Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State


At the dawn of the twentieth century, the U.S. Army swiftly occupied Manila and then plunged into a decade-long pacification campaign with striking parallels to today’s war in Iraq. Armed with cutting-edge technology from America’s first information revolution, the U.S. colonial regime created the most modern police and intelligence units anywhere under the American flag. In Policing America’s Empire Alfred W. McCoy shows how this imperial panopticon slowly crushed the Filipino revolutionary movement with a ...

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Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State

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At the dawn of the twentieth century, the U.S. Army swiftly occupied Manila and then plunged into a decade-long pacification campaign with striking parallels to today’s war in Iraq. Armed with cutting-edge technology from America’s first information revolution, the U.S. colonial regime created the most modern police and intelligence units anywhere under the American flag. In Policing America’s Empire Alfred W. McCoy shows how this imperial panopticon slowly crushed the Filipino revolutionary movement with a lethal mix of firepower, surveillance, and incriminating information. Even after Washington freed its colony and won global power in 1945, it would intervene in the Philippines periodically for the next half-century—using the country as a laboratory for counterinsurgency and rearming local security forces for repression. In trying to create a democracy in the Philippines, the United States unleashed profoundly undemocratic forces that persist to the present day.
    But security techniques bred in the tropical hothouse of colonial rule were not contained, McCoy shows, at this remote periphery of American power. Migrating homeward through both personnel and policies, these innovations helped shape a new federal security apparatus during World War I. Once established under the pressures of wartime mobilization, this distinctively American system of public-private surveillance persisted in various forms for the next fifty years, as an omnipresent, sub rosa matrix that honeycombed U.S. society with active informers, secretive civilian organizations, and government counterintelligence agencies. In each succeeding global crisis, this covert nexus expanded its domestic operations, producing new contraventions of civil liberties—from the harassment of labor activists and ethnic communities during World War I, to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, all the way to the secret blacklisting of suspected communists during the Cold War.

“With a breathtaking sweep of archival research, McCoy shows how repressive techniques developed in the colonial Philippines migrated back to the United States for use against people of color, aliens, and really any heterodox challenge to American power. This book proves Mark Twain’s adage that you cannot have an empire abroad and a republic at home.”—Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago

 “This book lays the Philippine body politic on the examination table to reveal the disease that lies within—crime, clandestine policing, and political scandal. But McCoy also draws the line from Manila to Baghdad, arguing that the seeds of controversial counterinsurgency tactics used in Iraq were sown in the anti-guerrilla operations in the Philippines. His arguments are forceful.”—Sheila S. Coronel, Columbia University
“Conclusively, McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire is an impressive historical piece of research that appeals not only to Southeast Asianists but also to those interested in examining the historical embedding and institutional ontogenesis of post-colonial states’ police power apparatuses and their apparently inherent propensity to implement illiberal practices of surveillance and repression.”—Salvador Santino F. Regilme, Jr., Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs
“McCoy’s remarkable book . . . does justice both to its author’s deep knowledge of Philippine history as well as to his rare expertise in unmasking the seamy undersides of state power.”—POLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review
Winner, George McT. Kahin Prize, Southeast Asian Council of the Association for Asian Studies

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This remarkable study provides a meticulous analysis of the novel colonial system developed by the U.S. in the Philippines after the murderous conquest, with startling implications for the shape of the modern world. As McCoy demonstrates, the U.S. occupation developed a major innovation in imperial practice, relying on the ‘information revolution’ of the day to establish intense surveillance and control of the occupied population, along with violence when needed and privileges to obedient elites. This ‘protracted social experiment in the use of police as an instrument of state power’ left a devastating legacy for the Philippines, while also contributing substantially to the modes of suppression of independence and social change elsewhere, and returning home to lay the foundations for a national security and surveillance state.”—Noam Chomsky, MIT

“A stunning, exemplary, and hair-raising fusion of colonial and metropolitan histories. McCoy shows how the Philippines served as a laboratory subject for experiments in policing, intelligence, surveillance, and ‘black-operations’ that were then repatriated to shape the American domestic surveillance state from World War I forward. This is history at its most powerful and most subversive of imperial self-hypnosis. The term magnum opus applies both to its ambition and its comprehensiveness.”—James C. Scott, Yale University  

“In this stunning book, McCoy reveals how empire shapes the intertwined destinies of all involved in its creation. Written with deft strokes, this is an instant classic of historical writing.”—Lloyd Gardner, Rutgers University

“Alfred McCoy has written the most thorough account of America relations with the Philippines that the reader is likely to come across.  It’s a history with meticulous detail, the product of an academic career that’s concentrated on the torturous story of the connections between the US and Southeast Asia.”—Peace Researcher

“[S]hows how the dark underworld of crime, subversion, vice and drugs in the Philippines has been linked to the bright, public world of politics. The link? The police and security forces, particularly their shadowy side: spies, undercover agents, specialists in covert operations, assassins. The currency passed up and down the system? Information, particularly incriminating information, scandal, graft, murder.”—John J. Carroll, Philippine Daily Inquirer

“McCoy’s monograph will be the starting point for any future historical study of control and dissent in the Philippines. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”—Choice

“An eye-opener of a book, this should be must reading for concerned Filipinos, not only to be able to understand their own police forces—and criminal world, as well as their politicians—better, but also to see deeper into the United States design and policies.”— Ricardo Trota Jose, Philippine Studies

“Provocative. . . . raise(s) important issues regarding the impact of empire, as home as well as abroad, a dialectic of ill effects wrought by an imperial system bottom lined by domination and coercion, force and violence.”—Allen Ruff, Against the Current

Library Journal
McCoy (history, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison; The Politics of Heroin) covers the history of policing in the Philippines from 1898 to the present. William Howard Taft, the first American governor of the newly acquired colony, established the Philippine Constabulary to bring order to the territory. Using the latest information technology (telephone, telegraph, punched cards, and fingerprint identification), the constabulary established a network of informants to undermine dissent and to monitor individuals—a pattern persisting for more than a century, showing Philippine history as a continual sorry tale of repressed dissent and widespread corruption. McCoy's contribution is his assertion that certain military officers returning to the United States after working in this system established the same type of surveillance network here to monitor suspected subversive agents during World War I and later against trade union activists and suspected Communists during the Cold War. Recent conflicts between civil liberties and national security, says McCoy, are a continuation of the same pattern. VERDICT Readers with a strong interest in civil liberties and current domestic politics will be drawn to this new view, but the book's length and level of detail will likely limit interest from general readers.—Marcia L. Sprules, Council on Foreign Relations Lib., NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780299234140
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2009
  • Series: New Perspectives in Se Asian Studies Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 672
  • Sales rank: 1,437,500
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Alfred W. McCoy is J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include The Politics of Heroin and A Question of Torture.

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Table of Contents


Prologue: Analogies of Empire   
1 Capillaries of Empire   

Part One: U.S. Colonial Police   
2 Colonial Coercion   
3 Surveillance and Scandal   
4 Paramilitary Pacification   
5 Constabulary Covert Operations   
6 Policing the Tribal Zone   
7 American Police in Manila   
8 The Conley Case   
9 President Wilson's Surveillance State   

Part Two: Philippine National Police   
10 President Quezon's Commonwealth   
11 Philippine Republic   
12 Martial Law Terror   
13 Post-Marcos Police   
14 The Ramos Police Reforms   
15 Estrada's Racketeering   
16 Jueteng Dynasty   
17 Crucibles of Counterinsurgency   


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