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Theodore Roosevelt Builds an Empire

The atrocities of America's war of conquest in the Philippines
Theodore Roosevelt

Journalist Gregg Jones offers a notable, if somewhat inelegant, reconstruction of Theodore Roosevelt’s career and this country’s embrace of empire between the years 1898-1902. Honor in the Dust shows how Roosevelt deftly maneuvered the U.S. and a war-weary President McKinley into a full-blown occupation of the Philippines, and how he managed the fallout. The conquest was a moral and historical disaster that Roosevelt—skilled in public relations—retooled for public consumption as the U.S. found itself in an unaccustomed imperial role.

As a student at Harvard, Roosevelt was steeped in the ideology of Anglo-Saxon superiority and grew infused with a sense of patriarchal purpose. Once a sickly, privileged child, he later went to extraordinary lengths to cultivate a tough Western identity. Roosevelt viewed military conflict as a chance to renovate America’s soft Gay Nineties image. He prized war as a source of meaning and redemption, and as Jones notes, loved it so much that he was eager to wage it himself. As always, appearances mattered: after resigning as McKinley’s assistant secretary of the Navy to lead a volunteer regiment in Cuba, Roosevelt commissioned what became known as his Rough Rider uniform. Brooks Brothers was the tailor.

If TR was on the prowl for new global responsibilities, the restless country was also ginned up for a fight. Americans wondered if they were missing out on the empire-building game, and they read their own revolutionary heritage into the Cuban fight for independence from Spain. The fatal—but likely accidental—explosion of the USS Maine near Havana in the winter of 1898 brought tensions to a head. President McKinley, a Republican who desperately wanted to avoid war, urged caution and ordered an investigation. But there wasn’t time to be certain, and Assistant Secretary Roosevelt had already laid the groundwork for campaigns against Spain in Cuba and the Philippine Islands.

Roosevelt’s vision for the Philippines, unlike the limited intervention in Cuba, was decidedly open-ended. He sought annexation and “pacification.” The young leader of the Filipino insurgency against Spanish rule, Emilio Aguinaldo, was assured that American interests were benevolent and short-term. As James Bradley established three years ago in his startling history The Imperial Cruise, Aguinaldo was initially wary of U.S. intentions, but he took the Constitution at its word: “I have studied attentively the Constitution of the United States, and I find in it no authority for colonies, and I have no fear.” But he soon figured out Roosevelt’s game and went into revolt against the new imperial power. He was captured in 1901.

In the U.S., the rhetoric of munificence flourished: America’s “little brown brothers”—William Howard Taft’s phrase—in the Philippines were simply unprepared for independence and self-governance. As the Republican attorney Albert Jeremiah Beveridge teased, it “would be like giving a razor to a babe and telling it to shave itself.” McKinley, who had cautioned against the “temptations of territorial aggression” in his first inaugural address, was ultimately persuaded by appeals to humanitarianism and his obligations as a Christian. Not that pragmatic reasons were ignored: abandoning the islands would be irresponsible given their strategic adjacency to East Asia. The Philippines were also ripe with resources, including coffee, tobacco, and wood.

Having faced an empire before, Aguinaldo and his army understood that they could not win a conventional war. Determined to protect their sovereignty, they resorted to unconventional means: Filipino soldiers would pose as farmers and villagers, waiting for “opportune moments to strike.” Meanwhile, U.S. military units arrived with “absolute ignorance of the Philippine archipelago in respect to geography, climate, people and general aspects of nature,” according to Major General Arthur MacArthur.

The Filipinos’ desperate bush-war tactics and  the U.S. military’s ignorance of the terrain created a formula for confusion and all-out guerrilla combat. Enemy troops were accused of “firing on ambulance litter bearers and Red Cross workers.” Endemic mistrust had disconcerting—and hardening—effects. Americans had a sense that the Filipinos were subhuman and dishonest. A reporter for the New York Evening Post wrote that U.S. troops “do not regard the shooting of Filipinos just as they would the shooting of white troops. The soldiers feel that they are fighting with savages, not with soldiers.”

In a staggering overreach, the American adminsitration targeted the entire island chain. Soldiers grew “callous and indifferent, willing at any time to take undue risks.” An “ethos of reprisal” took over. Almost at random, U.S. troops administered the “water cure,” a primeval version of waterboarding in which victims “experienced the simultaneous sensations of drowning and being burned or cut.” They burned fields and entire villages, massacring civilians and destroying crops and livestock. What began as a campaign for liberation deteriorated into an indiscriminate campaign of violence.

Overt racism, which became an organizing principle of sorts, was bound up with torture and systematic abuse. As one American soldier wrote home, “I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.” African-American soldiers, sensing in empire an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism and fitness for citizenship, confronted a baffling landscape: according to Jones, “nigger” was an epithet so repeatedly and “vehemently expressed that it quickly transcended language barriers.”

Jones suggests that American policy in the Philippines after the fall of 1900 aimed at extermination, if only by default. McKinley, who anticipated that his campaign for reelection would be a referendum on the muddled occupation, enlisted Roosevelt as his running mate. When McKinley defeated the anti-imperialist William Jennings Bryan, he interpreted his victory as a “clear mandate” to stay the course, even as he understood that the public was no longer infatuated with conquest. Roosevelt—who would become president following McKinley’s assassination a year after the election—had tried to convince voters that the war was already won.

What ended up as an occupation plagued by dishonorable conduct did not start out that way. During the first two years of conflict U.S. commanders periodically reminded their troops to treat the Filipinos humanely. But domestic politics caused these concerns to evaporate in the fall of 1900, when McKinley’s rush to get the war over with morphed into open season on Filipino fighters and civilians alike. Indeed, Jones’s evidence points to the top-down sanctioning of illegal conduct. In 1901, General MacArthur advised his soldiers to “create a reign of fear and anxiety among the disaffected which will become unbearable.”

At this point Americans no longer bothered to take Filipino prisoners alive and carried out summary executions. After a tour of the islands in 1901, one Republican congressman lamented: “The good Lord in Heaven only knows the number of Filipinos that were put under the ground. … Our soldiers took no prisoners, they kept no records; they simply swept the country, and wherever and whenever they could get hold of a Filipino they killed him.” One army general instructed his soldiers to turn a province into a “howling wilderness.” The Philippines conflict normalized torture, looting, arson, pillaging, and rape of native women as a strategy for insurgent “punishment.” It was, in historian Paul Kramer’s words, “a war without limits.”

Meanwhile, a strong contingent of anti-imperialists—including Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie—moved to put an end to the war crimes. A Democratic senator channeled William Graham Sumner: “Spain has had her revenge, for we have become the imitators of her most famous iniquities.”

A distraught Sen. George Frisbie Hoar, once considered the conscience of the Republican Party, anchors Jones’s account of anti-imperialism. Hoar, who was something of a civil rights activist, pushed the administration to investigate American abuses. In a speech on the Senate floor in 1902, he lamented:

You have sacrificed nearly ten thousand American lives—the flower of our youth. You have devastated provinces. You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit. You have established reconcentration camps. … You make the American flag in the eyes of a numerous people the emblem of sacrilege in Christian churches, and of the burning of human dwellings, and of the horror of the water torture.

According to the prominent anti-imperialist Moorfield Storey, the almost nihilistic culture of lawlessness in the Philippines occupation produced a ratio of five dead to every one wounded—the Civil War’s ratio in reverse. In his account of the violence, “Marked Severities” in Philippine Warfare, Storey delineated specific methods of American torture—including the water cure,  “spread eagle,” and “hanging act”—and argued that the military and the government had condoned and even institutionalized war crimes and later made efforts to cover them up. Only three officers were reprimanded for abuses, and their penalties were negligible. Storey writes, “even an army judge advocate like Captain Glenn ordered such a water cure and, on being court-martialed and found guilty, was sentenced to pay a fine of fifty dollars, which is one half the fine that may be imposed for spitting on a public street car in Boston.”

Roosevelt was miffed by the backlash as war-crimes scandals transfixed the nation. Concerned about public perception, he toyed with the idea of a special commission to prosecute the “water cure crowd.” But ultimately he attributed the abuse to a few bad apples and doubled down: “We are not taking a single step which in any way affects our institutions or our traditional policies.” (He looked to the “pacification” of the American frontier as one such tradition.) He also dismissed the notion that the water cure did “serious damage.” Perhaps he was convinced by one colonel who claimed that the practice inadvertently treated dengue fever.

Jones writes that Roosevelt “relished conflict and upsetting the status quo,” and as a politician he was constantly inventing and remaking reality. While Jones suggests that Roosevelt was to some degree humbled by the debacle in the Philippines, his public-relations prowess ensured that his successors were not. (Roosevelt only mentions the Philippines nine times in his carefully-packaged autobiography.) Nevertheless, under Roosevelt’s leadership the islands were forced into submission, and the war “sputtered to a close” in the summer of 1902. The Filipinos would not win their independence until after World War II.

Though Jones’s extensive synthesis of primary sources is impressive, Honor in the Dust suffers from bouts of melodrama and heavy-handedness. (In his prologue, Jones imagines a session of water torture: “Oh, how it hurts! … I will tell the americanos what they wanted to hear.”) The book also suffers from a meandering narrative, though perhaps that more than anything reflects the impulsive and frenetic nature of America’s imperial outburst during these years, from the beaches of Hawaii and Guantanamo Bay to the Imperial City in Beijing.

Roosevelt was a master of coloring reality. The closest he came to admitting error was to acknowledge to a friend, “In the Philippines our men have done well, and on the whole have been exceedingly merciful, but there have been some blots on the record.” Blots, indeed. In a recent interview with Time, Jones’s conclusion was similarly understated: “This wasn’t Theodore Roosevelt’s finest hour. Many things he did regarding the Philippines and the war-crimes revelations in 1901–02 were not admirable.” At least Roosevelt conceded in the end, “torture is not a thing we can tolerate.”

Maisie Allison is a researcher for Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish at The Daily Beast.



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