800 bases in more than 80 countries—numbers that by far exceed those of other nations. Furthermore, the remnants of America’s first overseas conquests are with us today, as the people of Puerto Rico, Guam and Samoa are still only partial Americans—citizens, yes, but citizens without congressional representation or a vote in presidential elections. How ironic, indeed, that a nation founded in opposition to “taxation without representation” should, for more than 100 years now, hold so many of its people in a situation remarkably similar to that of the American colonists before the Revolutionary War.
In retrospect, then, 1898 represents both continuity with America’s imperial past and a bridge to its contemporary neo-imperial future. This era is key because it stands as a moment of no return: a pivot point at which the United States became a global empire. One can hardly understand contemporary interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan without a clear account of 1898 and what followed. The Spanish-American War and the occupation of the Philippines are two of America’s fundamental sins, and their consequences resonate in our ever uncertain present.
The Closing of the Frontier (1890)
In 1890, the distinguished American historian Frederick Jackson Turner combed the latest U.S. census and declared, in a widely read speech, that the American “frontier” was officially “closed.” He meant, of course, that there were no longer any uncharted Western lands to explore or Indian tribes to fight. The West was conquered and “civilized,” once and for all. According to Turner, westward expansion had defined American history and American values. “Civilizing” the West, through hardy individualism and strife, had altered and established the American soul. In his telling, which was very influential in its day, the “loss” of the frontier wasn’t necessarily a good thing; in fact, it had the potential to “soften” Americans and rot the foundation of the republic.
It was believed that without new lands to conquer, new space in which to expand, Americans would become a sedentary people riven with the same class divisions (and social conflict) infecting Europe. Furthermore, without new markets, how would American farmers and manufacturers maintain and improve their economic situation? The West was an idea, mostly, but it spoke to an inherently American trait: expansionism. Ours was a society of more: more land, more profits, more freedom, more growth. In a view widely held—then and now—the U.S. would die if it ever stopped expanding. From “sea to shining sea” wasn’t enough; no two oceans should hem in American markets, the American people or American ideals. This was, and is, the messianic nature of the American experiment, for better or worse.
Many citizens were riddled with anxiety about the “loss” of the West. This helps explain the widely popular phenomenon of Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling “Wild West” shows, in which he paraded Indians around the cities of the American East and, eventually, around the world. Americans were transfixed at the sight of “savage” natives and “noble” cowboys and cavalrymen. For Americans of the 1890s, the West—and all it entailed—represented both freedom and virile masculinity. As more and more Americans moved to big cities and became factory laborers, many wondered whether American manhood itself was not in crisis. Those with the means (and the inherent insecurity), men like Theodore Roosevelt, the scion of a wealthy patrician New York family, made pilgrimages to Western ranches as though they represented the New Jerusalem. It is only thus that we have the image of this future American president, a city boy, adorned in Western attire. Such was the inherent unease of the times.
How to Sell an Unnecessary War: William Randolph Hearst and the Media-Militarist Conspiracy
This 1896 political cartoon from a Spanish newspaper shows a rapacious Uncle Sam reaching toward Cuba and other Spanish colonies in the Caribbean.
By 1898, the United States was bursting with energy, self-righteousness and anxiety. The only question was where all that expansionist energy would direct itself. It was then that a coalition of newspapermen and imperialist politicians provided a ready target: Cuba. Spain had, for many years, been engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign against Cuban rebels seeking independence. This would provide the opening that America’s burgeoning imperialists longed for. At the same time, none of this interest in Cuban affairs was new. Before the American Civil War, Southerners had repeatedly called for the annexation of Cuba as a new slave state.
Now, however, a conglomeration of powerful interests pushed for U.S. intervention on behalf of the Cubans. If that campaign resulted in the seizure of Cuba, well, then, all the better. Historians have long debated which factors or impulses were most responsible for America’s overseas expansion and intervention in Cuba. The reality, though, is that it was a confluence of interests that pushed the U.S. toward war with Spain. Corporate capitalists sought new markets for their goods; missionaries dreamed of Christianizing and “civilizing” foreign peoples; naval strategists coveted bases and coaling stations to project power across the seas; expansionist politicians—prominent among them Theodore Roosevelt and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge—believed the U.S. had a mission to expand in order to salvage the virility of the republic; and “muckraking” newspapermen led by William Randolph Hearst desired nothing more than to sell papers and turn a profit—and the best way to do that was to report, and exaggerate, Spanish atrocities and drum up a new, popular war. War sells, after all.
The key triumvirate, however, was the alliance between Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt, Massachusetts Sen. Lodge and newspaper magnate Hearst. Lodge, for one, genuinely hoped for some crisis to precipitate war with Spain. In 1898, he wrote to a friend, “There may be an explosion any day in Cuba which would settle a great many things.” How right he was! First, an intercepted letter from the Spanish minister in Washington was found to contain unflattering references to President William McKinley. Hearst’s papers exaggerated the story, with his New York Journal running the headline, “WORST INSULT TO THE UNITED STATES IN ITS HISTORY.” This came on top of several years of stories in which the Journal writers whipped up chauvinist support for war with Spain.
Then, fatefully, on Feb. 15, 1898, an American naval vessel, the USS Maine, exploded in a harbor in Cuba, killing 258 sailors. Without the slightest pause for an investigation, a Hearst headline proclaimed “DESTRUCTION OF THE WARSHIP MAINE WAS THE WORK OF AN ENEMY.” It wasn’t, and experts confirmed later that the explosion was accidental. Even at the time, several policymakers and experts suspected the Maine had fallen victim to fluke tragedy. The secretary of the Navy wrote that the explosion was “probably the result of an accident”; furthermore, the country’s principal expert on maritime explosions—a professor at the Naval Academy—concluded that “no torpedo such as is known in modern warfare can of itself cause an explosion as powerful as that which destroyed the Maine.” It hardly mattered. The explosion of the Maine provided the casus belli for a nation ready for war.
Crowds gathered to protest at the Spanish Embassy; effigies of Spaniards were burned. Hearst, the newspaperman who had long sought war, cabled to one of his correspondents that “Maine is a great thing.” President McKinley—who had seen the horror of war at the Battle of Antietam—was initially hesitant to rush into action, but he quickly bowed to the pressure of a militaristic public and Congress. He, without international legal sanction, insisted that Spain give up possession of its “ever-faithful isle.” The president must have known, of course, that Spain could never bow to such a demand and still maintain its global prestige. Then, on April 11, McKinley delivered a message to Congress arguing that the U.S. must intervene in Cuba not simply as a result of the Maine explosion, but as a humanitarian intervention on behalf of the embattled Cubans. As historian Stephen Kinzer has written, McKinley thus “became the first American president to threaten war against another country because it was mistreating its own subjects.” He would not be the last.
Spain declared war on the U.S. on April 24, and Washington issued a declaration the next day. The military conflict was to last less than four months, ending in a decisive American victory over an empire long past its prime. Secretary of State John Hay called it a “splendid little war,” and, indeed, it was by some measures the most popular war in American history. War fever infected the American people. The French ambassador observed that a “sort of bellicose fever has seized the American nation”; the London Times called it “the delirium of war”; a German newspaper described it as a “lust for conquest.”
Seeking martial glory, Roosevelt resigned his position as assistant Navy secretary and raised a regiment of volunteer cavalry, “the Rough Riders.” He would take it to Cuba as part of the hastily formed American expeditionary force seeking to “liberate” the island. Roosevelt found the combat he so desired when his regiment bravely charged to victory in the Battle of San Juan Hill (which was actually fought on nearby Kettle Hill and involved the often-forgotten help of the professional black 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments). Old Teddy was as giddy as a schoolboy, shouting at the height of the battle: “Holy Godfrey, what fun!” He would later call the battle “the great day of my life.” After the battle, Roosevelt annoyed his professional military peers by shamelessly (and uncouthly) lobbying for a Medal of Honor for himself (President Bill Clinton would eventually bestow the award 80 years after the future president’s death).
The war was far from glorious. The Spanish were dislodged from Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba, but deaths from disease outnumbered U.S. battle deaths by some eight to one. Few Americans cared about this fact, so caught were they in the martial fever of the day.
In early 1899, the U.S. Senate would, by a narrow margin, ratify a treaty in which Spain ceded Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to America. This moment was, indeed, a point of no return—the instant that the U.S. became an overseas empire. Cuba technically received independence but, under Congress’ Platt Amendment, became essentially a U.S. protectorate; Washington retained the right to intervene at will in Cuban affairs.
And what of the Cubans themselves, on those behalf the war was supposedly fought? U.S. military and political personnel were, upon arriving on the island, surprised to learn that a significant portion of the population and the rebels were black. After all, the last thing the U.S. of 1898 wanted was an independent black republic on its southern shores. Furthermore, when it turned out the Cuban revolutionaries had expansive social reformist aims beyond independence, Washington was even less apt to grant full independence. Gen. Leonard Wood (a U.S. Army fort is named for him in Missouri), the military governor of Cuba, argued that the U.S. should maintain an indefinite occupation of the island “while saying as little as possible about the whole thing.” Wood was eventually pleased by the text of the Platt Amendment, stating, “There is, of course, little or no independence left Cuba under [the amendment].” This all cohered with Wood’s worldview. He considered the Cubans “as ignorant as children,” and sought to chose their first president.
The Spanish-American War also served another purpose for Americans. The conflict, it was said, would heal the divisions of the Civil War and unite the nation behind a “noble” cause. Newspapers bristled with stories of former Union and Confederate veterans serving together in the American Army in Cuba and the Philippines. In one famous anecdote, the former Confederate Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler—now an old man—led a charge and seemingly forgot whom exactly he was fighting, rallying his men with the cry “Let’s go, boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run again!” It seemed the Spanish-American War was all things for all people, except, of course, the Spaniards and the natives of the former colonies.
After the victory, the Americans’ goals became ever more expansive. A war waged for Cuba turned into a war of conquest as the U.S. seized the Spanish colonies of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and—for good measure—the independent island of Hawaii (which the Dole corporation coveted as a source of sugar for the American market). In reference to that island, McKinley declared, “We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” And so it was.
Fighting for American Manhood
Modern historians continue to grapple with the puzzle of America’s leap into the colonial land grab in 1898. What prompted the sudden bellicosity of American military might? What drove the spirit of the populace to cheer on the war? As usual, there is no simple answer. This much, however, seems certain: The answers to these questions are as much cultural as political. Indeed, one factor that seemingly drove the rush to war was a prevailing American insecurity about the citizens’ collective manhood and masculinity. The historian Jackson Lears, in fact, has persuasively argued that “imperialists deployed a mystical language of evolutionary progress … celebrating the renewal of masculine will and equating it with personal regeneration.”
Why all this gender insecurity? Well, the nation had, with the exception of several small Indian wars fought by the regular Army, been at peace since 1865. The younger generation looked up to the martial exploits of their Civil War veteran fathers. The elders feared that the nation’s youths, for lack of military service and without a Western frontier to conquer, were growing soft. Fewer and fewer Americans of the late 19th century did backbreaking farm work in the fields or ranches of the West as the population shifted toward unskilled “soft” labor in the cities of the East and Midwest.
In this climate of insecurity and toxic masculinity, many Americans and their public leaders began to believe the U.S. needed a war to rejuvenate the population and retrieve America’s collective masculinity. As early as 1895, Theodore Roosevelt—the poster boy for masculine self-consciousness—declared that he “[s]hould welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” Because many women, such as the famed social activist Jane Addams, were or would soon be dissenting anti-imperialists, the expansionists depicted their opponents as lacking what Roosevelt declared “the essential manliness of the American character.” Furthermore, pro-imperialist political cartoons often depicted their opponents wearing women’s clothing.
This image from the U.S. Military Academy yearbook of 1924 suggests the self-conscious sexuality and homoeroticism inherent in American warfare, especially in the imperialist adventures of the previous generation.
In perhaps his most famous speech, “The Strenuous Life,” Roosevelt referred to America’s mission in pacifying the now rebellious Filipinos as “man’s work.” The speech was littered with sociosexual language such as his consistent exhortations that Americans must not “shrink” from their duties, and argued that anti-imperialists had an “unwillingness to play the part of men.” In another speech, in Boston, Roosevelt stated, “We have got to put down the [Philippine] insurrection! If we are men, we can’t do otherwise.” Of course, gender roles and masculine insecurity alone cannot explain the drive for colonies and military expansion; neither, though, can we discount its role in propelling the nation forward into war and conquest.
White Man’s Burden: Race and Empire
Take up the White Man’s burden,
The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease. …
Take up the White Man’s burden,
Ye dare not stoop to less. …
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.
Take up the White Man’s burden, Have done with childish days. …
Comes now, to search your manhood. …” 
—An excerpt from the Englishman Rudyard Kipling’s poem “White Man’s Burden,” an inducement for the United States to occupy the Philippine Islands and join the other imperialist nations of Europe.
Racism is the original sin of the American experiment. White supremacy was part of the cultural baggage American troops carried abroad. The scourge of race did not stop at our shores. Moreover, it was a global phenomenon; this was the era of social Darwinism, the notion that “survival of the fittest” applied to man as well as beast, that certain races were scientifically superior to others. It was all snake oil, of course, but it was a predominant ideology—especially since, well, the “higher-level” white race wrote the books and carried the most advanced weapons. It was thus that racism, along with masculinity, would drive American expansionist imperialism at the turn of the 20th century.
The war with Spain and the much longer conflict with the Filipino rebels occurred in the context of what was the height of racial violence in the American South. Lynching of blacks reached pandemic proportions, what the author (and later anti-imperialist) Mark Twain described as “an epidemic of bloody insanities.” By one estimate, in the period surrounding the start of the 20th century someone in the South was hanged or burned alive on average once every four days. Racism infected the populace and policymakers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. And that disease would frame America’s new wars, which, by no accident, were waged against brown folks. The language of this imperial era, and the prevailing racialized ideology so prevalent in American society, pervaded and justified America’s wars, suppressions and annexations.
Before the wars even began, men like Roosevelt argued that, indeed, the U.S. had a racial obligation to get into the imperial game. He wrote, in 1897, that he felt “a good deal disheartened at the queer lack of imperial instinct our people show … [it would seem] we have lost, or wholly lack, the masterful impulse which alone can make a race great.” Later, as governor of New York, Roosevelt—who dedicated a peculiar amount of his attention to international rather than state affairs—declared that the U.S. had a “mighty mission” and that it needed a “knowledge of [our] new duties.” Where the American flag once flew [in Cuba and the Philippines] “there must and shall be no return to tyranny or savagery.”
After the U.S. seized the Philippines from Spain, a long legislative debate ensued over just what to do with the islands: Should they be granted independence or held as a colony? On the floor of the Senate, the influential Indiana Republican Albert Beveridge summarized the majority opinion. The Filipinos, because of their race, couldn’t possibly govern themselves. “How could they?” he exclaimed, “They are not a self-governing race. They are Orientals.” Later, back in Indiana, Beveridge questioned how anyone could oppose the “mission” of American imperialism. After all, he argued, “The rule of liberty … applies only to those who are capable of self-government. We govern Indians without their consent. … We govern children without their consent.” Coarse though his language was, at least Beveridge was articulating a consistent truth: Americans did have a long history of selectively applying civil rights, regularly denying them to blacks and natives. Why not, then, deny such freedoms to “Orientals”?
Other interest groups agreed with the racialized framing of America’s role in the world. Missionaries, for example, flocked to the Philippines to “Christianize” the natives—apparently, and ironically, unaware that most Filipinos were already Christian (Roman Catholic). American soldiers also used racist language to address the tough counterinsurgencies they found themselves engrossed in, and to label and dehumanize their enemies. Just before open warfare broke out between American troops and Filipino rebels in the capital of Manila, one U.S. trooper wrote, “Where these sassy niggers used to greet us daily with a pleasant smile … they now pass by with menacing looks.” It was, indeed, remarkable how quickly the pejoratives long applied to African-Americans were retooled for America’s new Asian subjects.
When fighting did break out in the Philippines, the soldier who fired the first shots ran back to his lines and yelled, “Line up, fellows, the niggers are in here, all through!” Years later, another American soldier wrote home from the Philippines that “I am growing hardhearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.” American soldiers and officers—often veterans of the Native American wars of the last century—also took to mixing metaphors when describing their Filipino opponents. Gen. Elwell Otis urged Filipinos in his district to “be good Indians.” Gen. Frederick Funston (for whom a military camp is named in Kansas) considered Filipinos “a semi-savage people.” Theodore Roosevelt took to calling Filipino insurgents “Apache or Comanche,” or otherwise “Chinese half-breeds” or “Malay bandits.”
In another twist of irony, many of the Army regiments engaged in combat in the Philippines consisted of black enlisted men. Often more sympathetic to the locals, these African-American troopers recognized how racism alienated and inflamed the Filipino population. One black soldier, B.D. Flower, wrote home in 1902, “Almost without exception, soldiers and also many officers refer to natives in their presence as ‘Niggers’ … and we are daily making permanent enemies. …” Analogous situations exist in America’s contemporary occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Arabs are often called “camel jockeys,” “rag heads” or “sand niggers.” The temptation and comfortable mental heuristic to lump the enemy together as an inhuman and often racialized “other” all too often only empowers and spreads rebellion. It is a lesson that this author lamentably learned in Baghdad and Kandahar, and that U.S. Army soldiers of the last century learned in Manila.
Nor was it just missionaries and soldiers who employed racial rhetoric to justify the annexation of new colonies and subjugation of the Filipino rebel movement. An editorial in the Philadelphia Ledger opined, “It is not civilized warfare, but we are not dealing with a civilized people. The only thing that they know is fear and force, violence and brutality, and we are giving it to them. …” Senior politicians also used racist and pejorative language. President McKinley referred to “misguided Filipinos” who simply couldn’t recognize that the U.S. acted “under the providence of God and in the name of human progress and civilization.” In sum, the United States had a racial, religious and civilizational duty to “benevolently assimilate” those the civilian governor (and future U.S. president) of the Philippines, William Howard Taft, patronizingly called “our little brown brothers.”
From the poetry of the day to the crass language of the common soldier to the rhetoric of the missionary to the proclamations of senior politicians, race infected the words and ideas of American imperialists. Armed with the armor of white supremacy, American fighting men and policymakers would, in the conflict that followed in the Philippines, wage war with a savagery they would never have applied to a white European enemy.
Quagmire and Atrocity: The Philippine-American War
“No imperial designs lurk in the American mind. They are alien to American sentiment. … Our priceless principles undergo no change under a tropical sun.” —President William McKinley in speaking of the Philippines in 1899
It has long been inaccurately labeled the “Philippine Insurrection” or “the Philippine-American War” and has been almost lost to history. Few Americans today even recall what is actually best described as a long-running Filipino rebellion waged in quest of independence. In a cruel irony, it was to be the United States—forged in opposition to empire and occupation—that would now play King George as the Filipinos struggled for independence.
There was nothing inevitable about the war in the Philippines. Sure, the island chain was a Spanish possession, but given that the war of 1898 was waged allegedly over Cuba, nothing stipulated that the U.S. had to invade and occupy the Philippines. Here again, Roosevelt was front and center. Without consulting his boss or the president, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt issued pre-emptive orders to Adm. George Dewey’s Pacific fleet to sail to Manila and sink the Spanish ships there in the event of an outbreak of war. War began and Dewey followed orders. The result was a massacre. The better-equipped American warships outranged the Spanish vessels and inflicted 381 casualties while suffering only six wounded. Even then, with the Spanish fleet at the bottom of the harbor, nothing preordained the American ground occupation of the islands, but a sort of militaristic inertia ensured that McKinley would indeed sail an army to Manila to take control of the archipelago.
McKinley, true to his honest nature, later admitted that when he heard of Dewey’s victory at Manila he “could not have told you where those darned islands were within a thousand miles.” Presidential ignorance aside, before a significant land force could reinforce Dewey, the naval commander sought all the help he could get in defeating the Spanish garrison. Dewey went so far as to sail the Filipino rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo—the Filipinos had been in the midst of an independence struggle with the Spanish when the Americans arrived—from Hong Kong to Manila, hoping Aguinaldo’s rebels would reinforce American efforts on the islands. Aguinaldo believed he and Dewey had a deal: that once the combined American-Filipino force liberated the islands, the U.S. would recognize Philippine independence. It was not to be.
In the end, when the Spanish garrison surrendered Manila, Aguinaldo was not even invited to the ceremony. It was then, under pressure from expansionists in McKinley’s own party, that the U.S. president had what he described as a “divine intervention” instructing him to annex the Philippine Islands. Struck by a sudden urge as he walked the corridors of the White House on the night of Oct. 24, 1898, he fell to his knees “and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance,” according to McKinley. Spoiler alert: God told him to seize the Philippines. Later he would declare 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 by God’s grace.” (As previously noted, most of these pagans who required Christianization were already Roman Catholics!) Interestingly, this was not the only militaristic divine intervention in U.S. presidential history. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then-President George W. Bush famously announced that “God told him to end the tyranny in Iraq!” In both cases God seems to have saddled Americans with dirty, difficult tasks. (Well, he is known to work in mysterious ways. …)
At the start of 1899, McKinley imposed official military rule over the Philippines. Aguinaldo, who led his own army, one that was then staring across the lines at the American Army, could never accept this arrangement. He declared, “My nation cannot remain indifferent in view of such a violation and aggressive seizure of its territory by a nation [the U.S.] which has arrogated to itself the title, ‘champion of oppressed races.’ … My government is disposed to open hostilities.” Before the fighting kicked off, however, the Filipinos, following in the footsteps of the American colonists, nominated members to a newly elected congress and wrote a constitution that drew from the examples of Belgium, France, Mexico and Brazil. Washington ignored this impressively democratic turn of events.
The war began when sentries from the two opposing armies fired upon each other on Feb. 4, 1899. The day ended badly for the Filipinos. The superiorly armed and trained American Army implemented a prepared plan of attack as soon as the first shots were fired, and by day’s end 3,000 Filipinos lay dead, in contrast with 60 American fatalities. Within weeks, thousands more Filipino troops and civilians were killed. The anti-imperialist American Sen. Eugene Hale then declared in Washington, accurately, “More Filipinos have been killed by the guns of our army and navy than were patriots killed in any six battles of the Revolutionary War.”
U.S. soldiers torture a Filipino in 1901 with the “water cure,” a form of what is now called waterboarding.
After Aguinaldo’s conventional army was mostly defeated, the archipelago settled into years of guerrilla warfare between the U.S. Army and assorted local rebels (or freedom fighters, depending on one’s point of view). As the war turned into an insurgency, the brutality of both sides—but especially of the Americans—intensified. U.S. soldiers, seeking to gather tactical information from captured insurgents, took to administering the “water cure,” a crude form of waterboarding that dates back to the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century. A victim was held to the ground and force-fed water; then his tormentors would stomp on his stomach and repeat the process. Most victims died. A form of this torture would later be employed by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay and various secret prisons during the so-called “war on terror.”
A private wrote in a letter published in a newspaper that after an American soldier was found mutilated, Gen. Loyd Wheaton ordered his forces “to burn the town and kill every native in sight, which was done.” By 1901, Secretary of War Elihu Root had formalized the brutality of the war, telling reporters that from then on the U.S. Army would follow a “more rigid policy” in the Philippines. One reporter from a New York magazine, The Outlook, went to see this rigid policy for himself. He wrote back a horrifying description of American counterinsurgency. “In some of our dealings with the Filipinos we seem to be following more or less … the example of Spain. We have established a penal colony; we have burned native villages … we resort to torture as a means of obtaining information.” One general, James Franklin Bell, told a reporter that after two years of war “one-sixth of [the main island] of Luzon’s population had either been killed or died of disease”—which would have amounted to more than half a million people. Bell was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts.
A reporter from the Philadelphia Ledger observed, “Our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives … lads of ten and up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino, as such, was little better than a dog.”
Reports of high numbers of prisoner executions appear credible. By the summer of 1901, casualty figures showed that five times as many Filipinos were being killed as wounded—the opposite of what is normally seen in wars. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, senior commander in the Philippines and father of the future Gen. Douglas MacArthur, admitted that his men were indeed under orders to use “very drastic tactics.” That seems an understatement. Nor was American military violence the only threat to the Filipinos. Around the same time, a cholera epidemic killed over 100,000 people. America’s brand of “freedom” came at a high price for the Filipino population.
By late 1901, with the insurgency all but defeated, many Americans had begun to lose interest in the war. Then, on Sept. 28, Filipino rebels on the distant Philippine island of Samar surprised and killed a high percentage of a U.S. Army company, mostly with machetes. Roughly 50 Americans were slain outright or mortally wounded. Labeled by the press as the “Balangiga Massacre,” it was immediately compared (inaccurately) to Custer’s Last Stand and The Alamo. The real controversy, however, erupted after Brig. Gen. Jacob “Hell-Roaring Jake” Smith, a 62-year-old vet of the Indian Wars, was sent to pacify Samar.
Reports of extreme abuses and alleged war crimes immediately arrived back home. This time the Congress had little choice but to conduct a pro forma investigation. During congressional hearings, a U.S. Army major testified that Gen. Smith had told him: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms.” When the major asked for an age guideline, Smith allegedly replied “10 years.” Smith, called to the hearings, eventually admitted to all this. He was court-martialed but served not a day in prison. His punishment was a reprimand from the secretary of war, with the leniency being justified on the grounds that Smith was driven to crime by “cruel and barbarous savages.” For another American general, Frederick Funston, even the reprimand of Smith was too harsh. Funston freely admitted in a speech that he “personally strung up 35 Filipinos without trial, so what’s all the fuss over [Smith] dispatching a few treacherous savages?” Asked how he felt about the growing anti-imperialist movement in America, Funston declared that those harboring such sentiments “should be dragged out of their homes and lynched.” Reading of this interview, the avowed anti-imperialist Mark Twain volunteered to be the first man lynched.
The final major campaign occurred on southern Luzon in 1902. Gen. James Franklin Bell removed natives from villages and placed them in concentration camps; crops were burned and livestock was killed; a random Filipino was selected for execution each time an American soldier was killed in combat (a certain war crime even by the standards of the day); and an American decree made it “a crime for any Filipino to advocate independence.” In three months, 50,000 locals were killed. The war was effectively over, though short spurts of violence and rebellion would occur occasionally for another decade. Untold hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were dead. The water buffalo, the key to rural life in the region, had been made nearly extinct, its numbers diminished by some 90 percent. Indeed, as historian Stephen Kinzer disturbingly noted, “Far more Filipinos were killed or died as a result of mistreatment [over four years] than in three and a half centuries of Spanish rule.” This, it appears, was the price of American “liberty”—and the islands would not receive genuine independence until after World War II!
For the Soul of America: The (Mostly) Noble Anti-Imperialist Movement
For all the villains in this story, there were Americans willing to dissent against overseas conquest and imperialism. Indeed, they were a large, diverse and sometimes peculiar lot. They are, too, the heroes of the era. For the most part, that is. From the very start of the Philippine occupation, many prominent citizens publicly opposed the war. This coalition of intellectuals, politicians, artists and businessmen may have acceded to the conquest of native and Mexican lands but saw imperial expansion overseas as un-American and unconstitutional. Throughout the era they made their voices heard and fought for the soul of the nation.
Early critics of the war pointed out the hypocrisy of fighting for Cuban rights when African-Americans at home were still regularly lynched and disenfranchised. A dozen prominent New Yorkers raised the alarm in a public letter before the war with Spain, proclaiming, “The cruelty exhibited in Cuba is no peculiarity of the Spanish race; within the last few weeks instances of cruelty to Negroes occurred in this country which equal, if not surpass, anything which has occurred in Cuba. … Our crusade in this matter should begin at home.” The most prominent black leader of the era, Booker T. Washington, raised a similar concern in a speech after the Spanish surrender. After praising the heroic efforts of the troops, he called for America to heal racial wounds on the domestic front. He argued, “Until we conquer ourselves, I make no empty statement when I say we shall have, especially in the southern part of our country, a cancer gnawing at the heart of the republic.”
It was, however, the annexation of the Philippines that truly kicked off a dissenting movement in the United States. Skeptics across the spectrum of public life would form the Anti-Imperialist league, which, at its height, had hundreds of thousands of members—one of the largest anti-war movements in American history and an impressive achievement in a period of such intense martial fervor. The leaders of the movement included Democratic Party stalwart William Jennings Bryan, the magnate Andrew Carnegie (who offered to buy the Philippines from the U.S. government in order to set the islands free!), the social activist Jane Addams, the labor organizer Samuel Gompers, the civil rights leader Booker T. Washington, former President Grover Cleveland, former President Benjamin Harrison and the famed author Mark Twain. What the members of this diverse group had in common was a profound sense that imperialism was antithetical to the idea of America.
Bryan, one of the great orators of the day, summarized this notion when he proclaimed that “the imperialistic idea is directly antagonistic to the idea and ideals which have been cherished by the American people since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.” The politician and Civil War veteran Carl Schurz compared the Filipino rebels favorably with the colonial patriots and asked what Americans would do if the natives refused to submit—“Let soldiers marching under the Stars and Stripes shoot them down? Shoot them down because they stand up for their independence?” Of course, that is exactly what the U.S. Army would do, under orders from the president himself.
The Anti-Imperialist League won many moral but few practical victories. Part of the reason for this was the U.S. government’s overt suppression of civil liberties. Famously, in what became known as the “mail war,” the postmaster general ordered anti-imperialist literature mailed to soldiers in the Philippines to be confiscated. Critics of American foreign policy called it the “rape of the mail.” Practically thwarted, artists and cultural critics took the anti-imperial fight to public. The most prominent and outspoken was Mark Twain, and this, more than his famous books, marked the man’s finest hour. He announced his stand in late 1900, stating, “I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. … And so I am an anti-imperialist.” Twain only lashed out harder as the war went on. By 1901, he declared that “we have debauched America’s honor and blackened her face” and recommended the Stars and Stripes be changed: “We can just have our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.” Some called it treason, others patriotism.
Though the anti-imperialists might appear to be saints, there was a dark element in the movement. Many dissenters’ opposition to annexation of foreign lands came not from a moral code but from fear of the racial amalgamation that might result. Some of these men were anti-imperialist senators from the South. One, Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina, summarized this viewpoint, concluding, “You are undertaking to annex and make a component part of this Government islands inhabited by tens of millions of the colored race … barbarians of the lowest type.” Furthermore, he stated, “It is to the injection of the body politic of the United States of that vitiated blood, that debased and ignorant people, that we object.” This was far from the language of liberty, but remained embarrassingly common in the movement.
This offensive component aside, eventually, and remarkably, genuine anti-imperialist sentiments made it into the official platform of the Democrats, one of the two mainstream political parties. Imagine a major party platform, even today, declaring: “We oppose militarism. It means conquest abroad and intimidation and oppression at home. It means the strong arm which has been ever fatal to free institutions.” It was a noble platform, indeed. But, ultimately, these sentiments and this party lost. Theodore Roosevelt, the national cheerleader of imperialism, easily retained the presidency in the election of 1904 (he had risen from vice president to the presidency when McKinley was assassinated in 1901). In a sense, this marked the death knell of an era of anti-imperialism. There had been, in the election, a referendum on the nature of the national soul, and, sadly, the American people chose war, conquest and annexation.
This era remains with us; it is alive in our debates and politics. Consider this: Even now, citizens of Puerto Rico, Guam and Samoa have no representation in Congress or a vote in presidential elections. The status of these territories and their populations is peculiar for a nation that so strongly professes democracy. The situation is a direct result of decisions made in 1898-1904. In 1901, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, ruled in Downes v. Bidwell that “the Constitution does not apply” to the territories because the islands were “inhabited by alien races.” This verdict, one among what are called the “insular cases,” remains essentially intact to this day.
Another legacy of the era was the rapid expansion of executive, presidential power. McKinley became the first president to, according to historian Stephen Kinzer, “send a large force to a country with which the United States was not at war,” when, in 1900, he dispatched 5,000 troops from the Philippines to help suppress the nationalist Boxer Rebellion in China. One could plausibly argue that this was the birth of what is still known as “presidential war power.” It is because of this precedent that American soldiers fight one undeclared war after another across the Middle East. Between 1898 and 1904, the American people—living in a somewhat democratic country (for white men, at least)—made a series of choices about what, exactly, the United States was to be. Mark Twain begged the populace to choose liberty; Roosevelt urged expansion and power. The citizenry made its fateful choice, for better or worse.
We live still in the shadow of 1898. The choice between republic and empire still lies before us.
To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:
  • Stephen Kinzer, “The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire” (2017).
  • Jackson Lears, “Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920” (2009).
  • Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States” (2018).
Major Danny Sjursen, an regular, is a US Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris ‘Henri’ Henrikson.



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