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Edge of Terror, The
The Philippine Islands, 1898-1935
Until the end of the nineteenth century few Americans had heard of the Philippine islands. Those who had would be hard-pressed to locate the archipelago on a map, much less know how to spell it. Caught up in their own affairs, sheltered by an isolationist mind-set, and still recovering thirty-three years later from the trauma of the American Civil War, most Americans did not pay attention to affairs "on the other side of the world."
That distance would disappear at midnight on February 15, 1898, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana's harbor, killing 266 American sailors. The venerable old battleship had been sent to Cuba to monitor the partisan revolution against Spain and to protect American interests. It was immediately assumedthough never proventhat the Spanish had blown up the Maine. On April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. Two days later, the U.S. Asiatic Squadron of five cruisers and two gunboats steamed from Hong Kong for Manila, under the command of Commodore George Dewey. The Philippines, a Spanishcolony since 1565, provided anchorage in Manila Bay for Spain's Pacific fleet. It was Admiral Dewey's mission to prevent this fleet from sailing to reinforce Spanish military forces in Cuba.
Cloaked in darkness, Dewey's squadron crept into Manila Bay on April 30 at three o'clock in the morning, slipped past the harbor defenses on Corregidor Island, and opened fire on the slumbering Spanish fleet. Nine hours later the Spaniards raised a white flag of surrender. Only one of the twelve Spanish vessels engaged in battle was still afloat.
Upon receiving the news of this stunning American victory, an elated President William McKinley asked for a map in order to locate the Philippines. Later, he admitted to a confidant that he "could not have told where those darned islands were within two thousand miles." But now the Philippine islands were front-page news. Nearly four hundred years after Magellan had claimed the Philippines for Spain, a maturing American giant had blundered into this same Pacific archipelago and was feeling an adolescent surge of imperialism.1
The Spanish-American War was short-lived. Six months after Dewey's victory commissioners from the United States and Spain met in Paris on October 1, 1898, to discuss the cessation of hostilities. On December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed. The Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Guam were placed under American control, the United States paid Spain $20 million for possession of the Philippines, and Cuba was soon granted independence. Earlier that same year the United States had annexed Hawaii, making the islands a territory in 1900. The result of the year's sudden gains in territory was the rise of the United States as a Pacific and Asiatic power and a major new player in international affairs.
Yet, what would the United States now do with the Philippines? What would be the advantage of obtaining this new protectorateand incurring heavy and costly responsibility? Why not grant the Filipinos their independence in the same liberating spirit as Cuba? The American answer was both muddled and multifaceted.
The United States was keenly aware of the competition among multiple nations vying for influence and profit in Asia. Soon after Dewey defeated the Spanish Pacific fleet, Japanese, German, French, and British warships appeared along the coast-line of the Philippines and entered the harbor of Manila. American strategists assumed that without a strong American presence for protection, the Philippines islands would soon become the domain of Japan or another European power.2
There was also a rising thirst for expansion within the United States. This tone was set by both the media and key political figures, such as Theodore Roosevelt. This new American imperialism was not projected as a naked grab for power or profit. Rather, it was often cloaked in more benign and compassionate terms as "manifest destiny" and a desire to help the oppressed. According to such thinking, America, if she were to be a great and benevolent power, must seize her God-given destiny of world-wide influence and become a Christian and humanitarian presence in needy and struggling parts of the world.3
Finally, the United States had clear economic and strategic interests in assuming the role of "protector" of the Philippines. For decades America had seen increased business ventures and profits in Asia, particularly in China. In order to secure future commerce, and to build a foundation for an American economic presence in Asia, the United States needed a base of operations for both business and military installations. The Philippines was a ripe choice. Manila harbor would provide one of the best naval bases and commercial shipping ports in the world. The location of the Philippines would position an American presence directly astride the major ocean trade routes of Asia. And theislands were rich in minerals, timber, iron ore, and gold. The Philippines was an economic plum to be picked.
There was one major problem, however. At the same time that Cubans had been fighting for their independence from Spain, revolutionary embers were igniting in the Philippines. The breath that most fanned the fire came from a young man named José Rizal. Rizal was an unlikely figure to spark a revolution. Born in 1861 into a well-educated and distinguished farming family from Laguna province, south of Manila, Rizal was quickly recognized as a brilliant and precocious child. Far from exuding military bearing or a revolutionary disposition, Rizal was a refined intellectual with creative and artistic sensitivities. As a teenager he decided to become a doctor and entered the University of Santo Tomas, the most elite Roman Catholic university in the Philippines. Soon, however, Rizal perceived that Filipino students were being discriminated against by their Dominican professors and tutors. Disgusted, he then applied to attend medical school in Madrid, Spain, and left the Philippines as a twenty-year-old to discover Europe.
In 1884, at the age of twenty-three, Rizal received his licentiate in medicine with a specialization in ophthalmology. He then continued his education at the University of Paris and the University of Heidelberg, where he earned a graduate degree in philosophy and letters. While in Europe he wrote and published two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, which developed themes of Spanish oppression and despotism in the Philippines. Rizal particularly criticized Spanish priests, and he implicated the Catholic Church in the persecution of the Filipino people. He continued to tour Europe, Asia, and the United States after his graduation and returned to the Philippines on June 26, 1892, one of the most talented, educated, and charismatic young men of his emerging generation.
Within hours of returning to Manila, Rizal learned that he was under surveillance by Spanish authorities because of his critical books. He had in effect become an enemy of the state. One week after stepping on Philippine soil, he formed a civic movement, La Liga Filipina, which sought to make social reforms through legislative efforts and legal stratagems. However, the constituency of La Liga Filipina soon split into two camps: those who supported Rizal's desire for change through peaceful means and those who advocated open and armed rebellion against Spain.
On July 6, 1892, Rizal was arrested by Spanish authorities and banished from the major island of Luzon to the more remote southern island of Mindanao, where he resided under virtual house arrest in the community of Dapitan in Zamboanga province. On the day that Rizal was exiled, the more radical branch of La Liga Filipinaunder the primary leadership of twenty-eight-year-old Andrés Bonifacioformed a secret revolutionary organization in Manila and named it Katipunan, translated variously as "the Society" or "the Gathered." Without his knowledge or permission, José Rizal was initially named the honorary president, an action for which Rizal would later pay with his life.
Over the next four years, the Katipunan worked covertly, quietly expanding their organization, gathering weapons, training revolutionaries, and preparing for armed revolt. In May 1896, Andrés Bonifacio secretly sent Katipunan representatives to Mindanao to seek José Rizal's formal support for armed revolution. Rizal, opposed to violence, rejected their appeal, stating that armed rebellion was premature.
Disappointed at Rizal's decision, Katipunan leaders decided to concentrate their forces and attack Manila on August 29, 1896. However, Spanish intelligence discovered their plot, and a series of preemptive skirmishes broke out that weakened the strength of the Katipunan, disrupted their organization, and robbed themof the element of surprise. As the Katipunan offensive waned, the Spanish government achieved critical time to reinforce their army and regain stability. Katipunan forces had no choice but to retreat to mountainous enclaves throughout Luzon and engage in guerrilla warfare.
As the Spanish army licked their wounds and fought to keep Katipunan forces at bay, the Spanish increasingly focused blame for the Katipunan revolt on the exiled José Rizal. He was arrested, tried, and convicted of rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy. On December 30, 1896, Rizal was executed in Manila by firing squad. The young and gentle doctor became an instant national hero, and his death only intensified the resolve of Filipinos to gain independence.
In the midst of the Katipunan revolt, a serious schism erupted among the Katipunan leadership. The bickering parties met in Cavite province, twenty miles southwest of Manila, to mend fences and try to form a more viable revolutionary government. Andrés Bonifacio was challenged for leadership by twenty-eight-year-old Emilio Aguinaldo, an ambitious young man with strong political connections in Cavite province. Bonifacio lost the vote for president, and the cordial relationship between the two men quickly disappeared. Exploding in anger, Bonifacio pulled a pistol, threatened the gathered leadership, and declared that the new election was void. Summoning his newly appointed powers, Aguinaldo soon ordered Bonifacio arrested. Under conditions that still remain murky, Bonifacio was then murdered on May 10, 1897, while being led to a place of exile by Aguinaldo's soldiers. Bonifacio's death effectively ended the existence of the Katipunan, and a new revolutionary government was created under Aguinaldo's leadership.
Emilio Aguinaldo, a Chinese-Filipino mestizo, was now faced with stabilizing the Filipino revolutionary movement while defending his forces from an aroused Spanish military presence. At best, the situation seemed to point toward a prolonged andbloody stalemate. On November 1, 1897, Aguinaldo did complete the writing of a Philippine revolutionary constitution and formed the Biak-na-Bato Republic. The constitution provided for a republican government, and was modeled on the Cuban constitution of Jimaguayu of 1895.
One month later, the Spanish government took the initiative to propose peace negotiations with the Biak-na-Bato Republic. Both sides had reasons to seek a truce and saw benefit in doing so. For the sake of a tenuous peace, the Spanish government agreed to pay the Biak-na-Bato Republic an immediate indemnity of four hundred thousand pesos and to allow Emilio Aguinaldo and thirty-four other key Filipino revolutionaries free and safe passage into exile in Hong Kong. On December 14, 1897, the Pact of Biak-na-Bato was signed and concluded. Aguinaldo departed to Hong Kong with four hundred thousand pesos in his suitcase, money that soon purchased arms for the smoldering revolution. The exiled Filipino leadership bided their time and waited for a better day.4
Aguinaldo's better day arrived four months later, when the United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. Following the defeat of the Spanish Pacific fleet by Commodore Dewey, Aguinaldo returned to the Philippines at the invitation of Dewey. Transported from Hong Kong on an American vessel, Aguinaldo arrived in Manila on May 19, 1898. Dewey hoped that Aguinaldo would now help American forces defeat the Spanish in the Philippines. Instead, Aguinaldo soon left American ranks and returned to his home in the town of Cavite el Viejo.5
There was reason for Aguinaldo to go his own way. A leading scholar on Philippine-American relations, Stanley Karnow, notes:
In the spring of 1898, [President] McKinley still lacked a plan for dealing with the Spanish in the Philippines; and he was paying even less attention to the Filipino insurgents.
The evidence suggests, indeed, that he was oblivious to their existence. The absence of guidance from Washington licensed Dewey, Merritt and other American officials to improvise. Their only preoccupation at that juncture was to defeat the Spanish. To achieve that goal, they sought the help of the Filipinos, indulging them with pledges that had no foundation in reality. The Filipinos naively believed the promises until they discovered, to their dismay, that they had been manipulated. Within less than a year, tensions were to spark a tragic war between the Americans and Filipinos that almost surely could have been averted had McKinley, at the outset, proceeded into the Philippines with a policy.6
Realizing that Dewey's promises and allegiance could not be trusted, Aguinaldo set as his primary objective the goal of keeping Philippine independence publicly visible and alive. More as symbol than fact, Aguinaldo commissioned the creation of a national anthem, a flag, and a declaration of independence. On June 12, 1898, Aguinaldo publicly read his declaration of independence from the balcony of his home before a small crowd of one hundred people. He then began the task of preparing his guerrilla forces for possible combat against the Americans. When the Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898, and Cuba was given independence but the Philippines was ceded to the United States, Filipino patriots were infuriated. Faced with the prospects of being ruled by yet another foreign country, the revolutionaries now turned their attention and anger toward the American occupation.
On January 1, 1899, following a constitutional convention, Aguinaldo was declared the president of the Philippine Republic. The United States refused to recognize his authority or government, and President McKinley instructed the American occupying army to use force, if necessary, to impose American sovereignty.Open hostility soon escalated into warfare. After three Filipino solders were killed by American forces in Manila, Aguinaldo and his newly formed government declared war on February 4, 1899.
Reacting swiftly and forcefully, a determined United States committed a cumulative total of 126,000 troops to crush the "Philippine insurrection." The fighting was savage, reflecting some of the worst events in the history of Western imperialism. There could be no dissimulation: America was openly fighting for territory. Her military methods often made the bloody Spanish look benevolent.
In describing how the Filipinos were treated by American troops, a Filipino historian, Professor Roland G. Simbulan, writes, "The most barbaric forms of torture and interrogation, such as 'water cure' as well as scorched earth military tactics and the brutal 'reconcentration' of civilians, were applied against the Filipino people. The most inhuman and brutal tactics experimented earlier against American Indian tribes in the American frontier were again applied and practiced by the U.S. military veterans of the Indian campaigns."7
General Jacob Hurd Smith, a lackluster Civil War veteran, gained perhaps the worst reputation for atrocities during his command of American troops on the island of Samar. Filipinos on Samar were well-known for their intense patriotic ardor and staunch resistance. Smith freely applied the rule of the noose or firing squad upon guerrillas, or insurrectos. He made public threats that he would reduce Samar "to a howling wilderness," and encouraged his troops to "kill everyone over the age of ten."
On September 28, 1901, Filipinos in the Samar village of Balangiga revolted against the oppression of some of General Smith's troops. Balangiga was garrisoned and patrolled by seventy-four American soldiers of Company C, Ninth U.S. Infantry, under the command of Captain Thomas W. Connell. Connell was an arrogant and foolish officer who flagrantly antagonized the citizensof Balangiga. In a display of his unbridled authority, he forced nearly one hundred men into forced labor to "clean up" the town, refusing to pay or reward them for their work. He quartered the laborers under guard in two small tents designed to hold sixteen men each and made them live in squalid conditions. While these men worked against their will, Connell's soldiers preyed on the citizens of Balangiga, stealing from them, beating them, and even raping at least one woman. The villagers finally were pushed beyond their endurance and united with guerrillas, who then secretly infiltrated Balangiga. Early on a sleepy Sunday morning they attacked the American garrison as the soldiers gathered in their mess tent for breakfast. Concealed in nearby dense jungle as well as in an adjacent church building, dozens of Filipinos wielding long knives, or bolos, charged the tent, hacking and stabbing forty-eight officers and men to death.
The American army on Samar immediately retaliated. General Smith's superior, Major General Adna R. Chaffee, ordered Smith to seek vengeance for the Balangiga massacre, telling Smith in a letter that he must "give [your troops] a fair opportunity to kill off the bands of utter savages who have hibernated in the brush in that vicinity." Smith needed no further encouragement. American military records state that between October 10 and December 31, 1901, Smith's troops killed or captured 759 insurrectos, slaughtered 587 carabao (water buffalo), and razed acres of rice, 1,662 houses, and 226 boats.8 Such examples of American brutality and destruction were not rare. It was a savage war.
By the end of 1901, the American army had worn down and splintered the guerrilla resistance, intimidated the civilian population, and captured Emilio Aguinaldo, hiding in the high mountains of northern Luzon in Palanan, Isabela. Aguinaldo accepted an offer: He would not be executed if he swore allegiance to the United States. With Aguinaldo's capitulation, armed rebellion in the Philippines gradually dwindled, and the Philippine insurrectionwas declared officially over on July 4, 1902. The cost was high. The butcher bill was forty-two hundred American soldiers and sixteen thousand Filipino guerrillas killed. A minimum of two hundred thousand Filipino citizens, perhaps many more, died from combat conditions, internment camps, disease, and starvation.9
With the war over, America was now faced with the responsibility of deciding what its role would be in the future of the Philippines. After allowing the military free rein in carrying out a ruthless war for civil control, President McKinley now moved in a more democratic spirit to quickly replace military governance with civilian rule. With the passage of the Philippine Organic Act in July 1902, two important political principles were established. First, that a Philippine government be instituted, modeled on the American republican form of government. Second, that the protections of the American Bill of Rights would be extended to all Filipino citizens.
William Howard Taft, then a federal court judge in Cincinnati, was appointed by the McKinley administration to be the first American governor-general of the Philippines, from 1901 to 1903. Taft was a large manindeed, a huge manwho was also wise, warm, good-natured and yet firm. He was an excellent selection and proved popular with both Americans and Filipinos.
Taft's primary job was to establish the civilian government in the Philippines. He also worked to improve health care, education, and infrastructure to aid the Filipino people. He negotiated with Pope Leo XIII to purchase vast lands owned by the Catholic Church in the Philippines, so that they might be sold at affordable prices to Filipino farmers and civilians. Later, upon his departure from the Philippines, Taft would serve as the secretary of war in the Roosevelt administration (1904-8), be elected president of the United States (1909-13), and serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court (1921-30). Taft's intimatelove and understanding of the Philippines greatly strengthened trust and relationships between the two countries as Taft rose to the pinnacle of power in the United States and internationally.
In 1907 a Filipino assembly was elected, and the first Filipino president, Manuel Quezon, was inaugurated. Over the years an increasingly large measure of self-rule was given to the Filipino government. On March 24, 1934, the U.S. Tydings-McDuffie Act established the Philippine Commonwealth under the protection of the United States. It was agreed that this commonwealth would be granted independence eventually. The date set for independence was July 4, 1946. At the time, few could have anticipated the approaching horrors of World War II that would come before that date.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of American and Filipino relations, In Our Image, Stanley Karnow writes:
[American] policy was enlightened compared to the repressive practices of the European powers in their colonies at the time. But the effort of the United States to transplant its values and institutions in the Philippines eventually became what the historian Glenn Anthony May has termed an "experiment in self-duplication," spurred by a belief still ingrained in Americans; that they can remold other lands in their own image. A noble dream, it proved in later years to be largely an exercise in self-deception.10 (Emphasis added.)
Karnow is correct in his assessment that the United States was basically well-intentioned in attempting to bring the Philippinesover a period of timeto independence and self-government based on a democratic system. The bestowal of theliberties found in the U.S. Bill of Rights was, indeed, a gift unique among imperial powers. And within a few short months, an emerging generation of young and bright-eyed Americans would symbolize this benevolent spirit by flooding into the Philippines to be teachers, instructors, and public servants in the remotest partsthe Peace Corps of an earlier era. But within it all was an imperial spirit that also said "We want to make you just like us and create you in our image. We want you to be as good, and healthy and hopeful as America."
Perhaps there is a beautiful, admirable, and authentic American generosity found in this response. But there is also an inherent and naïve arrogance that says "We know the truth. We've got it right. Join our family of democratic nations and all will be well." This tapestry of American imperialism wasand iswoven and colored by both of these threads of thought, inseparable and intertwined. Such American international relations are sparked by a parental passion to experiment in self-duplication.
In reality, America would discoverand today is still in the painful process of discoveringthat each country to which we relate is culturally unique and must find its own indigenous answers and forms of government. But to find its own way, it must have the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail; the freedom to relate to America and the freedom to drift apart. And that when an alien country such as the United States takes up residence for an extended time within the borders of a host countryno matter how good American intentions might beit is not long before the United States becomes the enemy.
Into this ferment of Philippine and American relations came many types of Americans. Some would be soldiers and sailors, the "peacekeepers" of the world. Some would be teachers and doctors and humanitarians. Some would be missionaries with a zeal to save souls and bring the virtues of the kingdom of God to earth. And some would be industrialists and gold minerseager to develop a burgeoning industry that would enrich the young Philippine economy and provide personal wealth and profit. And, in due time, some would be Japanese soldiers, intent on creating a new Asia for Asians, and in so doing making the Philippines a vassal subject to a sprawling Japanese empire.
THE EDGE OF TERROR. Copyright © 2009 by Scott Walker. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.