Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)
In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.
See all the articles in this series.
In April 1898, the United States declared war against Spain, launching the Spanish-American war. In August, Spain, facing defeat, allowed U.S. forces to take control of Manila. By the end of 1898, Spain was forced to cede its colonies of Cuba, Guam and Puerto Rico to the U.S., and for $20 million, the Philippines.
In early 1899, when it became clear the U.S. had no intention of allowing the Philippines to be independent, Emilio Aguinaldo, who led the Filipino people’s revolt against the Spanish colonialists, launched a new war of independence against the U.S. imperialists. The U.S. war on and occupation of the Philippines lasted from 1899 to 1902. Over 126,000 U.S. troops were sent to crush the Filipino people’s mass uprising, and they waged war on wide swaths of the Philippine population as a whole. According to one account: “it became commonplace for entire villages to be burned and whole populations to be imprisoned in concentration camps. No mercy was accorded to Filipino prisoner, a large number of whom were shot.”
The U.S. occupiers tortured Filipino rebels, suppressed organizations of workers and peasants, burned crops and food supplies, and carried out mass executions, often by clubbing or bayoneting people to death. Filipinos who refused to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag were sometimes imprisoned.
There was a conscious U.S. policy of massacres coming from the top. In 1901, American troops retaliated against the defeat of a U.S. garrison on the island of Samar by killing all males over 10 years old, and butchering many women and children as well. An American marine major reported: “General [Jacob] Smith instructed me to kill and burn, and that the more I killed and burned the better pleased he would be; that it was no time to take prisoners, and that I was to make Samar Island a howling wilderness.” When the major asked what the age limit should be for the killing, the general said, “Everything over ten.”
It is estimated that between 250,000 and one million Filipinos were killed in this U.S. war of conquest—in combat and through disease and famine. The savagery of the U.S. war was captured in pictures of American soldiers standing on mounds of the skulls and bones of Filipinos they had massacred, piled in mass graves.
Torture carried out by the U.S. military included waterboarding. U.S. Lieutenant Grover Flint described how he waterboarded 160 people, and only 26 survived: “A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit or stand on his arms and legs and hold him down; and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick ... is simply thrust into his jaws and his jaws are thrust back.... In the case of very old men I have seen their teeth fall out.... He is simply held down and then water is poured onto his face down his throat and nose from a jar; and that is kept up until the man gives some sign or becomes unconscious. And, when he becomes unconscious, he is simply rolled aside and he is allowed to come to.... A man suffers tremendously, there is no doubt about it. His sufferings must be that of a man who is drowning, but cannot drown....”
The author Mark Twain summed up that in the Philippines, the U.S. had “buried them; destroyed their fields, burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out of doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining tens of millions....”
President William McKinley (1897-1901) issued the order to invade the Philippines. General Jacob Smith, who led the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, had earlier taken part in the 1891 U.S. military massacre of 350 Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee. General Franklin Bell ordered the destruction of “humans, crops, food stores, domestic animals, houses and boats.” General Frederick Funston openly bragged about how he had personally hanged 35 Filipinos suspected of supporting rebel forces, without trial. Major Edwin Glenn reported that he had forced a group of 47 Filipino prisoners to kneel down and “repent of their sins” before he bayoneted and clubbed them to death. General William Shafter declared that it might be necessary to kill half the Filipino population in order to bring “perfect justice” to the other half. The entire U.S. military, according to one account, saw Philippine resistance to the American occupation “as an affront to white identity and white being.”
THE ALIBI: In January 1903, U.S. President William McKinley told the magazine the Christian Advocate how he decided to invade and occupy the Philippines: “They came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them.... I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”
Historian William Loren Katz writes, “Officers and enlisted men—and the media—were encouraged to see the conflict through a ‘white superiority’ lens, much as they viewed their victories over Native Americans and African Americans. The Philippine occupation unfolded at the high tide of American segregation, lynching, and a triumphant white supremacy ideology.”
The U.S. military carried out the conquest and “pacification” of the Filipino people under the same racist thinking and justification as their genocidal wars against Native Americans, with U.S. forces referring to the Filipinos as “niggers,” “barbarians,” and “savages.”
THE ACTUAL MOTIVE
Despite McKinley’s claims, in reality, Spain had already “converted” the Philippines to Christianity (Catholicism) 300 years earlier when it colonized it. More to the point about what was actually driving the U.S. actions, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries capitalism was developing into imperialism, and the world’s major capitalist powers were increasingly compelled to operate on a global scale and battle with each other for control of key regions, resources, and markets, and colonies to exploit in the oppressed or “undeveloped” countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The Spanish-American War and the U.S. conquest of the Philippines marked the bloody rise of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. rushed to take control of Spain’s colonies to prevent other rivals from grabbing them. Seizing the Philippines was a critical step in forging the American empire, because it’s a gateway to and outpost in Asia, a country with people to exploit and resources to plunder.
McKinley himself pointed to the imperialist motives for the U.S. conquest of the Philippines when he told the Christian Advocate that the U.S. couldn’t turn the Philippines “over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable....” Senator Albert Beveridge spelled it out even more baldly in a January 9, 1900 speech: “The Philippines are ours forever.... And just beyond that are China’s illimitable markets.... We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world.... The Philippines give us a base at the door of all the East....”
Vestiges of War—The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream 1899-1999. Angel Velasco Shaw and Luis H. Francia, eds. (NYU Press, 2002)
“U.S. WAR CRIMES IN THE PHILIPPINES,” World Future Fund
“Manifest Destiny Continued: McKinley Defends U.S. Expansionism,” historymatters.gmu.edu
A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn (Harper and Row, 1980)