pop The Filipino-American War of 1899 - 1902 and its Contemporary Resonance


by E. San Juan, Jr.

Copyright © 1998 E. San Juan, Jr. All rights reserved.

This year will mark the centenary of both Admiral Dewey's victory over the Spanish fleet in the "battle of Manila Bay" of May 1, 1898, and the proclamation of Philippine Independence on June 12, 1898. What connects them is the historic context of the Spanish-American War, the racializing ideology of "Manifest Destiny," and more specifically the figure of General Emilio Aguinaldo, the president of the first Philippine Republic, who, after negotiations with various American consuls, returned to Cavite from his exile in Hong Kong on board the U.S. ship McCulloch as per instruction of Admiral Dewey.

The proclamation of Filipino national sovereignty by Aguinaldo followed the advice of the American consul-general of Hong Kong, Rounseville Wildman, and contained the following statement: "....as the great and powerful North American nation has offered its disinterested protection to secure the liberty of this country, I again assume command of all the troops in the struggle...." After the Treaty of Paris and President McKinley's Benevolent Assimilation proclamation, the incident of February 4, 1899 occurred: an American patrol shot a Filipino soldier on the bridge at San Juan, followed by a general U.S. offensive against the Filipino lines. On February 6, the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris and converted the archipelago as its own territory to pacify. Pacification culminated in the capture of Aguinaldo on March 23, 1901. Two days after the adoption of the Philippine Organic Act of July 2, 1902, Taft declared the "Philippine Insurrection" over. But the war raged on....

Numerous accounts of this war of conquest, the inaugural event of United States-Philippines relations in modern times, have been written, among them: James Blount's The American Occupation of the Philippinesg 1898-1912 (1912), Stuart Creighton Miller's Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippinesg 1899-1903 (1982), Leon Wolff's Little Brown Brother (1961), and the substantial essay of Luzviminda Francisco, "The First Vietnam: The Philippine American War, 1899-1902," reprinted in Daniel Schirmer and Stephen Shalom's The Philippines Reader (1987). My favorite account, however, is that of Mark Twain, in his satirical mock-reports and in his review of Edwin Wildman's biography of Aguinaldo. In this latter piece Twain summed up the whole import of the war in two sentences: "Thirty thousand killed a million. It seems a pity that the historian let that get out; it is really a most embarrassing circumstance" (see Jim Zwick's important volume, Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire, Syracuse University Press, 1992).

I don't need to elaborate on the cost of the war-about a million Filipinos died as a result of the scorched-earth policy, one of the "most ruthless and savage" wars (according to one commentary) ever conducted by the U.S. military, and according to Karnow, "among the cruelest conflicts in the annals of Western imperialism"; it was the 'first Vietnam," for some. What I want to call attention to is the resonance of this event in the hermeneutic discourse and historiography of U.S. scholars on Philippine affairs, the way it established the framework of intelligibility for constructing what became the accepted knowledge of Philippine society, Filipino character and psychology, and Filipino culture. In short, the interpretations and judgments expressed about this episode afford us a symptomatic reading of the theoretical grid of interests and motives-in short, the ideological apparatus - through which commonplace truths and received notions about the Philippines and Filipinos have been filtered and shaped.

Let us take the remarks of David Joel Steinberg, arguably the "dean" of American scholars on Philippine matters, as the touchstone for this brief genealogy. In The Philippines: A Singular and A Plural Place (1982), Steinberg laments the era as one of "violent discontinuity," dilating on the internal conflicts within the Aguinaldo camp and the ambiguities of Filipino leaders amid half-praise for Filipino nationalism. He writes:

"The strength of the Philippine nationalism on both the elite and the peasant levels was a factor in shaping the U.S. policy of self-liquidating colonialism, in which the "little brown brother" was permitted to achieve independence when he grew up, a maturation process that took forty-five years" (50).

The trope of tutelage, the notion of American "exceptionalism," the evolutionary metaphor of "maturation," people of color as infantile wards, and so on-all these inform a whole corpus of texts formulating the legitimacy of U.S. occupation of the Philippines, from those of LeRoy, Worcester and Forbes to Hayden, Taylor, Stanley, Friend, May, and Karnow. Hence, Steinberg argues that mass education leading to functional literacy provided the technocrats, bureaucrats and functionaries of Taft's "Filipinization" campaign. This in turn "diffused the tight control of an interlocked and interrelated class" by the proliferation of subelites. Defying incontrovertible facts, Steinberg is really convinced that education limited "oligarchic domination," making much of the quarrels betwenn Quezon, Osmena and Sumulong during the pre-Commonwealth days. Accompanying this apology for U.S. colonization is a view that has become hegemonic in U.S. scholarship, namely, the Filipino elite's success in forcing "the American reformers [such as the Schurman and Taft commissions] to accept them and their world view." In short, responsibility for the failure to radically transform the unequal power and property-relations does not lie with the American colonial administrators or with U.S. federal policies; it lies with the Filipino elite. Steinberg invokes the notion of "compadre colonialism," the policy of attraction and accomodation in which both sides, rulers and ruled, recognized the mutual advantages in their collaboration. Steinberg concludes his summary of the U.S. colonial period: "The Americans surrendered to the ilustrados the means to achieve that goal [of making the Philippines the U.S. "showcase of democracy"]. The result was an odd mixture of theory and expediency, a perpetual compromise, a modern variant of indirect rule."

This version of "compadre colonialism" evolves into that of "sentimental imperialists" in the work of Peter Stanley, and later of Friend, May, and the popularizer of their findings, Stanley Karnow. Perhaps the most naï ve but also revealing anecdotes of this "compadre colonialism" can be found in the ex- CIA agent Joseph B. Smith's account of his dealings with Magsaysay, Macapagal, Manglapus, and other politicians in his book Portrait of a Cold Warrior (1976).

Karnow's In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines (1989) is probably the most effective tool of persuasion for what I would call the apologetic mode of Filipinology sustained by the insidious epistemological paradigm of structural-functionalism of the Cold War era. Karnow assumes as foundational supports the axioms of "national character" proposed by Frank Lynch and his school in the Ateneo University Institute of Philippine Culture: categories signalled by such terms as pakikisama, utang na loob, hiya, amor propio, smooth interpersonal relations, compadrazgo system, and so on. Cultural reductionism substitutes for concrete analysis of determinate political and socioeconomic situations. One would think that the massive efforts of Virgilio Enriquez and his colleagues had already pronounced the obituary of this kind of diagnosis. But I stand corrected.

Karnow uncritically deploys these categories as parameters for explaining the failure of American colonialism to transform the Philippines into an authentic democratic society. Filipinos were, Karnow writes, "trapped in a tangle of contradictions.... History is responsible" for the colonizers accomodating to "Filipino traditions," the "baffling web of real and ritual kinship ties." This tenacious and ubiquitous personalism, undermining nationalist programs and claims, explains the backwardness and neocolonial underdevelopment of the whole society.

What is more unconscionable is Karnow's habit of using the term "Filipinos" in general when he means members of the oligarchy, or selected ruling class representatives. For example, after World War II, Karnow writes, "aside from a few ultranationalists, Filipinos generally welcomed the so-called special relationship as proof of America's concern of their welfare" (330). Who are these Filipinos? Not the millions of peasants in the Huk army and its mass base harrassed and persecuted by General McArthur, and certainly not those killed by U.S. bombing of Manila during Liberation days, nor the considerable number who collaborated with the Japanese, among them the father of Senator Benigno Aquino, Jose Laurel, Manuel Roxas, and many others. Arguably the epitome of Karnow's casuistic talent is encapsulated in the following paragraph in the middle of his book:

"After World War II, American negotiators did indeed force Filipino leaders to accept onerous conditions in the bases agreement as the price for freedom. But the majority of Filipinos, then yearning to be part of America's global strategy, would have been disappointed had the United States rejected them. So they submitted voluntarily to their own exploitation. Their dream, as historian Theodore Friend has put it, was to be "a favored and exemplary party within a Pax Americana, a kind of inverse Cinderella, most beloved adoptee of a benign and powerful stepmother" (330).

Now I am aware that it is actually modernization theory, not the Cinderella story, that sanctions the analysis of social relations in terms of underdevelopment, an implicit adherence to the now invalidated evolutionary scheme of human progress. Roxanne Lynn Doty, in her book Imperial Encounters, applies a sophisticated deconstructive methodology of exposing the strategies of ideological legitimation in U.S. foreign policy in the Philippines. Her qualified use of Foucault's archeology exposes the knowledge/power motive of domination in representational practices and proves the not so surprising fact that U.S. foreign policy discourse was racist indeed. Whatever the limitations of this approach, Doty emphasizes one truth which bears reiteration: "The reality 'instantiated' in this discourse facilitated practices that led to the death of more than a million Filipinos and the subsequent denial of their right to seff- government" (48). Applied to U.S. counterinsurgency programs against the Huks and the New People's Army, this mode of analysis can be extremely purgative and conscienticizing.

In my recent book Beyond Postcolonial Theory, I have criticized the underlying assumptions of Karnow's work. But since the book may be inaccessible to many, let me excerpt a few passages here appropriate for the occasion.

The agenda of the present neoconservative trend in Philippine studies in the U.S. academy is geared chiefly to the task of redefining U.S.-Philippines putative "special relations" by downplaying the power of American imperial governance. In the process, scholars enlarge the role of the Filipino elite in order to convert "empire" into an evolutionary experiment in "tutelage," shifting the onus of accountability to the victims. In reviewing a volume edited by Peter Stanley entitled Reappraising an Empire. New Perspectives on Philippine-American History (1984), Robert Stauffer acutely points to the dogmatic ideological framework of the new apologetics, a variant of neoWeberian Parsonian sociology. He isolates the theoretical basis of this trend in the inflation of the concept of patron-client dyad based on reciprocal obligations. This conceptual framework ignores the world-systems approach (developed and refined in the last two decades) that predicates dependency on unequal exchange. Why? Because such a cogent alternative theory would rule out the patron-client schema of explanation since dependency excludes reciprocity.

Stauffer contends that Stanley and like-minded Filipinologists romanticize the relation of "collaborative elites" and colonizers; they give "a Victorian legitimacy to past conquests and in so doing justify - [by demonstrating how satisfactory are the relations between Filipinos and Americans, e.g. Lansdale and Magsaysay] - future imperial ventures." Further, by reducing all relations to that of patron-client over and above the context of sharpening class and other sectoral divisions, the proponents of the "collaborative empire" give the impression that such relations are permanent and deserve to be legitimized.

It is clear that the revisionary thrust of scholars employing the patron-client model aims to recast the exploitative relationship of dependency into a reciprocal one where responsibility is equalized if not dispersed. By downplaying any serious U.S. influence on Philippine social structures and inflating the ingenious duplicity of the colonized, Stauffer argues that Stanley and his colleagues make "empire" into a romantic ideology.

From this angle, one can understand Stanley's partisanship in openly espousing a program of exoneration: "...it is a hubristic illusion for Americans to imagine that, in the colonial era, they liberalized, modernized, or, for that matter, exploited the Philippines in any large, systemic, or lasting way." That is of course disingenuous. Since a seemingly immutable patron-client pattern of relationship determined political life during U.S. ascendancy, Filipino nationalism is relegated to the "manipulative underside of the collaborative empire," with the oxymoron of "collaborative empire" recuperating McKinley's "benevolent assimilation" proclamation, the tropological matrix of U.S. rule over the island colony. In retrospect, one can describe this new "civilizing mission" - a phrase evoking the period of a socioeconomic transition from European mercantilism to a new international division of labor subtending capital's strategy of "counterrevolution," to use Arno Mayer's term - as the ideological impetus behind the march of Anglo-Saxon progress over the conquered territories and subjugated bodies of African slaves, American Indians, Mexicans, Chinese workers, and so on, from the erection of the pilgrim settlements to the closing of the western frontier at the end of the nineteenth century.

But I think the lesson of the Filipino-American War does not reside in its holocaustic dimensions. It lies in how U.S. colonial policy was conceived and implemented in the wake of the fierce nationalist resistance of the Filipinos from 1899 up to the middle of the second decade of this century. The lesson really concerns the technique of hegemonic overcoming of the enemy (here, the durable tradition of Filipino resistance) - the utilization of coercion and consensual methods (the formation of the Federal Party, Taft's Act No.78, bribery, use of intermediaries and "fifth columnists," and other means of ideological persuasion - that constitute the novelty of U.S. colonial rule in the first three decades, a novelty that has misled Steinberg, Karnow, and others, to ascribe much more shrewdness and ingenuity to the Filipino compradors and oligarchs than is warranted by the historical evidence. The program of "education for self-rule," the imposition of American English, the pensionado system, and the whole cultural paraphernalia of individual/personal advancement and electoral democracy - all these deserve closer investigation and critical analysis since their effects, more deleterious than salutary, have affected the lives of several generations of Filipinos. And their resonances, their delayed repercussions, are still registered and lived in the three million Filipino Americans who have settled here, and more than six million Overseas Contract Workers in the Filipino diaspora scattered around the planet.

Given this retrospective survey, the recent quarrel over the return of the souvenir bells of Balangiga, Samar, may be amusing for what it reveals about nostalgia and ethnocentrism. But surely it reminds us that the so-called "Philippine insurrection" (which most textbooks skip over anyway) was not a trivial episode in the "splendid little war" of Theodore Roosevelt, Admiral Mahan ("prophet" of Subic Naval Base and other springboards to the China market and intervention in Asia), and the "yellow journalists" of that time - 45 American soldiers and several hundred, maybe thousand, Filipinos were killed in the aftermath of that particular encounter. They betoken the tragic brutality of that war and the heavy stakes for both sides, then and now. Whether they are returned or not, to recall John Donne's now forgotten aphorism, we know for whom the Balangiga bells toll, even after a hundred years - they toll for you and me.


Doty, Roxanne Lynn.
Imperial Encounters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Karnow, Stanley.
In Our Image. New York: Random House, 1989.
San Juan, E.
Beyond Postcolonial Theory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Steinberg, David Joel.
The Philippines: A Singular and A Plural Place. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982.

(Remarks delivered at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, 18 March 1998, on the occasion of a program devoted to "The Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War of 1898 and Its Legacy")

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created: August 10, 1998
updated: August 26, 2000
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