Philippine-American War

views updated


Surely the Philippine-American War (1899–1902) is America's least-known war. If it is referred to at all, it is only as an afterthought of the Spanish-American War (1898). Yet that conflict lasted only three months, and the war in the Philippines—often called the "Bolo War" by Americans for the "bolo" knives or machetes used with great effect by the Filipino fighters—officially lasted three years and in reality lasted fifteen years.

Moreover, that conflict was America's first global war, and occurring as it did at the turn of the twentieth century, it heralded a new era both in America's view of itself and in the world's view of America. Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), a British writer with strong ties to America, expressed a view that was welcome among American policy makers. In his poem "The White Man's Burden," published in McClure's Magazine in February 1899 and later subtitled "The United States and the Philippine Islands," he called upon America to follow Europe's lead and assume the "burden" of empire. Though the "harness" be "heavy," he wrote, though the task be "thankless," the white man's duty is to carry civilization to the "new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child" (ll. 7–8).

That same month, on 6 February, the United States Senate formally agreed with the call to imperialism by ratifying the December 1898 Treaty of Paris ending the war between Spain and the United States. Yet the patronizing racialism that infused Kipling's poem also produced strong opposition, and the Senate decision met the requirement of a two-thirds majority by only one vote. Discussions of the parts of the treaty that officially recognized the American occupation of Cuba and that ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States were not especially contentious, but the argument was heated about the far-distant Philippines, thought by many not to be of vital importance to the United States. Adding to the intensity of the debate was Spain's argument at the peace talks that because it had signed a peace agreement with the United States before America seized Manila, the future of its colony in the archipelago should not even be a part of the negotiations. The United States insisted, however, and, compensating Spain with $20 million for the loss, it annexed the islands. The Spanish colony thereby became an American colony. Neither side had allowed the representative of the newly formed Filipino government a seat at the treaty table.


With this treaty, especially the part about the Philippines, America designed and implemented its foreign policy almost overnight. Just as the topic had polarized the Senate, it also divided the nation. Imperialists like the Republican senator from Massachusetts Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924) agreed with Kipling's chauvinism by maintaining that not approving the treaty would "brand" the United States as being incapable of taking a place alongside the other great world powers. In agreeing, another Republican, Minnesota senator Knute Nelson (1843–1923), recalled the nation's zest for Manifest Destiny and appealed to missionary zeal by declaring that "Providence has given the United States the duty of extending Christian civilization. We come as ministering angels, not despots" ("Timeline: January 1899").

Anti-imperialists sided with the other Massachusetts senator, George Frisbie Hoar (1826–1954), also a Republican and the most outspoken "anti" in the Senate. Hoar might as well have had Kipling's poem in mind when he pointed directly at race and classism in exclaiming, "This Treaty will make us a vulgar, commonplace empire, controlling subject races and vassal states, in which one class must forever rule and other classes must forever obey" ("Timeline: January 1899").


This poem by the poet and playwright William Vaughn Moody (1869–1910) gained widespread recognition when it was published in 1901 and is still anthologized. The poem praises national ideals and the soldier who has died in battle believing he is advancing those ideals, but it laments the wound that the war is inflicting in the nation's soul.

Streets of the roaring town,
Hush for him, hush, be still!
He comes, who was stricken down
Doing the word of our will.
Hush! Let him have his state,
Give him his soldier's crown.
The grists of trade can wait
Their grinding at the mill,
But he cannot wait for his honor, now the trumpet has been blown.
Wreathe pride now for his granite brow, lay love on his breast of stone.
Toll! Let the great bells toll
Till the clashing air is dim.
Did we wrong this parted soul?
We will make it up to him.
Toll! Let him never guess
What work we set him to.
Laurel, laurel, yes;
He did what we bade him do.
Praise, and never a whispered hint but the fight he fought was good;
Never a word that the blood on his sword was his country's own heart's blood.
A flag for the soldier's bier
Who dies that his land may live;
O, banners, banners here,
That he doubt not nor misgive!
That he heed not from the tomb
The evil days draw near
When the nation, robed in gloom,
With its faithless past shall strive.
Let him never dream that his bullet's scream went wide of its island mark,
Home to the heart of his darling land where she stumbled and sinned in the dark.

Moody, The Poems and Plays, 1:29–30.

Joining the minority in the Senate were several vocal and distinguished national figures—the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the former U.S. presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, the political leader Carl Schurz, as well as members of the intelligentsia, such as the Harvard professors Charles Eliot Norton and William James and The Nation's editor E. L. Godkin. Literary figures were highly visible, and their outspokenness betokens the riveting importance of this national issue. The prominence of these writers was so great that it has become a regular feature of the histories and scholarly studies of the period. Stuart Creighton Miller, for example, in his "Benevolent Assimilation": The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899–1903, highlights the views of a broad array of "novelists, poets, playwrights, and humorists" (p. 117). A few of them, such as Brooks Adams, Julian Hawthorne, Gertrude Atherton, Walter Hines Page, and Julia Ward Howe, supported imperialism (p. 117), but they were not distinctive and according to Richard E. Welch Jr., what little they wrote was "justifiably soon forgotten" (p. 124). The overwhelming majority of writers were opposed to expansion. Miller lists Thomas Bailey Aldrich, George W. Cable, Henry Blake Fuller, Edgar Lee Masters, William Dean Howells, Charles Dudley Warner, Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, Hamlin Garland, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Bliss Perry, William Vaughn Moody, John Jay Chapman, Lincoln Steffens, Finley Peter Dunne, and George Ade as making "clear their opposition to imperialism and the war" (p. 117). Welch adds Gamaliel Bradford and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (p. 124). Still others were Katharine Lee Bates, Henry Van Dyke, and William Lloyd Garrison Jr. Novels satirized the war—Ernest Crosby's Captain Jinks, Hero (1902), Raymond L. Bridgman's Loyal Traitors (1903), and a Broadway musical by George Ade,The Sultan of Sulu (1903), laughed at the imperialists. A vast number of poems against the war were published in newspapers and magazines, and many were collected in Liberty Poems: Inspired by the Crisis of 1898–1900 (1900).

The best known of all the antiwar writers, and the one whom historians of the war have accorded most importance, was Mark Twain (1835–1910). David Haward Bain's Sitting in Darkness: America in the Philippines, taking its title and its inspiration from Twain's especially vitriolic essay, begins with "It was Mark Twain who sent me to the Philippines" (p. 1). Although "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" was and still is the best and best-known of Twain's expressions of opposition against imperialism and the war, it was by no means the only one. Jim Zwick has identified more than twenty public expressions by Twain opposing imperialism in the Philippines. The Anti-Imperialist League, formed in 1898, was a ready outlet for Twain. He became a vice president of the New York chapter in 1901 and of the national organization in 1905.

Despite this impressive display of distinguished opposition, Republican president William McKinley (1843–1901) remained unswayed. In December of 1898, following the signing of the Treaty of Paris, he issued a proclamation declaring that the intention of the United States was to stay in the Philippines permanently but with a policy of "benevolent assimilation" that substituted "the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule" (McKinley). His orders to General Elwell Otis, commander of ground forces in the Philippines, indicated a more "manly" attitude, though: to "extend by force American sovereignty over this country" (Bautista). The age was caught up in just this ethos of manliness, an athletic figure with strong moral backbone best typified by Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) who won fame as a Rough Rider in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and then lectured and wrote about "the strenuous life." The next year the American people seemed to approve the Senate's ratification of the treaty as well as of McKinley's proclamation when they rejected the Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), an outspoken anti-imperialist, and by a wide majority reelected McKinley for another term in the White House. His running mate was Roosevelt. A year later, when Roosevelt became president after McKinley was assassinated, the manly image gained added strength. Apropos, Filipinos were "insurrectos," the conflict itself was officially named the "Philippine Insurrection," and it was America's manly duty to put it down. The "Philippine-American War" has been used only since the 1960s.


Most of the Philippine archipelago had been ruled by Spain since 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480–1521) stopped there on his attempt to circumnavigate the world and spread Christianity. He was killed on the island of Mactan by Muslims who refused the choice of conversion or death. More than three and a half centuries later, in 1896, an organized effort by the Filipinos to gain independence began under the leadership of twenty-seven-year-old Emilio Aguinaldo (1869–1964). With the defeat of the Spanish navy in Manila Bay by American forces under the command of Commodore George Dewey (1837–1917) in May 1898—the first battle of the Spanish-American War—Aguinaldo, as the country's first president, declared his nation free at last, and by the end of the following January, two weeks before the ratification vote in the United States Senate, the country had a constitution modeled on America's and had proclaimed itself the Philippine Republic. The Filipino people would have had every reason to think they had America's support in their move to independence had it not been for the Treaty of Paris and President McKinley's proclamation. But these caused such serious doubts that Aguinaldo had already moved his capital to a more defensible position.

The war broke out almost by accident. Two American soldiers on nighttime sentry duty on the outskirts of Manila encountered three armed Filipinos. After some uncertainty about the intentions of the Filipinos, problems made worse by language differences, the Americans killed them. Soon Filipino troops fired on American lines, and before daybreak open warfare had broken out. That was 4 February 1899. Two days later, in ratifying the Treaty of Paris, the United States colonized a country it putatively was fighting for in the cause of independence. Aguinaldo tried to stop the war, but General Otis replied, that the "fighting, having begun, must go on to the grim end" (The Filipino Americans). The end did not come soon, and when it did the cost was $400 million, twenty times the "compensation." More than 126,000 American soldiers had seen action; with only partial numbers, more than 4,200 of them were killed. It was much worse for the Filipinos: upwards of 17,500 soldiers were killed, and estimates put the civilian toll at more than half a million.

The symbolic conclusion to the war came on 23 March 1901, when Aguinaldo was captured. In a plot that combined duplicity and courage, General Frederick Funston (1865–1917) and four other American officers pretending to be prisoners gained access to Aguinaldo's mountain hideout. Seeing the futility of further resistance, Aguinaldo swore allegiance to the United States and called upon Filipinos to lay down their arms. Strong resistance continued, however. The surrender in April 1902 of General Miguel Malvar, the leader of a well-organized guerrilla force, caused Congress to pass the Philippine Government Act on 1 July 1902 and prompted President Roosevelt to declare on 4 July that the "insurrection" was ended. But that was more politics than fact for skirmishes continued until 1907, and in the Moro province Muslims were again so strongly resistant that American forces remained until 1914.


Before the fighting had started, when Americans' awareness of the Philippines was simply that Dewey had ended the Spanish-American War there by destroying the Spanish fleet, prominent writers had begun to express doubts about a war with a country so far away. One of the most popular was Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936), whose probing humor, expressed in the thick Irish American dialect of his persona Martin T. Dooley, a Chicago saloon keeper, was published regularly in the Chicago Evening Post and the Chicago Journal and later collected in the popular Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War (1898) and several later books. In one column, "On the Philippines," Mr. Dooley and his friends discussed the best course of action for "Mack" (President McKinley) and "George" (Admiral George Dewey). Mr. Hennessey had no doubts: "I KNOW what I'd do if I was Mack," he said. "I'd hist a flag over th' Ph'lippeens, an' I'd take in th' whole lot iv thim." Mr. Dooley, though, troubled and uncertain, admitted "And yet, Hinnissy, I dinnaw what to do about th' Ph'lippeens. An' I'm all alone in th' wurruld. Ivrybody else has made up his mind. . . . But I don't know'" (Dunne, pp. 43, 47).

Mr. Dooley's doubts, like the nation's, were specifically about the war in the Philippines. The country had strongly supported the just war with Spain for Cuban independence, but the stipulations about the Philippines in the Treaty of Paris were a different matter altogether and many felt the change was a betrayal.

It is true that such views were in the minority, but when Mark Twain added his voice the dissent was by no means unnoticed or unfelt. Alone and in concert with organizations, in newspaper interviews and in scorching journal essays, he repeatedly mocked the government's hypocrisy and brutality in the Philippines. "I have read carefully the treaty of Paris," he said in an interview in the New York Herald in October 1900, "and I have seen 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 on any other land" (Twain, p. 5). Late the following winter, in the North American Review, he published his most famous condemnation of American policy in the islands, "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," an essay infused with ironic use of the self-righteous rhetoric of those like Senator Nelson. Historians honoring Twain's role in public discourse about the war have praised this essay in particular. Welch, for example, noting the effect when the essay's irony "flashes into angry eloquence," explains that the "person" is

the benighted heathen who is being whipped into the march of progress by the "Blessings-of-Civilization Trust." While ostensibly seeking to reconcile the victim, Twain reviews the tangle of broken promises and acts of deceit that had characterized the relations of the American government with the people of the Philippines:

"True, we have crushed a deceived and confiding people; . . . we have stabbed an ally in the back . . . ; we have invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do a bandit's work . . . ; we have debauched America's honor and blackened her face before the world; but each detail was for the best." (P. 125)

Twain followed this essay the next year with a blistering attack aimed at General Funston, now a national hero for capturing Aguinaldo. Sarcastic throughout, "A Defence of General Funston" concludes in humiliation at America's behavior: "He [Aguinaldo] is entitled to his freedom. If he were a king of a Great Power, or an ex-president of our republic, . . . Civilization (with a large C) would criticize and complain until he got it" (Twain, p. 132).

In early 1901 Twain devised a kind of verbal cartoon exposing authoritarian political and religious regimes. Titled "The Stupendous Procession," it imagines a grotesque parade of human misery perpetrated by America and other imperialist nations. A banner recalls Kipling's poem of two years earlier. On it is inscribed "The White Man's Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man's?" (Twain, p. 53).

Despite Roosevelt's declaration in 1902, three years later this war was not over. For some writers it had grown to represent the folly of all wars. In 1905 Twain and his close friend William Dean Howells (1837–1920), the best-known novelist and literary critic of the age, wrote antiwar pieces that continue to resonate. Howells's "Editha," first published in Harper's Monthly and doubtless his best-known short story, pits romanticized patriotism against unblinking truthfulness. Editha thinks of war as an opportunity for heroism, but her fiancé, George, whose own father had lost an arm in war and who died before his time, is not so sure. George says "It's war." When Editha replies, "How glorious!" George repeats, "It's war." After George is killed in war, the shallowness of Editha's religious idealism stands pitiably exposed (p. 156).

Twain's "The War Prayer" is an unrelenting exposé of religious justification for war. An aged stranger confronts a minister and his congregation as they pray to God, "the Source of Love," for a bloody victory that devastates the enemy. The conclusion shows that the people remain unenlightened: "It was believed afterwards, that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said" (p. 160). Like Twain's "The Stupendous Procession," which he did not even attempt to make public, "The War Prayer" was not published in its time. Although he offered it to Harper's Bazar, the editor, Elizabeth Jordan, rejected it, saying that it was "not quite suited to a woman's magazine" (Twain, p. 156).

see alsoImperialism and Anti-Imperialism; Spanish-American War


Primary Works

Dunne, Finley Peter. Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1899.

Howells, William Dean. Selected Short Stories of William Dean Howells. Edited by Ruth Bardon. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.

Kipling, Rudyard. Rudyard Kipling's Verse. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1940.

McKinley, William. "Benevolent Assimilation" Proclamation. Available at

Moody, William Vaughn. The Poems and Plays of William Vaughn Moody. 2 vols. New York: AMS, 1969.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses. New York: Century, 1901.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War. Edited by Jim Zwick. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Secondary Works

Bain, David Haward. Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Bautista, Veltisezar. "The Philippine-American War." In The Filipino Americans (From 1763 to the Present): Their History, Culture, and Traditions. Available at and

Foner, Philip S., ed. The Anti-Imperialist Reader: A Documentary History of Anti-Imperialism in the United States. Vol. 2, The Literary Anti-Imperialists. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1986.

Hoganson, Kristin L. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998.

Linn, Brian McAllister. The Philippine War, 1899–1902. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Miller, Stuart Creighton. "Benevolent Assimilation": The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899–1903. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Ochosa, Orlino A. Bandoleros, Outlawed Guerrillas of the Philippine-American War, 1903–1907. Quezon City, The Philippines: New Day, 1995.

"The Philippine Revolution." Available at

"Philippines." Available at

"Rudyard Kipling." Available at

Shaw, Angel Velasco, and Luis H. Francia, eds. Vestiges of War: The Philippine American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899–1999. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

"The Spanish-American War: The War of Philippine Independence, 1898–1901." Available at∼vmitchel/fw4.html.

"Timeline: January 1899: Senate Debate over Ratification of the Treaty of Paris." Available at

"Treaty of Paris." Available at

Walker, Robert H. The Poet and the Gilded Age: Social Themes in Late 19th Century American Verse. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963.

Welch, Richard E., Jr. Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899–1902. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Zwick, Jim. "Mark Twain on War and Imperialism." Available at

Terry Oggel

About this article

Philippine-American War

Updated About content Print Article