EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains contains detailed descriptions of violence and use of abhorrent racial slurs. Reader discretion is strongly advised.
In the late 1800s, Europe saw a massive, collectivized expansion into Asia and Africa. Otto von Bismarck called the Berlin Conference in 1884, which lasted throughout the next three months, a meeting involving the likes of Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Italy, and Spain, during which Africa was divvied up into sectional territories assigned to several dozens of European countries like one complex pie. King Leopold II of Belgium took the much-contested Congo and Zaire. Spain retained its rule over Western Sahara but France took control of much of the rest of the Sahara region, including modern-day Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and Chad. Britain took modern day Egypt, Sudan, and Kenya, as well as parts of the south, including modern-day Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Germany held what is today Namibia, Tanzania, and Cameroon. At the time, during the Conference, the African continent was predominantly colonized by Germany, Portugal, Britain, and France. In 1878, Europe controlled two-thirds of the globe. By the 1890s, it controlled 90 percent of Africa.
In Asia, as the Dutch and English East India Companies were nationalized, nearly all of South Asia was under European colonialist rule, from the French Indochina to the Dutch East Indies to the Portugese Timor, to the British-owned Borneo territories and what is today Myanmar and Malaysia. The British, with its dominant naval capabilities and control of South Asian ports, enjoyed itself control of and exclusive first access to the fruits of Chinese goods and trade.
The United States was also present at the Berlin Conference, however without much interest in expanding onto the African continent. Much of its expansion occurred back at home in the years following the Civil War, during which General William Tecumseh Sherman marched the U.S. military across over 1.4 million acres of Native American lands, employing mass extermination and genocide as a means of conquest. The aura of Manifest Destiny as a golden parade across the proud lands of North America, embodied by the language and spirit of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and reaffirmed by the 1867 Alaska purchase by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward, was the defining characteristic of the United States’ perverse colonialist ethos.
As Western expansion gifted acres into the stockings of prospective America capitalists such as Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, Leland Stanford, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Mellon, and J. P. Morgan, United States businesses took the lead in world production of goods, especially wheat. Three times as much money was invested in agriculture than in manufacturing. By 1896, one farmer could reap more per harvest than could 50 farmers in the mid 19th century. Several economic depressions plagued the working class into the 1890s, with overproduction leading to freefalling prices and the abuses of the capitalist machine inciting the popular rise of labor unions and socialist thinking. These radical forces were helmed by individuals like labor trailblazer Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor and firebrand progressive orator William Jennings Bryan. From these stocks of surpluses and bedrock prices, there was an interest to be taken in expanding the fruits of American overproduction to foreign markets. A key part of this blueprint would be South Asia for its strategic and economic importance. It was now America’s opportunity to join the rest of Europe in Asia, onto the great stage of colonialism and empire.
In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan, president of the Naval War College, published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1600-1783, a voluminous analysis of the maritime dominance that keyed the British success story abroad, from which American politicians and socialites extracted the national interest of a powerful navy. In 1893, the Cleveland administration employed a newly refurbished naval fleet to topple Queen Liliuokalani's regime in the Kingdom of Hawaii. The Committee of Safety, according to a transcript of a Senate hearing that took place in February of 1893, had ordered troops be landed on the island to protect the lives and property of Americans living there against the conflict had broken out between the standing monarchy and oppositionists made up of several native Hawaiians and American sugar planters in the midst of the drafting of a new constitution, and that the Marines that stormed the island of Oahu “used force just as and to the same extent that the revolutionists used force.”
In an address to the Indiana Republican Meeting in Indianapolis on the 16th of September, 1898, Senator Albert J. Beveridge, an important thinker and leader during the Progressive Era, said of the coup of Hawaii by United States naval forces: “For the conflicts of the future are to be conflicts of trade—struggles for markets—commercial wars for existence. So we see England, the greatest strategist of history, plant her flag and her cannon on Gibraltar, at Quebec … until, from every point of vantage, her royal banner flashes in the sun.” Mahan and Beveridge expressed the popular late 19th century view that naval superiority is required to establish national economic success and the militaristic dominance that is necessitated by that interest. Beveridge continues in his speech: “Out of local conditions and the necessities of the case methods of government will grow. If England can govern foreign lands, so can America. If Germany can govern foreign lands, so can America … To-day, we are making more than we can use. To-day, our industrial society is congested there are more workers than there is work … we must find new markets for our produce.”
In place of Liliuokalani, the United States appointed Stanford Dole as president of Hawaii, and the Dole family, on top of its past and future business empire in South America, added the newly usurped central Pacific islands to its portfolio. In the second half of the 1890s, with a key location established in Hawaii, and a ruthlessly imperialist series of presidents from Andrew Johnson to William McKinley, the United States was economically and militaristically poised to follow in Europe’s footsteps. And all it needed was a spark.
Spain had enjoyed control of Cuba since the late 1400s, but that control began to dwindle into the 1800s. In 1895, the New York Cuban journalist and poet Jose Marti, who was educated at the University of Zaragoza in Spain and inspired by moments of revolution and revolt against Spanish rule, was newly elected delegate of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano of which he was the co-founder. Early on in the year, Marti and several followers left for Santo Domingo to begin a coastline invasion of his Spanish-controlled fatherland. He was later killed in action in the Oriente province.
American capitalists, who had recently made important gains following an economic recovery from the seemingly cyclical depressions at the beginning of the decade, were worried the fighting between Spanish-Cuban forces and the compatriot revolutionists would interfere with land ownings and interrupt trade routes between the island and the States. President McKinley initiated efforts to pressure the Spanish to put down the rebellion via force and satisfy a number of United States demands, which starred the interests of United States businesses. Spain rejected most of them, and in the American tradition of gunboat diplomacy, McKinley sent the U.S.S. Maine into Havana harbor in the early weeks of 1898.
Theodore Roosevelt, a Knickerbocker born in 1858 to a Dutch family of means, was the character that embodied the hubris and conservatism of a nation of which he thought himself to be living through a coming of age. Then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley, Roosevelt was hungry for a war that his insulated upbringing had romanticized to a dangerous degree. He believed war was inherently good, and that embracing the spirit of battle served as an important indicator of a country’s collective maturity and identity. “Teeth”-odore, as Leonard Wood called him, was a slave to his image of a courageous equestrian with integrity as his battle axe. War, to him, was a group of buddies riding off into the sunset, on an adventure toward self-spiritual completion.
Despite the urging of businessmen and the speculative onslaught sent on by the fervent yellow journalism of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s New York media empires, McKinley continued to pursue peace efforts. That came to an end on February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor for a reason still unclear. The yellow media machine’s unabashedly emphatic headlines pointed fingers at the Spanish, and McKinley declared war almost instantly. He called for a naval blockade to be set up around Cuba, and his generals looked to Spanish assets around the globe. Roosevelt left his post instantly and signed on to the front lines as part of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. His campaign during the Spanish-American War was to be romanticized by history, in art, in song, and in prose. He and his Rough Riders, whose only horse was mounted by Roosevelt himself, were bailed out by the 9th and 10th negro cavalry regiments at the decisive Battle of San Juan Hill, a victory for which he and his “terrible tarantulas” eagerly took credit. In reality, Roosevelt’s delusion of victory that day was upheld by the dexterity of black sharpshooters who bolstered their white comrades’ charge up the slope. If those black snipers hadn’t supported the Rough Riders that day, white America would have never have had the opportunity to paint and enjoy such beautiful Western paintings of the battle that centered on the great Teddy Roosevelt atop his handsome stallion.
There was another, third, more alien revolution to be spotted from across the Pacific, on another land body ruled by the Spanish. It had been brewing for quite some time with Roosevelt pouring fuel and fanning the flames, and it was quite close to the Spanish Navy fleet at Manila Bay. In one attack that President McKinley dispatched quickly after the commotion on the Cuban front, U.S. battleships destroyed what was left of the Spanish ships. It had been eyeing them for quite some time as conflict had been brewing on the Cuban front, and Americans stormed Manila and occupied the city in full view of the Filipino independence fighters who at first welcomed them. The revolution against Spanish rule was not nascent at the moment the U.S. Asiatic Fleet permanently resigned the Spanish empire on May 1, 1898. The closest attempt at revolution had occurred over 15 years earlier in the 1872 Cavite mutiny, during which 200 nationalists in the military unsuccessfully rose up against the Spanish arsenal on the southern shores of Manila Bay.
Now, the Spanish had temporarily signed on to an agreement with the nationalist Filipino revolutionaries group Katipunan, led by faction figures that included Emilio Aguinaldo, a student of the American political tradition. Aguinaldo, one of many revolutionists who went on to become the president of the First Philippine Republic, once said to a United States general following the establishment of an agreement that the American military would recognize and sanctify the newly independent Philippines within its occupation of Manila: “I have studied attentively the Constitution of the United States, and I find no authority for colonies, I fear.” He was more than willing to acquiesce to a U.S. presence in exchange of freedom for the islands; to him and many Filipino followers, it seemed to be a healthier alternative to Spanish rule. In a letter, Sumner E. Kitelle, a Rear-Admiral in the 16th Naval District, writes back to Washington in the interim leading up to war after meeting with Aguinaldo in 1898: “General Aguinaldo is a warm supporter of Governor General Leonard Wood and his able administration, and because of this wise course Aguinaldo will not only enhance the respect in which he is held by the American people but he will very effectively offset the attacks made upon the Governor General by self-seeking politicos.”
The United States Department of War, with Admiral George Dewey its leader on the Filipino front, rejected this view and desired one in which the insurgents of the Philippines be subordinate to the occupation of the Marines. This view was in line with McKinley’s desire to fashion the South Asian region as a new dawn for the shining new American empire of the 20th century. McKinley claimed to have been kept up at night on the question of the Philippines, and had decided that it would be the next piece that signaled the dawn of the long-destined American empire. This rhetoric would carry across to the rest of the nation, the romantic ideal of the American empire. Opposed to this was none other than the likes of the turn-of-the-century progressive William Jennings Bryan, who a 1900 cartoon by Louis Dalrymple entitled “Halt!” would depict as a stubborn obstacle to the erection of a shining empire upon a hill.
The Katupunan had led the Philippines in an independence declaration the moment the U.S. engaged the Spanish on the Cuban front, and the First Philippine Republic was declared independent from Spanish rule by Emilio Aguinaldo in June of 1898, shortly following the defeat of the Spanish Navy at Manila Bay. This independence, however, was not recognized immediately. As stated before, the nationalists initially welcomed the American military onto the island, eager to have a world power recognize the island nation as independent from colonialist rule. In the 1898 Paris treaty, which was signed after Aguinaldo’s independence proclamation, Spain relinquished ownership of Cuba and sold it to the U.S., and the U.S. was handed control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The Malolos Constitution governing the First Philippine Republic was issued in late January of 1899, but the U.S. refused to recognize or respect the natives’ independence, and the Philippine-American War began in February.
“Filipinos had lodged a list of grievances against the United States occupying force,” writes historian Matthew Jacobson in an article published in the Radical History Review entitled “Imperial Amnesia: Teddy Roosevelt, the Philippines, and the Modern Art of Forgetting,” “[including] its failure to include the Filipino army in the Spanish capitulation at Manila, its aggressive expansion beyond the boundaries of Manila proper, it's seizure of several small Philippine craft, and its insulting prohibition against the flying of the Philippine flag.”
This friction would start the conflict in which the United States gleefully and forthrighteously engaged in torture, concentration camps, and mass murder. It would be the first time Americans would employ the waterboard (dubbed the “water cure”) and would bring the somewhat historically isolated but most resourceful world power face-to-face with the dehumanizing, soul-mutilating atrocities of imperialism. According to Jacobson, 3,000 Filipino soldiers died on just the first day of the first land war the United States would ever fight in Asia. Aguinaldo fought back with protracted tactics and guerrilla warfare, which in many ways were equally as cruel and abhorrent. But without the militaristic capabilities and organizational efficiency of the U.S. Marines, the Filipinos’ tactics were not as effect as American methods of killing.
The United States’ imperial spirit, now drenched in the blood of Filipino men, women, and children, did not go unopposed. The fervent Anti-Imperialist League, founded by writer Mark Twain, the ranks of which included Ida B. Wells, Andrew Carnegie, and Samuel Gompers, came out in forceful opposition against the US atrocities being committed in the Philippines. Letters from soldiers were recirculated by the press from the New York City to San Francisco, and the League worked relentlessly to disseminate these publications. In 1899, the League began to publish soldiers’ letters and other sensitive materials to inform the public of what was happening on the Philippine front, against the censorship efforts maintained by the United States military throughout the war. Frank Erb, a soldier in the Pennsylvania Regiment, wrote the following account on the 23rd day of the war: “The morning of [March 6th] a buying detail from our regiment buried forty-nine nigger enlisted men and two nigger officers, and when we stopped chasing them the night before, we could see ‘em carrying a great many with them. We are support to have killed about three hundred.” Another soldier wrote the following in the aftermath of the bombardment of Malabon: “We went in and killed every native we met: men, women, and children. It was a dreadful sight, the killing of the poor creatures. The natives captured some of the Americans and literally hacked them to pieces, so we got orders to spare no one.”
Aguinaldo’s guerrilla tactics were frequently met with brutal retaliation by the U.S. military. In one case, Robert Maxwell, a Corporal of the Twentieth Kansas Cavalry wrote, “Sometimes we stopped to make sure a native was dead and not lying down to escape injury. Some of them would fall as though dead and, after we had passed, would climb a tree and shoot every soldier that passed that way. Even the wounded would rise up and shoot after we passed. This led to an order to take no prisoners, but to shoot all.” U.S. soldiers’ blurring of combatants and civilians sourced from blatantly animalistic, racist conceptions of the Filipinos gave them moral futility to kill with impunity and a bestial virility, with the death toll ratio between Filipinos and Americans reaching 15:1.
The most brutal of these massacres were often committed in the aftermath of successful Filipino raids against American military infrastructure. One soldier, a Washington volunteer, wrote that “this shooting of human beings” seemed to him a “hot game,” comparable to “beats rabbit hunting all to pieces.” In another case, General Jacob H. Smith ordered his men to kill everyone over the age of 10 on the island of Samar after a Marine was found dead with his intestines cut out of his torso. A New York volunteer under Smith's command, wrote home that orders were given to burn the town and “kill every native in sight; which was done to a finish. 1,000 men, women, and children were reportedly killed. I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.” A cartoon later recaptured this defining moment, depicting a line of children about to be executed by a line of Marine rifles above the caption: “Criminals because they were born ten years before we took the Philippines.” The romantic spirit that Roosevelt had attributed to the Spanish-American struggle had exposed its nefarious, poisonous underbelly to Americans right before their curious eyes. Combined with several smallpox and cholera epidemics that swept the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, approximately ten percent of the nation’s population, or 775,000 people, perished during the war, according to a generally accepted figure from author Ken de Bevoise. The vast majority of these deaths were civilians, with the death toll ratio between Filipino combatants to U.S. soldiers being 4.88 to 1; 22,000 to 4,500.
The influence of business would continue to inform and play influence to the supposed romanticism of imperialism. The twisted fable that was the Rooseveltian desire for the completeness of spirit and the supposed militaristic morals of personal integrity would continue to subordinate to the interests of United States capitalists in South Asia and Latin America. On the same prong as the Phillippine-American War, the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Samoa, and Guam, placing strategic military posts in South Asian seas to establish an economic presence near China, seen as a resource-rich mine that Europe had already joined the game on. The United States would play the suppressor in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 on behalf of British and Wall Street interests.
Back in the Western hemisphere, the U.S. would go on to ravage vast amounts of Latin America, including Caribbean island nations like Haiti and the Dominican Republic and Central American nations such as Honduras and Nicaragua, in the interest of protecting Wall Street cash flows, investments, and play the “fixer” to many an industry need. Along for the ride were many military officers who had bounced across the Pacific a number of times to lead the Navy and the Marines in this national endeavor. The American Empire was born three times: the first time in the blood of Native Americans, the second in the blood of Filipinos, and the third in the blood of Caribbean and Latin Americans. All three times, the robber barons were standing by the birth bed. There is a short passage of a speech and essay by Smedley Butler, a Brigadier General who led important aspects of the Latin American campaign and eventually was stationed in command of the Marines of Shanghai in 1927, entitled “War is a Racket.” Butler is considered the most decorated Marine in U.S. history, and the reason you may have never learned his name in school is perhaps because he wrote the following after his decades of service on three different continents:
War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.
I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.
There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" to point out enemies, its "muscle men" to destroy enemies, its "brain men" to plan war preparations, and a "Big Boss" Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.
I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
Theodore Roosevelt’s rhetoric wholeheartedly and, in a childish naivety, played into the dynamic which Butler condemns here. Roosevelt’s romanticization of war and violence as necessary to a nation’s spiritual maturation combined with his genuine belief in the benevolent potential of the economic system (his political career desired to save capitalism from the capitalists) resulted in a cruel and bloody reckoning that forever changed Americans’ conception of war, and fueled opposition toward U.S. involvement in World War I. I’m reminded of a poem later written by E. E. Cummings in the shadow of that Great War called “i sing of Olaf glad and big”, about a fictional conscientious objector forced to take up a pugnacious ideology which he finds insulting to his intelligence and abhorrent to his own sensibility, to which he responds: “I will not kiss your fucking flag … there is some shit I will not eat.”
U.S. subservience to this military-capitalist machine works to redefine oppression as liberation, to exert onto the oppressed what it claims it is exerting upon the oppressor. The Philippine-American War, along with the government-sponsored act of genocide against the Native Americans at home throughout the 1800s, are some of the least-discussed topics in primary and secondary education classes. And yet, the principles these historical conflicts enshrine in America’s cultural and political traditions are the most important indicators of where America’s priorities really are, and whose interests America really serve.
Image courtesy Library of Congress