Monday, August 14, 2006

How The Philippine-U.S. War BeganDaniel Schirmer

On May 1, 1898, Admiral Dewey sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, in a war the Republican Administration of William McKinley was waging against the decrepit Spanish Empire. To secure public support, McKinley had declared that the war was fought to free Cuba from Spanish rule. But, in December of that year, Washington signed a treaty with its defeated rival that revealed a reason for the war that was of more substantial derivation. The treaty gave the United States three of Spain's colonies: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. It gave a fourth, Cuba, nominal independence, since previous political necessities offered Washington little choice.

From the treaty's terms, it appears the corporate elite that dominated the McKinley Administration fought the war to grab what they could of Spain's colonies. They did this, their political representatives declared, to secure new foreign markets for a U.S. economy that had been mired in depression since 1893. The Philippines presented a special advantage, since its strategic location made it seem a natural stepping stone to the vast markets of China.

Meanwhile, however, a powerful opposition to the treaty had mushroomed in the United States, led by an organization called the Anti-Imperialist League. Initiated in Boston in November 1898, the movement had spread rapidly nationwide. Its founders were, for the most part, lawyers, teachers, clergy, business leaders - white, male, and middle class. Anti-imperialist sentiment, the nation's oldest political tradition, influenced them, as it did many others who came to the movement. But the Bostonians were especially motivated by their former opposition to slavery, during the Civil War and the years before. They regarded the colonization of the Philippines as the enslavement of another colored people on the other side of the globe. Given its open identification with corporate interests, Washington's foreign policy drew opposition from the urban middle class, and from organized workers and farmers, all aggrieved by the new dominance of corporate capital in the 1890s. There were also those who opposed the treaty because of racial prejudice: they didn't want the United States to have a colored colonial appendage. The pressures engendered by these many opponents of the treaty, and perhaps by partisan interest as well, caused the Democratic Party to oppose the treaty strongly.

Supporters of the treaty had yet another obstacle to reckon with: armed Philippine nationalists, called "insurgents" by Washington (following the usage of imperial Spain). They had risen against Spain in the late 1890s. By the summer of 1898, they had established a Philippine government, republican in form. They had also all but defeated the Spanish military on the main island of Luzon, having driven it into Manila, the Philippines' capital city. At first, the United States had appeared to support the Philippine nationalists, seeming to welcome their fight against the Spanish rival. But early in August 1898, with Dewey reinforced by twelve thousand troops and Spain's complete defeat imminent, this policy came to an end. Then, behind the backs of the nationalists, the U.S. command negotiated with Spanish military officials in Manila, accepted their surrender, and occupied Manila. Denied entry to that city by the U.S. command, the Philippine forces maintained the line of positions surrounding it that they had held against the Spanish.

This, then, was the situation the McKinley Administration faced after the signing of the treaty in December. In the Philippines, the nationalists (whom Washington regarded as potential opponents of the treaty and its implementation) surrounded U.S. troops occupying Manila. Meanwhile, in the United States, the treaty's domestic opponents were active in a vigorous campaign that was having its effect on the Senate. In January 1899, the treaty's supporters in that body were not at all certain they had enough votes to pass it. Treaty ratification had become a pressing problem for McKinley. Taking action to solve it, he started the war in the Philippines. He opened a conflict with the Philippine opponents of the treaty to close one with its domestic opponents.

The U.S. military's relations with the Philippine nationalists sharpened after August. To forestall domestic opposition to his Philippine policy, however, McKinley instructed U.S. forces to avoid open hostilities. In the very first days of January 1899, during the treaty debate, a cabinet member explained the thinking behind this non-belligerent posture to Robert L. O'Brien, a Boston journalist close to the McKinley Administration. He told O'Brien that conflict with the Filipinos "by bringing to the attention of the nation at large the future which we are opening for ourselves in the Far East by taking possession of the Philippines.... may start a popular agitation against the treaty which will prove too strong for the Senate to withstand."

But, on January 19, after securing Senate agreement to an early treaty vote (soon set for February 6), the President cancelled this policy. On January 24, the War Department announced that General Otis (in charge of U.S. forces in the Philippines) could now conduct hostilities with the nationalists. Then Boston's O'Brien suggested the advantage this change could bring the Administration. He reminded his readers how the firing on Fort Sumter had united those who supported the Union cause at the beginning of the Civil War.

In line with his new orders, Otis requested that Admiral Dewey place his ships so as to give U.S. troops supportive fire, and Dewey obliged. On February 2, a U.S. officer said later, regimental commanders gave secret orders to their officers and men to bring about a conflict if possible. On the same day, Nebraskan troops, still trader orders to withhold fire, went into the territory beyond Manila's city limits, on which the Filipinos held their lines and regarded as their own. After a harsh dispute, Philippine troops withdrew under orders from their high command.

On February 4, General Otis took the decisive step. He ordered the Nebraskans to open fire on further nationalist "intruders." That evening, Private Willie Grayson and a friend, of the 54th Nebraska Regiment, were ordered to patrol even farther into the territory held by the nationalists. In language reflecting the racist attitude then found in U.S. forces from top to bottom, Private Grayson told what happened:

About eight o'clock something rose slowly up not twenty feet in front of me. It was a Filipino. I yelled "Halt!"... he immediately shouted "Halto" at me. Well, I thought the best thing to do was to shoot him. He dropped ... Then two Filipinos sprang out of a gateway about fifteen feet from us. I called "Halt," and Miller fired and got one. I saw that another was left. Well, I think I got my second Filipino that time. We retreated to where our six other fellows were, and I said, "Line up, fellows, the niggers are in here all through these yards."

Then, as nationalists in the immediate area returned fire, every unit on the U.S. front line, all connected with their command by wireless telegraphy (the latest instant communication technology), went on the attack.

So it began. McKinley had waited to start hostilities until it was too late for them to bring into play popular opposition that might have defeated the treaty, but just in time to create the spasm of chauvinism that would ensure its ratification.

Shortly before midnight on February 4, the President received the news, reporters were told, "that the insurgents had attacked Manila." The press immediately circulated this lie, embellished with jingoistic flourishes about "the firing on the flag," and the McKinley Administration never deviated from it. The next day, McKinley told a friend he believed "the Manila engagement would ... ensure ratification of the treaty tomorrow."

On February 6, the U.S. Senate passed the treaty by a margin of one vote. Erring Winslow, Secretary of the Anti-Imperialist League, later wrote that two Senators (Jones of Nevada and McLaurin of South Carolina) declared their votes were won for the treaty by the fighting on February 4.

It was whispered in Washington that the clash at Manila had been timed for the treaty vote. On February 7, "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman of South Carolina - agrarian rebel, white supremacist, and opponent of the treaty - put this charge on record. He rose on the Senate floor to say, "Time alone will tell whether this battle was provoked by the Filipinos for purposes of their own, or by the Americans ... to sway men in this Senate to ratify the treaty and change the status."

On board ship on his way home, Willie Grayson evidently felt he had been used, saying the "damned bull-headedness" of the officers in invading "insurgent" territory was responsible for the firing of his shot. He had indeed been used, and by forces greater than perhaps he understood. With the Philippine war, U.S. industrial and financial leaders had used the McKinley Administration and the armed forces at its disposal to set the United States firmly on a path of corporate imperialism, followed now for one hundred years. This has brought its people, as the early anti-imperialists warned, endless wars of intervention in what is today called the third world, and an ever-increasing burden of armaments.

Presently, the Pentagon is trying to re-establish a U.S. military presence in the Philippines by means of a measure called the Visiting Forces Agreement. This effort inevitably calls to mind what the U.S. military brought the Philippines one hundred years ago: the death and destruction of a brutal war and the ruthless suppression of national sovereignty at the first moment of its self-realization. But during these terrible years, the stubborn resistance of the early patriots to foreign domination forged a spiritual and moral heritage for the Philippine people that is indelible and ever-effective in recreating the national identity.

Daniel B. Schirmer is the author of Republic or Empire: American Resistance to the Philippine War and, with Stephen R. Shalom, co-editor of The Philippines Reader. This article is based on a piece that appeared under a different title in the Manila Times and the Philippine Daily Inquirer in the first week of February 1999.

No comments :