Here is Episode 29 for your listening pleasure! This episode covers the part of the Spanish-American War that was fought in the Philippines. In doing so we will say goodbye to Spain, and meet the last colonial power to come to Southeast Asia, the United States. In the past the narrative could cover centuries of events with one episode, but this time almost everything happened in one year, 1898.
(Transcript, added 06/14/2020.)
Episode 29: America Comes to the Philippines
Greetings, dear listeners! Guess what? “Mission creep” has set in here. Currently we are catching up on the Philippines, because we barely mentioned those islands between Episodes 14 and 28. Now with the rest of Southeast Asia, we have come to the end of the nineteenth century, and in the case of Thailand and Malaya, we have gone all the way to the end of the 1930s, so we don’t have to talk about those countries again until we are ready for World War II.
I said last time that I expected two episodes will be needed to get the Philippines up to the same time frame. But when I wrote down most of my notes, back in the 1970s and 80s, we didn’t have Google and Wikipedia; my main source was libraries. Yeah, for the younger listeners, that must sound like ancient history. Nowadays, when I check to see what new sources are available, I get an explosion of information that wasn’t available before! This means I am like the other history podcasters who promise to do a certain number of episodes on a subject, and then end up doing more than that, to cover everything new they learn. At this point, it looks like I will need another episode after this one, to finish covering the American era in the Philippines, making for three Philippine episodes in all. Just out of curiosity, has any history podcaster had the opposite problem, where a shortage of information forced him to do less episodes than promised? Even the Lesser Bonapartes didn’t do that, when they promised a four-episode series on the Elamite civilization, and eventually delivered it, though most of the time they just lamented that they knew almost nothing about the Elamites.
I also found out when recording the last episode that the longer it runs, the more days it takes to record and edit it, so unlike Dan Carlin, I would rather do two short episodes than one really long one. At least then I can stick to my self-imposed schedule of an episode at the beginning and in the middle of each month.
If you listened to the last episode, you know that the Philippines were a Spanish colony for more than three hundred years, and as Philippine society began to modernize, we saw the development of a nationalist movement. First came a call to let Filipinos serve in the clergy, because the Spaniards most Filipinos were in contact with were priests and monks, and natives only got to fill those jobs when there weren’t enough Europeans available. Then came reformers like Jose Rizal, who wanted the Philippines to stay in the Spanish empire, but said changes needed to be made. Instead of heeding the reformers, Spain executed them, so revolutionaries took their place, who wanted complete independence from Spain. The revolutionary group, the Katipunan, began its war for independence in 1896, and eventually its most successful military commander, Emilio Aguinaldo, became leader of the whole movement. In 1897 the war was going well enough for the Filipinos that Aguinaldo declared the Philippines a republic, with himself as the first president. Spain’s choices were to send thousands of reinforcements to the Spanish army, enough soldiers to crush the rebellion, or negotiate a peaceful settlement. Spain could not afford to do the former, because it was dealing with another rebellion in Cuba, so it did the latter, paying Aguinaldo enough money to make him go to Hong Kong. Naturally, both sides claimed victory after they reached an agreement; Spain declared that the rebellion was over, while Aguinaldo declared that the end of hostilities was a temporary intermission, until he was able to resume the struggle. Both were wrong, because a new nation, one more powerful than the worn-out Spanish empire, would enter the game, and this nation had just developed a taste for imperialism.
So far we have met five Western nations that have taken colonies for themselves in Southeast Asia: Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain and France. Now we are going to meet the last colonial power to come to the region, the United States of America.
The Americans were the last to arrive in this part of the world because they got started as a nation in the eighteenth century, later than the Europeans we mentioned, and for the first century after they declared independence, they had enough challenges and opportunities at home to keep them busy. Starting as thirteen former British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America, they expanded westward to the Pacific, in a movement that Americans came to see as inevitable. They even gave it a name, calling it their “Manifest Destiny.” From this point of view, the American advance could not be stopped. Anyone who got in the way needed to move or make a deal, otherwise the Americans would run right over them.
In strategy games like Civilization, where gamers play the rulers of cities or nations, they are encouraged to do four things with an unknown territory: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate! We call these behaviors the 4 “Xs”, and Americans did all of them as they went west. The extermination part had to do with the Native American tribes, an unfortunate trend Daniele Bolelli has covered over the past few months in his “History On Fire” podcast. When Americans weren’t practicing the 4 “Xs”, they were debating issues like slavery and states’ rights.
As long as the Americans had a frontier region to settle in, they could be optimistic about their future. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, the end of expansion on the mainland was in sight. The first telegraph line across North America was built in 1861, and that put the famous Pony Express service out of business, just a year and a half after it got started. Then in 1869 the first railroad across the continent was completed, so now rapid communication and transportation from coast to coast were both available. Native resistance ended with the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, and the last territories in western North America gained enough residents to become states in 1912. As for expansion in other directions, the US attempted to annex Canada twice, during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, and both invasions were defeated, so most Americans didn’t want to try that again. And with Mexico, once the United States had acquired Texas, California and the land in-between, it had all the Mexican territory it wanted.
Did the United States have to stop expanding? Many Americans thought not. Maybe the USA could keep on advancing, south into Central America and the Caribbean, and west into the Pacific! South of the United States, Americans had restricted European influence by imposing the Monroe Doctrine, and gradually they gained influence over the economies and governments of Latin American and Caribbean nations. By the early twentieth century, Americans would have so many investments and other interests in Cuba and Panama, that they might as well have owned those countries. But that’s a topic for a podcast about Latin American history to cover.
In the Pacific, the United States made its first move when Congress passed the Guano Islands Act in 1856. This meant that the United States would claim any islands it found that were uninhabited, but covered with bird droppings, or as it is called in Spanish, guano. Guano was a hot commodity in the nineteenth century because it was a source of potassium nitrate, one of the ingredients of gunpowder, and because of the discovery that guano is an excellent fertilizer for plants. Using this act, the United States acquired the following islands in the Pacific: Wake Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, and Howland, Baker and Jarvis Islands. If you want to know how much people wanted guano in those days, look up the history of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru; in the 1880s they fought one of the biggest wars in South American history over a desert full of nitrates, most of it coming from bird poop!
The next moves came in 1867, when the United States bought Alaska from Russia, and claimed Midway Island, in the middle of the north Pacific. In the 1880s and 1890s the United States, Britain and Germany had a three-way rivalry over Samoa, which lasted until Britain dropped its claim, allowing America and Germany to divide the Samoan islands between them. On the Hawaiian Islands, a steady stream of white immigrants, whom the natives called Haoles, moved in over the course of the nineteenth century. By 1893 the Haole community was large enough to stage a coup that toppled Hawaii’s monarchy, and they immediately petitioned to join the US. But the current US president, Grover Cleveland, opposed imperialism, so Hawaii was not annexed until 1898, after the next president, William McKinley, took office. Then in 1899 the McKinley administration issued the Open Door policy, which promised that the United States would prevent other foreign powers from interfering any more in Chinese affairs, in return for a promise from China to allow equal trade access for all nations.
The United States did not want to build an overseas empire because it needed resources; their abundantly blessed homeland provided almost every resource the Americans could want or need. Nor were they motivated by a desire to pump up national pride, the way the French were after they lost the Franco-Prussian War. The doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” was still working in the Americans’ favor, but now they were also motivated by other factors: the Darwinian idea that “survival of the fittest” applied to nations as well as animals and businesses, the rapid growth of American trade and investment overseas, concern about being closed out of the world market by the other empires, and that curious mixture of idealism and imperialism which made Westerners feel it was their duty to bring “Christianity, civilization and commerce” to underprivileged people. Finally, many Americans read the books and articles written by Captain Alfred T. Mahan, a leading strategist, who emphasized that in the modern world, the world’s greatest nations needed sea power to be successful. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy under McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, was a follower of Captain Mahan’s teachings.
American involvement in Southeast Asia came as an afterthought. Before 1898, most Americans, including President McKinley, knew nothing about the Philippines, and could not find those islands on a map. The place overseas that interested Americans the most was Cuba, an island much closer to home. Like the Philippines, Cuba had an ongoing war between a local nationalist movement and the Spanish army.
Today we talk a lot about irresponsible reporters and news organizations promoting fake news. Fake news was a common problem in the 1890s, too; we use the term “yellow journalism” for news stories from those days that played with the readers’ emotions and weren’t accurate with the facts. The newspapers of the day found that atrocity stories from Cuba were a great way to boost circulation, so they kept on publishing them, until most Americans favored intervening on the side of the Cubans.
Along that line, there is a well-known story about William Randolph Hearst, one of America’s most powerful newspaper publishers. Hearst hired Frederic Remington, an artist famous for his paintings of cowboys and Indians in the American West. This time Remington’s assignment was to draw some sketches of the Cuban rebellion. When Remington arrived in Cuba, however, the Cubans and the Spaniards were talking peace, just as there were peace talks in the Philippines between Aguinaldo and the Spaniards at the same time. Remington became homesick, and sent his boss this telegram. Quote: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Unquote. Hearst was so confident of what his newspapers could do that he wired back, quote: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Unquote.
In early 1898 a small American battleship, the USS Maine, arrived in Havana Harbor. Neither the Spaniards nor Cubans had invited the Maine there, but they acted like they were pleased to see the ship, while the real purpose of the Maine’s visit was to protect US citizens and their money and property, should the Cuban rebellion reach Havana. On February 15, 1898, the Maine suddenly blew up, killing 266 of her crew.
The cause of the blast wasn’t known, and many years later, in 1976, a naval inquiry declared it was probably a spontaneous explosion in the ship’s coal bunkers, which set off a nearby magazine. Back then, however, few Americans believed the explosion was an accident, and the “yellow journalism” press argued that Spain must have set off a mine under the Maine. Spanish officials immediately protested that they would never do such a thing; they knew that if war broke out between the United States and Spain, Spain did not have much chance of winning. Too bad for them; by now the American mood was, “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” On April 11 President McKinley reluctantly asked Congress to declare war, and the Spanish-American War was on.
In the last episode, we saw Manila become a target during the Seven Years War simply because the Philippines were in the Spanish Empire. Now Manila would become a target again for the same reason. When war became likely, Americans living in west coast states like California worried that the Spanish Asiatic fleet would sail from the Philippines to attack them. So even before war was declared, Theodore Roosevelt ordered Commodore George Dewey to lead a naval squadron across the Pacific and engage the Spanish fleet at Manila. This move made sure that the first battle would be fought on the other side of the world from Cuba.
Commodore Dewey’s squadron arrived in Manila Bay on April 30, 1898. He had nine ships: four cruisers, two gunboats, a revenue cutter, and two troop transports. The flagship was one of the cruisers, the USS Olympia. They spent the night looking for the defending Spanish fleet, and then early on the morning of May 1, Dewey issued a famous command to Charles Gridley, the captain of the Olympia: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” The Spanish ships were outgunned and out of date, so there was never any doubt over who would win. Seven hours later, the battle was over. Eight of the thirteen Spanish ships were sunk, and Spanish casualties were 77 dead and 271 wounded. The American losses were trivial: one ship damaged, nine sailors wounded, and one sailor died from the heat.
Immediately after the American victory, it wasn’t clear what would happen next. There were Spanish soldiers in several parts of the Philippines, and Commodore Dewey brought back Aguinaldo from Hong Kong, so he could raise a native army against the Spaniards. This was so successful that on June 12, 1898, Aguinaldo issued a formal declaration of independence from Spain. In the Philippines today, June 12 is celebrated as Independence Day for that reason. Around this time, Aguinaldo asked an American general, Thomas H. Anderson, if the Americans planned on keeping the Philippines, and Anderson reassured him by saying, quote: “In one hundred and twenty-two years we have established no colonies. I leave you to draw your own inference.” Unquote.
Meanwhile, warships from Britain, France, Germany and Japan entered Manila Bay, looking for opportunities now that the Spanish fleet was gone. The eight German ships were the most annoying; they cut in front of American ships, refused to salute the US flag (a custom of naval courtesy), took soundings of the harbor, and landed supplies for the Spaniards. They did all this because they expected the Spaniards or the Filipinos would defeat the Americans, and then the Germans could send in their troops and take the islands for themselves. Thus, there was a brief war scare between the American and German fleets, before the Germans backed down.
Also in June, an American cruiser and three troop transports on their way to the Philippines stopped at Guam. This island did not have a telegraph or telephone line to the outside world, and the last message received from Spain was dated April 14, so none of the locals knew about the war. This caused a silly incident where the Americans fired some warning shots at the island’s fort, and instead of shooting back, two Spanish officers in a boat came to the cruiser. The officers welcomed the newcomers, apologized for not returning the salute, and asked if they could borrow some gunpowder so they could return the salute now! Instead, the captain of the cruiser, Henry Glass, informed them that the United States and Spain were at war, and that all Spanish personnel on Guam were prisoners. In that way Guam was captured without resistance. Previously there had been rumors of Spanish warships stationed at Guam, but the only ship the Americans saw besides their own was a Japanese freighter, which had come to Guam to buy copra, dried coconut. The Americans stayed two days to arrange a formal surrender of the island’s 54-man Spanish garrison, and install the island’s only American resident as the new governor, before moving on to join Dewey’s fleet in Manila Bay.
By the end of July, 12,000 American troops had arrived in the Philippines, and the Philippine Revolutionary Army’s strength had increased to more than 30,000 troops. A Spanish garrison still held Manila, but since it could not receive reinforcements from Spain, it was only a matter of time before the Americans or the Filipinos forced them to surrender. The Spanish governor, Basilio Augustín, understandably feared a bloodbath if the Filipinos captured the city, so surrendering to the Americans looked like the least painful option, but when Spain heard he was thinking about this, it replaced him with a new governor, Fermín Jáudenes. The problem was Spain’s old code of honor, which only allowed surrender after being defeated in a fair fight. To preserve Spanish dignity, and avoid a court-martial, the Spanish and American commanders secretly planned to fight a mock artillery battle over Manila, after which the Spaniards would surrender. The tricky parts were that they needed to make it look like a regular battle, though the Americans and Spaniards weren’t really trying to kill each other, and the Americans had to keep their Filipino allies from rushing into the city.
The mock battle was held on August 13, 1898. The plan was for the American ships to begin by shelling Fort San Antonio Abad, an old, abandoned fortress on the outskirts of Manila, and then bombard the walls surrounding Intramuros, the center of Manila. These targets were chosen because if they were hit, there would be an impressive amount of noise and smoke, but no one would get hurt. Next, American soldiers would march into the city, the American flagship would fly the semaphore flags calling for an enemy’s surrender, and the Spaniards would raise a white flag over Manila, signaling an end to the whole affair. Most of the battle went according to that plan, but of course there were some exceptions. The gunners on one ship, not knowing that this battle was supposed to be fought like a war game, thought they were given the wrong ranges for the targets and they changed them, allowing them to score some direct hits. To keep up the charade, Dewey had to call a cease-fire, and order this ship to leave the battle. Meanwhile in another part of Manila, some Filipino revolutionaries, thinking this battle was the real thing, enthusiastically joined an American unit on the march. The sight of the Filipinos coming to get them caused the Spaniards to panic and open fire; in that skirmish six Americans and forty-nine Spaniards were killed. These were the only casualties in the battle for Manila. Most of the Filipino army stayed out of the battle because General Anderson told Aguinaldo to wait until all the Spaniards had surrendered before entering the city, and Aguinaldo trusted the Americans enough to comply with this request.
Actually the Manila battle wasn’t needed at all. Spain had formally conceded defeat to the United States on August 12, the day before the battle. Since Dewey had cut the cable to Manila back in May, news that the war was over didn’t reach the Philippines until August 16. Thus, both the first and last battles of the Spanish-American War were fought in the Philippines. The treaty ending the war was signed in December, and here Spain handed over Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States for nothing. However, the Philippines were a colony much bigger than the others, and the diplomats haggled over the Philippines for a long time, until the Americans persuaded Spain to give up the whole archipelago for $20 million. The other Micronesian islands under Spanish rule were later sold to Germany, because the Americans did not want them. The story of the Spanish empire, which had started four hundred years earlier with Christopher Columbus, was now over.
When news of Manila’s capture made it to the US mainland, one newspaper, The New York Journal, took credit for the part yellow journalism had played in the war by posting a headline that blared, quote: “HOW DO YOU LIKE THE JOURNAL’S WAR?” Unquote. The general American attitude was summarized in a letter that John Hay, the US ambassador to Britain, wrote to Roosevelt. Quote: “It has been a splendid little war.” End quote.
The US Congress voted to grant independence to Cuba, and Guam and Puerto Rico have chosen to stay with the United States until this day, mainly because of all the benefits they have received from the Federal Government. But again, the Philippines would require special treatment. We said that before the war, Americans had never given the Philippines much thought; they certainly hadn’t planned to take those islands from Spain. Now they did not know what to do with the archipelago. Some Americans (mainly Democrats) felt that independence should be granted immediately, and that the Philippine nationalist movement was every bit as legitimate as the one that had started the United States in 1776. Southern Democrats did not want to annex the Philippines, because that would allow brown people to move onto the US mainland.
Another American who disapproved of the United States taking the Philippines was Andrew Carnegie, the chief of the American steel industry and one of the richest men in the country. He was appalled to hear that in the treaty ending the Spanish-American War, the United States bought the Philippines from Spain. In response, Carnegie offered $20 million of his own money to the Filipino nationalists so they could buy their independence from the US government. Obviously they didn’t take him up on his offer, and I’ll leave it to alternate history fans to speculate on how different the history of the Philippines would have been if they accepted it.
Despite these voices, the American public favored keeping the Philippines. And a majority in Congress took the imperialist view, feeling that taking the Philippines was a step in building a great American empire. They argued that the Philippines could not stand on its own; the presence of foreign ships in Manila Bay told them that if the United States did not take the Philippines, another nation would. One of them, Senator Albert J. Beveridge from Indiana, voiced this with a blatant imperialist speech. Quote:
“Mr. President . . . God has not prepared the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns . . . He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples . . . He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America . . . The Philippines are ours forever. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world.”
For most of 1898 President McKinley did not know what to do about the “Philippine problem,” because he was only interested in domestic issues and things in the United States. He showed this in 1901, when he visited Niagara Falls and went on the Honeymoon Bridge, which crossed the Niagara River between the United States and Canada. Up to that point, no president had left the United States while in office, and McKinley didn’t want to be the first, so he walked on the bridge to the halfway point, and then turned back. When it came to foreign policy, he was so indecisive that one joke said: “Why is President McKinley’s mind like a bed? Because it has to be made up for him before he can use it.”
By the end of the year, though, McKinley came around to support the imperialists. He may have gone with this decision because it was the majority opinion, but a year later he told a visiting Methodist missionary society that God told him to do it. As he explained, night after night he walked the floor of the White House, and went down on his knees and quote, “prayed Almighty God for light and guidance.” Unquote. Then one night the answer came to him. Quote: “That there was nothing left for us to do but take them all [meaning the Philippine Islands], 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.” Unquote. McKinley finished by saying that after this inspiration, he went to bed and slept soundly.
By “Christianize the Filipinos,” the president meant convert them to Protestantism. Many Americans were prejudiced against Catholics, at least until 1960, when they elected a Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. And Protestant missionaries did go to the Philippines in the twentieth century. Because of their work, a fraction of today’s Filipino population, maybe 8 percent, is neither Catholic nor Moslem; that includes my wife’s family.
My, oh my. Whereas in the past we could cover centuries of events with an episode, this one mainly talked about events in one year, 1898. Spain is out of the game, we won’t have to talk about Spain anymore, but now the stage has been set for a new conflict. The Americans have decided to keep the Philippine Islands, while Aguinaldo and the other Philippine nationalists, who had been expecting to receive independence, now feel betrayed. The 1898 battle for Manila marked the end of cooperation between Filipino and American soldiers, and that made it impossible for the two sides to reach a peaceful agreement afterwards. Therefore we will end the episode here and continue the narrative by talking about the war between Americans and Filipinos in the next episode. This war has been forgotten by most of today’s Americans; those who know about it call it the Philippine Insurrection or the Philippine-American War, depending on whether or not they are politically correct. And then if we have time after covering the war, we will look at how the United States ran the Philippines, up to the beginning of World War II.
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