The Philippines

The Philippines

However much their methods differed, the British, Dutch, and French intended to cling to their colonies forever. But, from its start in 1898, the United States meant to limit its control of the Philippines—and, to that degree, the American-Filipino experience was unusual in the annals of imperialism.

The conquest of the Philippine archipelago was initially masterminded at the swanky Metropolitan Club in Washington by a covert coterie of obdurate men—the highbrow senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the naval strategist Captain Alfred Mahan, and particularly the belligerent Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the navy. The conquest of the Philippines was ancillary to their paramount goal of dislodging Spain from Cuba, but they realized that by propelling American power into the Pacific, businessmen could boost their lucrative trade with China and Japan and profit from tapping their thriving markets and rich sources of raw materials.

Pious evangelical clergymen of every denomination and sect lauded the endeavor as a unique opportunity to raise the “shining cross” of Christ on the hilltops of Asia. Walt Whitman acclaimed America’s actions for expanding the country’s horizons, and Rudyard Kipling composed his famous poem “The White Man’s Burden” as an appeal to the United States to share with Britain the strenuous, unrequited task of improving the blighted condition of ignorant pagans. The opponents of America’s new role in the Philippines included civil service reformer and former senator Carl Schurz, the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, and onetime patrician New York, Boston, and Philadelphia abolitionists, who equated the subjugation of peoples overseas with slavery and argued that annexation of the islands would blatantly transgress America’s lofty principles of “justice” as well as trigger an influx of “barbarous Asiatics” into the country.

At dawn on May 1, 1898, obedient to Roosevelt’s clandestine orders, Commodore George Dewey steered his minuscule squadron into Manila Bay—and, within seven hours, sank the antiquated Spanish armada. The heroic triumph immortalized Dewey. Soon an American infantry brigade entrenched itself on the outskirts of Manila and plunged President William McKinley into a quandary.

Unable to identify the Philippines on a map, he was spoofed by Peter Finley Dunne for not knowing whether they were “islands or canned goods,” but McKinley famously explained that after nights of pacing the White House and kneeling to God for help, he decided to “take them all and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” Thus Americans supplanted the Spanish—and, as the witticism went, “three centuries in a Catholic convent were replaced by fifty years in Hollywood.”

Xenophobic Filipinos challenged the U.S. presence in a bitter guerrilla conflict—oddly termed by Washington as the “insurrection”—that dragged on for five years. The atrocities committe...