The American Invasion of the Philippines and the precedents it set by Dana Williams


The United States did not wake up one morning and decide to be an imperial power, nor did it suddenly decide one day to start exerting control over other states through military force. Even if it did, it didn't start with the Spanish-American War; the United States was intervening in foreign lands since the middle of the 19th Century, on behalf of business interests.1 What the Spanish-American War did cause was the first definitive step into the small imperial circle only represented by a handful of European states and Japan. In the war with Spain, no better conflict better displays these imperial ambitions, the pertinent politics, and the lengths America had decided to go to in order to achieve its status as a world power, than the case of the Philippines.

Like many other Spanish holdings, the Philippines had an active independence movement at the turn of the century. Spain was no longer economically capable of retaining its far-flung empire, and although it did not relish the idea of giving it up, it could not feasibly hold on to it much longer. Since many of these colonial holdings were relatively close in proximity to the United States, the American leaders deemed it highly appropriate that they be the ones to step in and reap the benefits of Spain's loss. The independence movement in struggle within the Philippines, the Spaniards in retreat, and the outward-looking Americans were destined to converge on each other, and did so in a war that portrays American foreign policy's true intent and sets the precedent for the next 100 years.

The reasons for American expansion and imperialism were relatively clear and in the public domain, as they still are. The primary concern of the US has been, and continues to be, business. Being one of the few countries largely founded by corporations, the US retains its heritage and respective focus. When the US does not actively cater to the needs of specific businessmen, companies, and industries, it, at the very least, takes into account the necessity of the American business climate and recognizes how it can facilitate a larger business market.

Business itself relies on two different elements, input and output. The input is necessary to achieve the marketable product, the output. Expansion into other countries serves both of these elements: it secures the raw materials needed by many diverse industries and provides a market for those finished goods.

The political forces in the US, the US military, and the business community directly sponsored this suitable relationship. The businesses state their "concerns" to the politicians in Congress and the White House, who then order the military or some paramilitary group, such as today's CIA, to carry out those orders.

At the turn of the century, US politicians were weighing concerns other than purely business ones. They were also becoming players in the international empire scene. Since the US never really had colonies of its own that it took over from non-Europeans, it had to settle for taking over colonies from other colonial powers, a practice called neo-colonialism. The US was attempting to join the prestigious ranks of Great Britain, France, Portugal, the Dutch, Germany, Japan, and Spain. Spain, being in the decline, is the country that the US wisely singled out to replace. Thus, the US established itself as a world power and placed itself amongst the other world powers.

By listening only to William McKinley, one would believe that the US's intentions in the "matter of the Philippines" were motivated out of benign humanism: the US simply wanted to help them rule themselves, because they were, of course, not fit to do it themselves. His reasoning for why this was an American responsibility was simple: God had chosen the US to do it, to Christianize the country-- properly this time (since the Spanish had already introduced Catholicism, which was not true "Christianity").2

To most Americans, the Filipinos weren't even Catholic-- they were pagans. Thus, it was the duty of America to teach them proper religion, educate them accordingly, instruct them how to farm, build, and copulate correctly, etc. The policy makers in the US saw it as the responsibility of the US to assimilate a foreign people on their own land to Western ways, just as the previous colonial power, Spain had done.

In addition to the desires of these planners to control the foreign population of the Philippines, they also wanted to control the domestic population. Just as they "shouted[sic] that Filipinos and Negroes were not" fit to govern themselves, Americans were also considered unfit to govern themselves.3 In a precedence that later produced similar results in both World Wars, the Vietnam War (for a while, at least), and the Persian Gulf War, a conflict was incited in order to unite US citizens behind the US government, economy, and political system.

This era was a time of previously unheard of dissent and unrest, coming from both the agrarian (rural) and industrial (urban) sectors, in the form of Granges and Farmer Alliances, and labor unions. With the frequency of strikes and related violence increasing in the US, there seemed to be a growing demand for a social revolution (or some would call it a Socialist Revolution). Political leaders have been very astute in noticing that an international conflict (especially with a race that is dissimilar in appearance) will cause people to forget about their internal struggles and unite together to fight the external "enemy". Theodore Roosevelt knew this, as did George Bush.

The perception of the American people was manipulated by the press and politicians, who escalated the conflict in Cuba, and then consequently in the Philippines. The American people were given a number of reasons for why the US had to expand: the US had run out of frontier and needed more land; if the US didn't, others would expand in to it; it was America's "duty" to bring its version of civilization to the Filipinos; and that businesses simply needed the markets. As much as the common person despised big business, they also realized that a foreign market represented more work for them (and, ideally, more job security) and customers for their agricultural and industrial products. Americans would have to wait a number of decades before they could see the evolutionary result of this global corporatization, which has denied many Americans their jobs, without fundamentally changing the client-state relationship.

Due to this perception, some labor unions began supporting the American invasion of the Philippines, although nearly all socialists and anarchists decried it. In every case where a union publicly supported the war, the workers perceived a direct personal, fiscal benefit from it, such as in the case of the Typographical Union who saw the expanse of the printing industry from more English-speaking territories, would the Philippines be properly annexed and assimilated.

These policies and actions didn't, of course, conjure themselves out of thin air: they arose from the handiwork of a number of American men who were responsible for the design of the American empire that still exists today.

The noted historian and playwright, Gore Vidal lists what he calls the Four Horsemen-- the individuals who created the nexus for America's rise to Empire: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Brooks Adams, and Henry Cabot Lodge. These individuals controlled and manipulated their respective domains of the political structure to ensure the ends they desired.4

Mahan was a historian and naval officer who wrote "The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783". He laid out the central tenets of how the US should go about creating its empire, via expanding into the Pacific Ocean with coaling stations and military bases, and protecting the Caribbean Sea and Latin America from other like-thinking imperial powers.

Roosevelt was able to get himself appointed as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, where under a weak and indifferent Secretary, he started building the US's navy up with new steel ships, in addition to making distinct policy plans. After leading the photo-op charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, he became a "national figure" and ran as McKinley's Vice President, only to become President himself when McKinley was assassinated.

Adams, a historian/geopolitician, had lots of theories on how to build empires and he applied his theories of centralization and economics to Mahan's. Compton's Encyclopedia Online comments at length on the Adams family tree and has this to say on Brooks Adams: he was "[a] believer in evolution, the theory of biological change from simple to complex life forms, Brooks developed theories that occupied him most of his life: that history moves in cycles, that all nations move through patterned stages, and that history is a science."5

Lodge, a Republican senator from Massachusetts, led Congress in its push for war with Spain and the annexation of the Philippines. He chaired the Committee on the Philippines, which attempted to determine the fate of the Philippines. The Committee eventually was coerced by other senators to investigate the war that had developed in the Philippines, yet Lodge resisted to these hearings, which started January 28, 1902. Nonetheless, he was still effective in keeping them "on track".6

In addition to the designers, others facilitated, helped, and executed the invasion of the Philippines and the creation of empire. President William McKinley regularly made religious statements in form of pleas to the public's moral, missionary spirit, all the while negotiating with large industrialists and businessmen. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, both newspaper editors in New York, accelerated the affairs in Cuba and the "conventional wisdom" of the necessity for empire creation.7 Admiral George Dewey was the commodore of the Asiatic Squadron of the US Navy when Roosevelt sent him to Manila Bay, ending in the complete destruction of the Spanish armada in the bay. John Hay was an academic policy planner like Adams who became Secretary of State, and later wrote the Open Door Notes which officially declared the US as a world power by stating that no one could intrude upon its territory and that the Chinese needed to open their markets up to the US and others. Finally, Albert Beveridge, another Republican senator (from Indiana), sat on the Committee on the Philippines and assumed the role of defending the US's course in the Philippines.8

The actual result of the Spanish-American War and the war of Filipino "insurrection" were not all that unpredictable when considering the state-of-art US Naval fleet, the industrial and economical capacity of the US, and the lack of suitable armaments, defensive equipment, and personnel on the behalf of both the Spanish and the Filipinos. What was unpredictable at the time was the degree of success and precedence that it would set-- in the form of a foreign policy that would not deviate in any fundamental fashion for the next hundred years.

Thus, the actually war itself doesn't lend much evidence to critical analysis of this policy. Yet, a brief overview is in order. After the successful intervention into Cuba, the US annexed Hawaii in July of 1898 and Wake Island later that summer. The last vestiges of Spanish control were overrun before the peace treaty with Spain (and a $20 million "sorry for the mess" fee) occurred in December 1898, officially giving the US permission to occupy the islands. By February 1899, the Filipinos revolted against American rule, led by Emiliano Auginaldo-- the very man that the US used to help usurp the Spaniards from Manila. The fighting was ignited by an American soldier who fired and killed a Filipino two days before the US Congress was scheduled to vote on the Spanish-American Peace Treaty. Not surprisingly, shortly after the fighting started, the Senate ratified a treaty of Philippine annexation by one vote.

By mid-1901 the US had squashed the Filipino independence movement, although fighting continued on separate islands for many more years. Fifteen times as many US soldiers died in the Philippines than did in Cuba and the war cost the US $600 million (although spurring on the war industry machine and the US economy). At the same time, 200,000 Filipinos died, of which only 1 out of every 10 were combatants.9

In a closer analysis of the logical extensions of the American invasion of the Philippines, one sees that many of the reasons the invasion took place still exist today for other actions the US carries out. For example, this is the period in US history in which the greatest amount of arming took place in the American military, to the point where when World War I started, the US was nearly on an even "playing-field" as the rest of the European powers.

George Orwell was not, of course, writing at the time of the Philippine "Insurrection", but it is assured that he would have appreciated the language used by the United States government to describe its intervention in to that country's affairs, especially after Spain had left. As in the case where Admiral Dewey remarks, "I thought they would be friendly to us and would help up; and they were very ungrateful, I think, in turning against us after what we had done for them."10 What the US "did" for the Filipinos it also did to a much greater extent for itself and without the interest of those ungrateful Filipinos in mind at all.

Whenever discussing the matter of the Philippines to average American, politicians were cautious to use only the terms "help" and not "business". "National interests" as a term came into usage at this time, as it became to be analogous to "business interests"; the educated knew this, but the rest of the public were simply led to believe that somehow these "national interests" improved their lives more than indirectly through fattening the pockets of industrialists.

William McKinley spoke at length for the reasons for US intervention in the Philippines, and his most honest statements came when he described his own decision-making conclusions: First, the islands couldn't go back to Spain (that would be cowardly and dishonorable). Secondly, France and Germany couldn't be allowed to control them (he politely didn't mention Britain), since that would be bad business practice. Third, under no condition could they be turned over to the Filipinos for self-rule, since they were unfit for democracy and "Western civilization". Thus, it was clear that the US had to do something on its own, because, of course, no other state was capable of it, nor justified. In the process, McKinley said, the US would educate them, uplift them, civilize them, and Christianize them.11

The first two reasons McKinley gives appear to be just like the policies that relatively equal states do with each other-- playing the "look out for #1" game. However, his reasoning that independence wasn't possible doesn't derive from the fact that the US was willing to give it (which was undoubtedly untrue), but because the Filipinos wouldn't be able to govern themselves. This can be easily interpreted to mean that the Filipinos would not choose to govern their country in a way that was acceptable to the US. Woodrow Wilson, 16 years later, publicly declared the rights of states to determine their own course and destiny, but then sent American warships into a port in Veracruz, Mexico, for "refusing to apologize to the United States with a twenty-one gun salute," killing a hundred Mexicans in the process. In the same fashion, William McKinley publicly implied that he wanted states to rule themselves (if "capable"), but privately made every attempt to control states whether directly as in the Philippines or indirectly such as in the case of Cuba.12

By joining the "club of imperial powers", the US got "dragged" into the First World War in 1914, which was between imperial powers, and started from nothing more than a reactionary assassination and rapid-mobilization policies, and then accelerated out of control, in a way similar to how fights can break out so easily at sporting matches between opposing fans.13

Later, when World War II started, the US stayed out, and didn't seem to notice the atrocities occurring in Eastern Europe, and it was only until the homogeny and business interests of the US was threatened in the Pacific Ocean-- by Japanese imperialism and their attack upon Pearl Harbor-- that the US finally joined with the Allied Powers.

After WWII, the US retained its outwardly "moral" objectives by supporting governments who opposed communism, which was portrayed (quite accurately in the case of the USSR) as being totalitarian and brutally repressive. The truth of the matter is that these governments were often called "democratic"-- as in the cases of Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Indonesia, and other states-- while they were, more often than not, military dictatorships or oligarchies. These states clearly have/had a long history of repression towards their citizens. In this respect the goal of the US was very similar to that in the Philippines-- supporting any governments who fostered a preferable and open economic climate to US products and businesses, be it in the form of raw materials or cheap labor. Or, those who claimed to suitably anti-communist, for propaganda reasons.14

In addition to the policy that was generated from the war in the Philippines, the very first massive, organized protests against war in the US occurred, leading some to call the American-Philippines War the US's first "Vietnam". Unlike in the late 1960's and early 1970's, the reasons for opposition to US involvement in the Philippines weren't totally because of opposition to imperialism (although many were); many, such as some who composed the Anti-Imperialist League, felt that the US shouldn't "help" out the Philippines and should concentrate on domestic matters. They embodied quite a bit of subtle racism, like Roosevelt did, but unlike Roosevelt they didn't see the need to intervene "benignly". In Vietnam, the US waged a war on an overwhelmingly civilian population to control it and it to US subservience. However, by the time of the Vietnam War much of the major opposition to that certain war revolved around the belligerence of the US, the suffering of the Vietnamese, the unwillingness of American troops to fight, etc.15

This is not to suggest, however, that there wasn't dissent within the army during the war in the Philippines. In fact, like the Vietnam War, much of the dissatisfaction came from black soldiers who at the time were segregated. Many went AWOL, deserted, or actively joined forces with the Filipinos once in the Philippines and after having seen the conditions of the people living there and the way that they were treated by their own army. Once returning to the US, many blacks openly spoke out against the US's actions in the Philippines and also the racism they experienced when they were not treated equally as white soldiers who returned victoriously.16

White soldiers as well questioned the motives of the American-Philippine War, often because they were ordered to target "everything over 10"; as in Vietnam, everyone was considered an enemy collaborator.17

The concept of extending US authority over other countries started during the Spanish-American War with Cuba, which was left independent, but very "open to American business interests". This is the same policy that drives the US in its Middle East policy: keeping Israel as a deterrent to Arab self-determinism and forcing openness to American (and British) oil companies. Thus, when Iraq decided to challenge the Western-installed monarchy of Kuwait by invading it in 1990, the US stepped in to create a stronger US presence in the Persian Gulf and to curb the threat of nationalism which could disrupt oil companies.18

It becomes vividly clear that the policies of the US are a linear progression built upon the struggle to control the Philippines, and not scattered, unconnected decisions. Ever since the American attempt to enforce its will upon the Philippines was initially blocked by the Filipino people, the US has extended itself to whatever lengths to accomplish its goals-- creating American prominence abroad while creating stable trade environments and jumping points to other markets-- which remain unchanged.


1. Zinn, Howard "A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present", New York: HarperCollins, 1995, pp.290-291.
2. Ginger, Ray "Age of Excess", Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., 1975, p.214.
3. Vidal, Gore "The Decline and Fall of the American Empire", Berkeley: Odonian Press, 1992, pp.16-17.
4. Ibid, pp.10-11.
5. Compton's Encyclopedia Online, Keyword: "Brooks Adams", Source:
6. Graff, Henry F. (ed) "American Imperialism and the Philippine Insurrection", Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969, pp. xvi and xx.
7. Porter, Kimberly, class lecture November 5, 1999 in "History 407: Rise of Industrial America", at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. The effect of media influence has grown exponentially since it was first utilized in the Spanish-American War.
8. "American Imperialism", pp. xvii and xx.
9. Couttie, Robert "The War in the Philippines", Source:
10. "American Imperialism", p.13. Interview of Admiral George Dewey called "Was there a deal with Aguinaldo?"
11. "People's History of the US", pp.305-306.
12. Ibid, p.349.
13. Ibid, p.350.
14. Chomsky, Noam "Deterring Democracy", New York: Hill and Wang, 1992, pp.45-58.
15. "American Imperialism", p. xv. Points to connection to Vietnam War.
16. "People's History of the US", pp.310-313.
17. Ibid, p. 308. This astonishing quote is ghastly similar to statements made after massacres in Vietnam, such as My Lai.
18. "Deterring Democracy", pp.407-423.



U.S. History from the 1864 to 1917