The Philippine American War

American Designs and the Benevolent Assimilation

The events of February 1899 did not come as a total shock. As early as August 1898, Filipinos started doubting U.S. altruism in coming to their aid against the Spaniards. On August 13, 1898, the Spaniards surrendered Manila to the Americans after a staged, mock battle aimed at displaying some semblance of Spanish resistance as a way of avoiding loss of face. To avoid their total humiliation, the Spaniards also insisted on the exclusion of the Filipinos in the capitulation drama. Once Manila was secured, the Americans insisted on restricting Filipino forces to specific areas outside the walled city of Manila, Intramuros. Suspicions heightened after the continued arrival of American reinforcements in the country despite the surrender of Spain. The strengthening of the U.S. forces in the Philippines convinced many Filipinos that the Americans were gearing for another war. This skepticism crystallized during the deliberation of the Treaty of Paris that December when the Filipinos were again excluded from the negotiations between the United States and Spain. Amid the protestations of Filipino representatives who were in Paris despite their exclusion, the U.S. and Spain signed the treaty on December 10, 1898. The February 4th incident was a mere formality of what the Filipinos had suspected all along.

At the turn of the century, the economy of the United States was growing by leaps and bounds. American business interests favored the overseas expansion of the U.S. market and were eyeing China which was at this time being partitioned into spheres of influence by Western powers. Many U.S. leaders viewed the Philippines as a possible colony and base from which U.S. claims on China could be launched. While economic interest was preeminent, many Americans were also imbued with a "civilizing" zeal. White Man’s burden was often cited to justify U.S. annexation of the Philippines. In his Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation, U.S. President William McKinley argued that the Americans must educate, civilize, and uplift the conditions of the Filipinos. This self-righteous ideology, partly due to ignorance of the history of the Filipinos, was conveniently used by the Americans to rationalize their actions throughout the colonial period. The Filipinos had to be guided to "maturity" and "enlightenment" so that they may reap the fruits of American "tutelage" and "beneficence." To effect this "mission and vision," the United States must subdue any form of Filipino resistance, after all they were deemed "ignorant, uneducated, and uncivilized."

After suffering three hundred years of Spanish rule and shedding their blood for independence, the Filipinos were not willing to accept a new colonial order, and they naturally resisted U.S. designs on the Philippines. According to Luzviminda Francisco, the Philippine-American War was a forgotten war in the U.S. annals. American textbooks contain several pages on the Spanish-American War but only devote a paragraph on the Philippine-American War despite the fact that the latter was more pronounced in terms of duration, scale, and number of casualties. The war was ugly, ruthless, and brutal prompting Stanley Karnow to describe it as "among the cruelest conflicts in the annals of Western imperialism." Other scholars referred to the conflict as the United States’ "first Vietnam." Luzviminda estimates that as much as 126,000 American soldiers, or 3/4 of the U.S. army, were shipped to the Philippines, and at least 600,000 Filipinos died during the war. American anti-imperialist Mark Twain claims that Filipino casualties was close to one million or the equivalent of 1/6 of the country’s total population at the turn of the century.

Casualties aside, the terminology of the conflict has been misconstrued for a long time. The Americans called the Philippine-American War an insurgency, mainly because they refused to recognize the Philippine independence proclaimed by Aguinaldo. Recognition would have portrayed the Americans in an unflattering way, i.e, imperialists who were seizing an independent country. The American refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Filipino struggle had them brand Filipino soldiers as bandits or ladrones.