Sitting in Darkness

AN UNHEEDED MESSAGE ABOUT U.S. MILITARISM

April 23, 1995|By JIM ZWICK

Confronted with an enemy that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, the general in command of U.S. troops complained that at one time the guerrillas "are in the ranks as soldiers and immediately thereafter are within American lines in the attitude of peaceful natives, absorbed in a dense mass of sympathetic people." A domestic critic of the war stated that "we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater."

As the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaches April 30, we hear similar echoes about our experience in Vietnam. But these statements were made about a war three generations earlier in the Philippines. The general was Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas MacArthur. The critic was Mark Twain, the most prominent literary opponent of the Philippine-American War.

The Philippine-American War was the United States' first protracted counterinsurgency war in Asia. In our history texts, it is often called the "Philippine Insurrection" and treated as a postscript to the three-month Spanish-American War of 1898, but that is misleading.

"Cuban freedom!" was the rallying cry during the Spanish-American War, but it resulted in a peace treaty that ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. Of these, only Cuba was promised independence. The United States agreed to pay Spain $20 million for the Philippines, a payment Twain would later call the U.S. "entrance fee into society -- the Society of Sceptred Thieves."

"We do not intend to free but to subjugate the people of the Philippines," he concluded after studying the treaty. "And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."

Domestic opposition to the annexation of the former Spanish colonies was mobilized by an Anti-Imperialist League formed in Boston in November 1898. "We are in full sympathy with the heroic struggles for liberty of the people in the Spanish Islands," its first appeal for membership declared, "and therefore we protest against depriving them of their rights by an exchange of masters." No fringe movement, its national slate of officers included Twain; former President Grover Cleveland; Moorfield Storey, a Boston lawyer who later became the first NAACP president; steel magnate Andrew Carnegie; and Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor.

The league initially mobilized opposition to the peace treaty, delivering more than 50,000 signatures on a petition to the Senate calling for the independence of Spain's former colonies. Like the Cubans, the Filipinos had been fighting for their independence from Spain since 1896. Surrounding Manila on land while Admiral George Dewey's fleet controlled Manila Harbor, the Filipinos cooperated with the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War to drive the last remaining Spanish forces from the islands. After capturing Manila from the Spanish, U.S. troops were confined to that city and its immediate suburbs. The Filipinos controlled the rest of the country. On Feb. 4, 1899, with the peace treaty still under debate in the Senate, U.S. troops fired on a group of Filipinos and the new war began. Or, as Twain put it in "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," his first major satire of the war: "What we wanted, in the interests of Progress and Civilization, was the Archipelago, unencumbered by patriots struggling for independence; and War was what we needed. We clinched our opportunity."

Sixty-five years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident similarly swayed Congress to send additional troops to Vietnam, the Senate ratified the treaty with a one-vote margin just two days after this incident in the Philippines.

The Philippine-American War officially lasted until July 4, 1902, but skirmishes and local rebellions continued well into the next -- decade. The new war in the Philippines was qualitatively different from the war against Spain, and it divided Americans as no war would again until Vietnam.

In a sense, the war against Spain was a gentleman's war. For example, the United States captured Manila in a mock battle after negotiations with the Spanish convinced them that they would be better off surrendering to the United States rather than to the Filipinos who held 350 years' worth of grievances against them.

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