Select Page



by William H. Benson

March 23, 2006

     President McKinley had won the war without much loss of life.  In 1898 in 113 days the U.S. army and navy had defeated the Spanish and driven them out of the Caribbean and Asia.  Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had charged up San Juan Hill, liberating the Cubans, and in the Philippines in Manila Bay, George Dewey had bombed the Spanish navy out of existence.  John Hay called it a “splendid little war.”

     On December 10, 1898 the United States and Spain signed a peace treaty, in which the U.S. agreed to pay Spain $20 million.  Spain agreed to grant Cuba her independence and turn over the Philippine Islands to the Americans.  On February 6, 1899, the Senate ratified the Peace Treaty by a vote of 57 to 27.

     America now owned the 7,100 islands that make up the Philippine Islands and her 7 million subjects.  America had an empire.

     President McKinley felt it his Christian duty to take the islands.  He said, “I am not ashamed to tell you, Gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance that one night.  And one night later it came to me this way. . . . There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could.”

     But because the Spanish missionaries had done their work, the Filipinos were already Christians, Roman Catholic Christians, a thing that the President did not understand.  Another was that he failed to foresee the extent of Filipino resistance to American rule.  America was ill-prepared for nation-building and had assumed that the Filipinos would appreciate American institutions and the ideals of American life.  

     The President and the Senate could not have been more wrong.  The Filipinos felt betrayed.  Cuba had received her independence, and they had not.  Led by Emilio Aguinaldo, the insurgents geared up for war.  McKinley believed the insurgents were a small isolated band, when in fact they were 80,000 strong.

     On a Saturday night, February 4, 1899, even while the Senate debated the treaty in Washington, a Beatrice, Nebraska army volunteer, Willie Grayson, while on patrol, fired on four Filipino insurgents, and the war began.

     It quickly turned ugly, sordid, and shameful.  It was fought in a tropical jungle where the men sweated and dropped due to malaria.  So enraged were the American soldiers when they saw their buddies mutilated by bolo knives, that they would slaughter an entire village—men, women, and children.  The insurgents took to guerilla warfare, melting into the jungle whenever the Americans attacked a village.

     General Arthur MacArthur, Douglas’s father, told Washington that the situation required drastic action and he requested more troops.

     The American public began to hear of atrocities.  There was the water torture where  American soldiers would pour water down a prisoner’s throat until he either yielded information or died.  Then, soldiers rounded up insurgents and stuck them into camps.

     President McKinley believed it would be cowardly to simply pull up anchor and sail away.  He thought that if the native Filipinos were left alone to govern themselves, they would fall into anarchy.  While the war raged in the jungle, Congress poured millions into the islands to improve roads, sanitation, public health, and the school system.  All of this vast expenditure was little appreciated because the Filipinos hated compulsory civilization, preferring less sanitation and more liberty.

      Finally, in March of 1901 the U.S. army captured Emilio Aguinaldo, and he signed an oath of allegiance to the U.S. even though fighting continued for years.  Some 5,000 American soldiers had died of battle or disease, and also so had about 200,000 Filipinos.

     On March 24, 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill granting independence to the Philippines, and it took effect on July 4, 1946, ending fifty years of U.S. control.

      March 19th marked the third anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. war in Iraq, another American attempt at nation-building, and of civilizing a foreign people who would prefer less sanitation and more liberty.