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Iraq, the US and an Old Lesson


Weapons of mass distruction, a slam-dunk war followed by a no-end-in-sight occupation? We’ve been here before when a century ago the U.S. first sent an army overseas to accomplish regime change and liberate a resource-rich land from tyranny.

It began in February, 1898 when an explosion sunk the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor. Since Cubans lived under a cruel Spanish colonialism, a pro-war U.S. press felt free to claim that Spain unleashed a weapon of mass destruction, and to whip up “Remember the Maine” fever. No weapon was ever found — it was a boiler explosion that sank the Maine — and though Spain agreed to President McKinley’s main demands, Congress declared war with a promise to free Cuba.

Secretary of State John Hay called it “a splendid little war” because in less than a hundred days the U.S. liberated 13 million people and 165,000 square miles of colonies from Puerto Rico to Guam and the Philippines, and with only 379 combat deaths. But disease and embalmed meat war profiteers sold to the Army killed another 5,462 U.S. soldiers.

Leading the hawks in 1898 was a young, flamboyant Teddy Roosevelt, an assistant secretary of the Navy who claimed war stimulated “spiritual renewal,” and the “clear instinct for racial selfishness.” Not a man to hide in the National Guard, TR personally led his “Rough Riders” at San Juan Hill, and returned from Cuba with one regret — “there was not enough war to go around.” No w he was riding to the White House.

For two years General Emilio Aguinaldo and his freedom-fighting guerilla army had fought Spain’s cruel occupation fully ready to govern a free Philippines. But before he left for Cuba, TR sent Admiral George Dewey’s U.S. fleet to Manila Bay where it sank the Spanish fleet. Dewey assured Aguinaldo the U.S. “had come to . . . free the Filipinos from the yoke of Spain.” But U.S. troops landed on Luzon, prevented Aguinaldo from entering Manila, and Washington appointed a puppet government.

Filipinos first welcomed Americans as liberators. But in June when Aguinaldo issued a declaration of independence, the pro-war U.S. press began to demonize Aguinaldo, and a U.S. general told Congress that Filipinos who wanted freedom had “no more idea of its meaning than a shepherd dog.”

President McKinley said he spent many sleepless nights agonizing about the Philippines until God told him to keep the islands and “uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” The President called his program “benevolent assimilation.” The influential San Franciso Argonaut was more candid: “We do not want the Filipinos. We want the Philippines. The islands are enormously rich, but unfortunately, they are infested with Filipinos.”

A U.S. army of 70,000 [including 6,000 Black troops] was sent to pacify the islands and, as more than one white soldier said, “just itching to get at the niggers.” General William Shafter told a journalist it might be necessary to kill half the population to bring “perfect justice” to the other half. After General Jack Smith promised to turn the Philippines into a “howling wilderness” most casualties were civilians. Smith defined the foe as any male or female “ten years and up,” and told his soldiers: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.”

U.S. officers encouraged the use of torture, murder of prisoners, and massacre of villagers, including women and children. A Kansas soldier wrote “The country won’t be pacified until the niggers are killed off like the Indians.” Another white soldier reported brutal “sights you could hardly believe” and he reached this conclusion: “A white man seems to forget that he is human.”

The U.S. had entered a quagmire. “The Filipino masses are loyal to Aguinaldo and the government he leads,” conceeded U.S. General Arthur MacArthur. He thought the foe “needed bayonet treatment for at least a decade.” His time assessment proved prophetic. In early 1901 a U.S. journalist concluded “that the Filipino hates U.S. . . permanent guerrilla warfare will continue for years.” He reported endless guerilla attacks that took one or two U.S. lives at a time and created a “spirit of bitterness in the rank and file of the army.” A U.S. Red Cross worker reported “American soldiers are determined to kill every Filipino in sight” and said he saw “horribly mutilated Filipino bodies.”

In March, 1901 U.S. officers saw victory when Aguinaldo was captured, agreed to swear allegiance to the United States, and to persuade his officers to accept amnesty. But quagmires can sink fond hopes. Six months later guerillas on Samar attacked a U.S. garrison and massacred 45 U.S. officers and enlisted men with bolos and bare hands. The occupation’s most shocking defeat exposed U.S. propaganda about a defeated foe and a easy occupation. The U.S. media comp ared Samar to General Custer at the Little Big Horn, pro-imperialist editors talked about being “hoodwinked,” and The San Francisco Call reminded Americans “a conquered people” do not remain conquered for long. “It is utterly foolish to pretend . . . the end is in sight,” admitted General Adna Chaffee.

By 1902 U.S. Senate hearings and scores of Army court martial trials found that U.S. occupying forces were guilty of “war crimes.” General Robert Hughes admitted he ordered the burning of villages and murder of women and children. When asked by a Senator if this was “civilized warfare,” he answered, “these people are not civilized.” The Baltimore American wondered why the U.S. carried out “we went to war to banish.”

President Teddy Roosevelt followed McKinley to the White House and continued to justify the occupation, dismiss Filipinos as “Chinese half-breeds,” and to insist this was “the most glorious war in our nation’s history.” Congress spent $170 million on its occupation.

Mark Twain, two former presidents and other prominent citizens formed an Anti-Imperialist League that had tens of thousands attending protest meetings and signing petitions that denounced U.S. atrocities and imperial designs. One prominent African American bravely declared:”We shall neither fight for such a country or with such an army” and many others spoke out as well. The African American press stood united against a U.S. government that exported its racist “deviltry” overseas, and some labor unions began to connect the dots betw een overseas imperialism and government suppression of strikes at home. 2,800 military actions continued until 1911, took 200,000 Filipino lives, and the U.S. suffered 4,234 combat deaths. More than a dozen US servicemen defected to Aguinaldo, and half of these were African Americans although soliders of color comprised less than ten percent of the US army of occupation.

Filipino independence came in 1945 but bitterness continued with Washington support for brutal dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos who looted his country for twenty years. Vice President George Walker Bush arrived in Manila to praise Marcos’ “adherence to democratic principles” and the next year a massive, nonviolent uprising forced Marcos to flee.

On October 18, 2003 President George W. Bush came to Manila to promote his war on terrorism. For the Philippine Congress, he rewrote history when he said: “Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines.”

Our first overseas venture a hundred years ago offers insights into our occupation of Iraq. People always prefer self rule to a foreign master. Resisting self-determination was unpleasant long ago, and it has not and will not be pleasant now. Presidential lies come around to bite again.

WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author forty books, and he adapted this essay from his new book, THE CRUEL YEARS: AMERICAN VOICES AT THE DAWN OF THE 20TH CENTURY [Beacon Press, 2003]. His website is:


William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on African American history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history.

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