In response to accusations of human rights violation from the United States, came a curiously nuanced response from Rodrigo Duterte: ‘The Philippines is not a vassal state, We have long ceased to be a colony of the United States’. Seeing the Philippines as a long-standing ally, Dutere’s blatant display of bitterness baffled many in America. Many have thrown in their two-cents: it can be Philippine’s way to extend a token of friendship to China; it can be a populist campaign orchestrated by the ‘Trump of the East‘; it can, however, also be traced back to America’s brutal occupation a century ago.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the first encounter between the United States of America and the Philippines was marked by deceit and treachery.
During the Spanish–American War in 1898, after being led to believe that their independence would be recognized and guaranteed by the United States, the Philippine revolutionaries joined forces with the United States army to chase the Spanish out. However, the revolutionaries were betrayed by Americans as soon as their former enemy departed from the islands. The subsequent Philippine-American war killed more than 250,000 Filipino civilians and 200,000 more as combatants.
The current president, Rodrigo Duterte, was particularly close to this dark chapter of history. His home state, Mindanao, faced brutal reprisal for their unyielding resistance against the Americans. Land soaked with blood will never run out of vengeful descendants. When the young Duterte attended university in Manilla, the painful legacy of his homeland matured into a scathing critique against American imperialism under the banner of Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Here comes the Americans: Why are they here?
America’s imperial ambitions first entwined with Filipino’s strife for independence at the Spanish–American War in April 1898. Vying for power and territories, the United States of America declared war against Spain under the pretence of intervention in the Cuban War of Independence. Naval campaigns erupted in the Caribbean sea, armies clashed on Puerto Rico and, in the far east, the Philipines was dragged into the war as a Spanish colony.
On the eve of this war, American Commodore George Dewey‘s fleet was quietly dispatched to Hong Kong. Their mission was two-folded: to counter the Spanish naval activity in the Far East and to eliminate the Spanish garrison in the Philipines, thus taking out yet another potential reinforcement for the Spanish forces in the Caribbean sea.
On the 25th of April, 1898, after a formal declaration of war, Dewey’s fleet set sail to Manilla Bay and crushed the naval garrison in a swift and decisive battle. The whole nation boiled in gusto after news of his victory reached America. Encouraged by Dewey’s effortless victory, the then President William McKinley decided to strike the metal when it’s hot, and issued the ordered to his secretary of the navy to occupy Manila:
(Dewey’s victory) has rendered it necessary… to send an army of occupation to the Philippines for the twofold purpose of completing the reduction of the Spanish power in that quarter and of giving to the islands order and security while in the possession of the United States.
With its thinly veiled imperialism, these words were the seeds to American’s colonization of the Philipines; but they still need to keep the Philipines’ dream of independence alive as the revolutionaries were still of use to them. Facing complications in the Carribean front and shortage of expeditionary forces, the American started their campaign by playing the local revolutionaries against their Spanish oppressors.
The Filipino uprising and the story of Emilio Aguinaldo
At the end of the 19th century, the Filipinos had endured 300 years of colonial oppression and the thunderous pamphlets penned by José Rizal sparked independence movements across the colony. By 1894, the Katipunan was formed and fought the colonial government with rifles and pamphlets.
Though it enjoyed some initial successes, the organization soon succumbed to factionalism between Andrés Bonifacio, a revolutionary leader, and Emilio Aguinaldo, a conservative and landowner. Leaderless and disarrayed, the revolutionaries could not mount any effective resistance against Spanish crackdowns.
When the Spanish-American war broke out, the Filipino revolutionaries were on their last legs, with Aguinaldo voluntarily exiled to Hong Kong after yielding to a Spanish ceasefire. However, Dewey believed in the revolutionaries’ appeal and Aguinaldo’s claim to finance the revolution with concessions entailing the ceasefire, and he invited the exiled Aguinaldo to return to Philipines via on an American warship.
Shortly after his return, Aguinaldo blitzed through the colony and the ember of revolution burns brightly again in the whole of Philipines. On the 12th of June, 1898, after a winning streak against the colonial regime, Aguinaldo declared the independence of Philippine in Cavite. a province south of Manila, yet Dewey was absent from such an important occasion. Instead, an American colonel filled his seat in the ceremony; On 21st of May, Dewey received stern warnings from higher-ups against his alliance with the revolutionaries, as an independent Philipines unnecessarily complicates peace talks with Spain.
The Battle of Manila: From brothers in arms to mutual suspicion
At the time of independence, the majority of the Philipines were in revolutionaries’ hands, with Manila as the last colonial stronghold surrounded by the Filipino and American troops. Lacking the heavy artilleries effective against the city’s walls, the revolutionaries had to suspend its campaign and formed a tenuous alliance with the Americans. In the beginning, their aid was welcomed with open arms, but as the number of American troops grew, so did the Filipinos grew wary of American’s intentions. Yet, Aguinaldo decided to fold and nothing was done about the Americans, a decision that would cost the Philippines dearly.
General Wesley Merritt arrived at Manila on the 25th of July. Appointed by President McKinley to lead the Filipino expeditionary forces, Merritt’s missions were very clear: the complete occupation of the Philipines and paving the way towards American colonization, regardless of what the locals had in mind.
Under General Merritt’s leadership, the Americans wormed their way into dominance within the alliance and demanded the revolutionaries to attack Manilla from their position. After giving a begrudging consent, Aguinaldo fired a complaint to the Americans headquarters and Meritt responded by severing all ties with the Philippine Revolutionary Army. At that point, the number of US forces in Philipines had already swelled to 12,000 and were able to deal with them head-on.
In a meticulously arranged ‘fake battle’ between the Americans and the Spanish garrisons, Manila fell to Merritt on 13th of August; Refusing to suffer the disgrace of surrendering to the ‘semi-civilized’, the Spanish garrisons reached out to the Americans in private to keep the Filipinos out of the negotiation room. Agreeing to their proposal, Merritt’s troops shut the gate behind them after entering the city, citing Spanish fear of the vengeful revolutionaries. Whispers of suspicion grew into fear: Just what do these Americans and Spanish have in their mind?
After entering Manila, General Merritt, for the first time, stated that his forces were here to stay and stressed the ‘benevolence’ behind American occupation. Though Aguinaldo has yet to be disillusioned with the United States, the chasm was cast between the Philippines and the Americans: In a letter to one of Aguinaldo’s aide, a revolutionary general wrote: ‘Were the Americans friends or foes?’
The treaty of Paris: Out of the frying pan
Paris, 1st of October, delegates from Spain and the United States gathered in a smoky room for post-war negotiations.
Buoyant with Merritt’s success, President McKinley instructed his delegates to lay claim on the whole of Philipines instead of the Luzon island, on the ground that the interdependence of Philipino islands rendered its segmentation impossible. Although Aguinaldo protested that there has already been a legal government in the Philipines, his representative in Paris was denied participation, with Merritt declaring that the revolutionary government as ‘insurgents’.
Marginalized by both parties in Paris, the Philippine Revolutionary government launched into a political race against time: While the Americans hammered out the treaty with the Spanish and mounted more troops in Philipines to hammer the locals, the revolutionaries scrambled to piece together a governmental body in hopes of gaining international recognition before the dust of the treaty of Paris settled.
Time and time again, deep-seated factionalism within the Revolutionary government emerged at crucial junctures. This time, the Malolos Constitution became the centre of debate between conservative land-owning gentiles and grassroots nationalists. The conservatives pushed for a unicameral system while the grassroots urged for its promulgation after a national government was formed. Months were squandered while Aguinaldo was caught in this political crossfire.
With the Americans making it increasingly apparent that they were here to stay, the conservatives gradually returned to the safety of Manilla. Filling the newfound vacuum in the revolutionary capital of Malolos, the grassroots nationalists assumed a dominant role within the revolutionary government. Since their armed resistance against the Spanish colonists at the end of the 19th centuries, these conservative landlords and gentiles always preferred political reforms over the complete overthrow of the colonial regime. After all, their immense wealth was safer in the course of piecemeal reforms than in a chaotic revolution.
In the December of 1898, the Peace Treaty of Paris was signed by American and Spanish delegates, with the latter relinquishing the sovereignty of Cuba and selling the Philipines, Puerto Rico, West Indies and Guam to the former for 20 million US dollar. A month later, the First Philippine Republic promulgated the Malolos Constitution and elected Aguinaldo as its first president. The Philippine Revolutionary Army, now the Philippine Republican Army, were in service to the first democratic republic in Asia.
Compared to the (relatively) united front in the First Republic, the American Senate was very much divided on the Paris Peace Treaty. Some opposed on the grounds that the occupation of foreign soil would condemn the United States as an imperial power, let alone violating the most basic tenets of the United States Constitution. In a less virtuous light, some argued against expansionism in fear of more members of the ‘lesser races’ joining the United States and its subsequent effect on the economy.
On the other hand, some senators recognize how lucrative a colony can be and, with the slogan of ‘white man’s burden’, urged the nation to uplift these newfound territories. On the 4th of February, 1899, just when both sides were locked in a stalemate, an accidental skirmish between American and Filipino forces broke out. Shortly afterwards, the Treaty was approved by a sanguineous Senate, demanding blood for blood.
On the 5th of February, President Aguinaldo addressed the nation:
“I know that war has always produced great losses; I know that the Philippine people have not yet recovered from past losses and are not in condition to endure others. But I also know that we should sacrifice all on the altar of our honor and of the national integrity so unjustly attacked.”
A savage war for peace: the Philippine–American War
Though the Philippine Republic Army was high in morale, this alone was not enough to overcome the disproportionate strength of the American forces. According to historians, only half of the 80,000 men in the Republican Army had access to firearms. This alone had beset Aguinaldo with defeat after another, who insisted on fighting in set-piece battles. On top of that, turncoats from the conservatives took its toll on discipline and morale. The American war machine drove Aguinaldo’s forces to the North, and in November 1899, with the fall of Tarlac, the last capital of the First Republic, Aguinaldo and his generals decided to disband the Republic Army and ordered the troops to engage in guerrilla warfare in their hometown.
Going underground, the Philippine resistance scored streaks of victory with guerrilla and their success was answered with brutal reprisal: Villages were burnt, its people driven into prison camps and torturing (and killing) of prisoners became a norm of the war. Devastated by scorched earth tactics, crop yield plummeted in most regions. Overcrowded and without access to clean water, diseases spread in some prisoner camps. War crimes of unthinkable evil sprouted across the land. On the Samar Island, 1901, Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith, ordered to have every local older than the age of 10 executed. At the start of the 20th century, the four horsemen of apocalypse had descended upon the Philipines。
Latest developments in American politics has also disappointed the Philipino resistance: in the presidential election in November 1900, President McKinley was re-elected by a landslide against his anti-colonial opponent, dashing Aguinaldo’s hopes for a political transition. Public opinion within the States was equally unfavorable, with expansionists claiming that it was the Christian’s sacred duty to uplift the Filipinos from savagery to civility through a benevolent occupation. Reports from government commission also pointed out that, as there were only tribal politics in the Philipines, it has yet to develop the ability to govern itself and the United States shall continue its occupation to teach the local populace the values of democracy.
On the 23rd of March, 1901, things took the worst turn for the resistance, with Brigadier General Frederick Funston, leading 5 men, all disguised as prisoners, gained access to a resistance base and captured Aguinaldo alive.
What was most depressing for the resistance was how Aguinaldo swore allegiance with the United States government in no less than a week and issued a formal surrender on the 19th of April.
“Let the stream of blood cease to flow; let there be an end to tears and desolation,” he said, “I cannot refuse to heed the voice of a people longing for peace, nor the lamentations of thousands of families yearning to see their dear ones”. A peace and liberty “promised by the generosity of the great American nation”.
Though few laid down their arms in response to Aguinaldo’s plea, it still marked a turning point for the war. Though resistance remains unyielding throughout the Archipelago, their defeat seems more and more inevitable. Starved by scorch earth tactics, General Miguel Malvar of the resistance surrendered on 13th of April 1902.
As the American forces finished purging the all of Philipines, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the end of the Philipines-American War on 4th of July 1902 and henceforth, all republican forces and resistance would be deemed as ‘bandits’ and ‘thieves’. Although a few kept on fighting for more than a decade, clamped by the American army and the Philipino police, their number slowly wilted.
Soaked in blood, the pearl of the orient seas was finally dragged into a new age under the United States of America.
A revolution yet finished: the hundred year history between the Philippines and the United States
‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’ Orwell famously wrote.
Often labelled as the ‘Philippine Insurrection’, today the Philippine-American War remains an obscure topic. Thanks to the selective amnesia of post-imperial America and political concessions by the Philippine leaders, this dark chapter of history was seldom given the attention it deserves. Add salt to the wound, Aguinaldo’s quick surrender did not bring any good endings to the war for later generations to remember.
Threatened by a growingly assertive China in South East Asia, the Philippine-America alliance is structurally bound to remain and though President Duterte may shake things up with his vulgarities and diplomatic endeavours, there is little to none that can threaten this bilateral relationship nor the power equilibrium in the long run. As such, there will be little leverage for the Philippines to squeeze a formal apology from the United States. Although in the 2016 East Asia Summit, President Duterte had repeatedly mentioned the war crimes committed by Americans during the war, these accusations were drowned out by the President’s War on Drug and his general demeanour.
Bearing the scars of war and almost 50 years of colonial oppression, the Philippino people deserves an unreserved apology from the United States government:
- 1988: The US Senate granted reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned by the United States government during World War II.
- 1993: The Senate acknowledges that the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens.
- 2009: The United States government apologized for slavery, racial segregation and maltreatment of the aboriginal people.
Yet, a century had breezed through, and the people of the Philippines still found themselves queueing among a long line of victims, for a belated sense of remorse from the United States of America.
To some Filipino leaders, the revolution for an independent Philippines remains unfinished and, in this sense, Duterte’s outburst is more than the man himself. It symbolizes the agitated Philippines stuck in an asymmetrical relationship with the United States, struggling to be the master of its own fate, which is why, in 1991, even at the height of their alliance, the Philippine Senate passed a motion to shut down American military bases in Subic Bay and on Luzon Island. However, to the Americans, who see the Philippines as brothers in arms during the World War 2 and post-war economic partner, these ‘sudden outburst’ of Filipino nationalism are mere hissy-fits that need not to be understood. Such is the insensitivity of the titan in an asymmetrical relationship.
Though pegged to the ‘pro-American minor power’ stereotype by the international media, the Philippines have never forgotten its past as an American colony. Its anti-American sentiments traced beyond the strongman politics of Marcos and the humiliations suffered in American bases: To understand where Dutere’s words come from, we need to understand something buried far deeper in history: the Spanish-American War and the Philippino-American War, was the proper begging of deadly tango between the empire and the Archipelago.
(This article was published on the UDN Global and was translated by our staffs and republished under the author’s expressed consent.)