Magazine article Monthly Review

How the Philippine-U.S. War Began

Magazine article Monthly Review

How the Philippine-U.S. War Began

Article excerpt

On May 1, 1898, Admiral Dewey sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, in a war the Republican Administration of William McKinley was waging against the decrepit Spanish Empire. To secure public support, McKinley had declared that the war was fought to free Cuba from Spanish rule. But, in December of that year, Washington signed a treaty with its defeated rival that revealed a reason for the war that was of more substantial derivation. The treaty gave the United States three of Spain's colonies: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. It gave a fourth, Cuba, nominal independence, since previous political necessities offered Washington little choice. From the treaty's terms, it appears the corporate elite that dominated the McKinley Administration fought the war to grab what they could of Spain's colonies. They did this, their political representatives declared, to secure new foreign markets for a U.S. economy that had been mired in depression since 1893. The Philippines presented a special advantage, since its strategic location made it seem a natural stepping stone to the vast markets of China.

Meanwhile, however, a powerful opposition to the treaty had mushroomed in the United States, led by an organization called the Anti-Imperialist League. Initiated in Boston in November 1898, the movement had spread rapidly nationwide. Its founders were, for the most part, lawyers, teachers, clergy, business leaders - white, male, and middle class. Anti-imperialist sentiment, the nation's oldest political tradition, influenced them, as it did many others who came to the movement. But the Bostonians were especially motivated by their former opposition to slavery, during the Civil War and the years before. They regarded the colonization of the Philippines as the enslavement of another colored people on the other side of the globe. Given its open identification with corporate interests, Washington's foreign policy drew opposition from the urban middle class, and from organized workers and farmers, all aggrieved by the new dominance of corporate capital in the 1890s. There were also those who opposed the treaty because of racial prejudice: they didn't want the United States to have a colored colonial appendage. The pressures engendered by these many opponents of the treaty, and perhaps by partisan interest as well, caused the Democratic Party to oppose the treaty strongly.

Supporters of the treaty had yet another obstacle to reckon with: armed Philippine nationalists, called "insurgents" by Washington (following the usage of imperial Spain). They had risen against Spain in the late 1890s. By the summer of 1898, they had established a Philippine government, republican in form. They had also all but defeated the Spanish military on the main island of Luzon, having driven it into Manila, the Philippines' capital city. At first, the United States had appeared to support the Philippine nationalists, seeming to welcome their fight against the Spanish rival. But early in August 1898, with Dewey reinforced by twelve thousand troops and Spain's complete defeat imminent, this policy came to an end. Then, behind the backs of the nationalists, the U.S. command negotiated with Spanish military officials in Manila, accepted their surrender, and occupied Manila. Denied entry to that city by the U.S. command, the Philippine forces maintained the line of positions surrounding it that they had held against the Spanish.

This, then, was the situation the McKinley Administration faced after the signing of the treaty in December. In the Philippines, the nationalists (whom Washington regarded as potential opponents of the treaty and its implementation) surrounded U.S. troops occupying Manila. Meanwhile, in the United States, the treaty's domestic opponents were active in a vigorous campaign that was having its effect on the Senate. In January 1899, the treaty's supporters in that body were not at all certain they had enough votes to pass it. …

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