Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Déjà vu All Over Again

(Extracts from "Colossus: The Price of America's Empire” by Niall Ferguson)

“What happened in the Philippines has unfortunately proved to be far more typical of overseas American experience than what happened in Hawaii and Puerto Rico (the former became a state in 1959; the latter remains in limbo between a state and an overseas possession – ed). To be precise seven characteristic phases of American engagement can be discerned:

1. Impressive initial military success.
2. A flawed assessment of indigineous sentiment.
3. A strategy of limited war and gradual escalation of forces.
4. Domestic disillusionment in the face of protracted and nasty conflict.
5. Premature democratization
6. The ascendancy of domestic economic considerations
7. Ultimate withdrawal.

(compare with the 20-point list in the article “Joyce, Iraq, Michael Collins, and a few other thoughts” in the June Archive of this Blog –ed)

“The speed of the American victory over Spain in 1898 was certainly striking. Within just three months of the American declaration of war – the trumped-up pretext for which was the accidental explosion of the battleship “Maine” in Havana Bay, supposedly the fault of Spain – the Spanish forces in both the Caribbean and the Philippines were defeated. However the Americans refused to recognize that the Filipinos who had sided with them against Spain had been fighting for their independence, not for a change of colonial master ….”

“The rebellion against American annexation, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, began soon after the publication of the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which ceded the Philippines to the United States … In the space of three years the number of troops committed to the Philippines rose from just 12,000 to 126,000. Although Aguinaldo was captured in March 1901, and the war declared officially over in July 1902, resistance continued on some islands for years afterward. It was not a pleasant war; nor was it to be the American military’s last taste of jungle warfare against guerrillas indistinguishable from civilians. Senior officers swiftly resorted to harsh measures: Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith ordered his men on the island of Samar to take no prisoners – a breach of the laws of war – adding: ‘I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and the more you burn the better you will please me … I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms.’ By the time the fighting was over, more than 4000 American servicemen had lost their lives, over 1000 more than had been killed in the war against Spain. Approximately four times as many Filipinos were killed in action, to say nothing of civilians who died because of war-related hunger and disease. Meanwhile, William Howard Taft, a judge from Ohio, was put in charge of a five-man civilian commission that sought to win Filipinos over by building schools and improving sanitation, proving, as one of the commissioners ingenuously put it, that ‘American sovereignty was … another name for the liberty of the Filipinos.’ The war alone had cost six hundred million dollars (12 billion dollars at current prices –ed). How much would postwar reconstruction add to the bill?

“It was not, however, its cost that aroused the initial domestic opposition to the war in the Philippines so much as the principle of the thing… Mark Twain’s attitudes anticipate those of future generations of American antiwar intellectuals. He had begun by welcoming the ‘liberation’ of the Philippines from Spain, writing to a friend in June 1898: ‘It is a worthy thing to fight for one’s freedom. It is another sight finer to fight for another man’s. And I think this is the first time it has been done.' But by October 1900 he had ‘read carefully’ the Treaty of Paris and concluded ‘that we do not intend to free but to subjugate the people of the Philippines ... And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons in any other land.’ Twain’s voice was muffled. Harper’s Bazaar rejected his short story “The War Prayer,” in which an aged stranger utters the following prayer before a congregation:

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriotic dead; … help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children wandering and unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land."

“Privately, but not publicly, Twain described (President) McKinley as the man who had sent U.S. troops to ‘fight with a disgraced musket under a polluted flag’ and suggested that the flag in question should have ‘ the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones.’ His disapprobation carried weight. Opponents of a war do not need to command majority support to undermine a war effort….

Theodore Roosevelt had once likened the Filipinos to the Apaches and Aguinaldo to Sitting Bull. Thrust into the presidency by McKinley’s assassination, he nevertheless hastened to create at least a semblance of democracy in the Philippines, privately admitting that he would ‘only be too glad to withdraw’ from what seemed to be America’s Boer War’ … the so-called Jones Act (1916) confirmed that the islands would be granted independence ‘as soon as a stable government can be established’ … (but) so harsh were the provisions of the original American independence offer of 1933 that the islands’ legislature refused to accept it …There was much less for Filipinos to celebrate when independence finally came in 1946 than is generally appreciated.”

-- “Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire”, The Penguin Press, New York (2004): pp 48-52