Tuesday, March 11, 2003


There are many who feel today that the actuations of the Bush administration over Iraq represent a sharp break from US foreign policy and practice. Indeed, this feeling is partly justified by the brazenness that has accompanied the Bush government’s conduct as it prepares to seize the oil fields of Iraq and reshape the Middle East according to its interests. This sentiment, however, not only absolves the unmitigated slaughter of Iraqis perpetrated by preceding US administrations. It also fails to recognize continuities that mark the history of America’s aspirations for Empire.

We saw the millions marching in the streets in all the places where protest matters; but so did Washington. As America’s ugly oil war becomes more politically untenable by the day, we can be sure that the imperial fundamentalists in Washington are already scanning their options in order to regain the initiative they lost to the global no-war protests. The absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence, says Rumsfeld. For an America perennially weighed down by the necessities of justifying aggression, the triggers of war are everywhere, to be pulled expediently whether they are real or not. It can take the form of the Al-Samoud missiles or the shooting down of unmanned US aerial spy vessels flying over Iraqi territory. It can take the form of more terrible things, concocted by sick minds at the Pentagon, or simpler things such as the breach of a seemingly innocuous deadline. Anything will do.

When the administration of Lyndon Johnson launched the full-scale US invasion of Vietnam, it did so using the authority granted by the US Congress through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, named after the site where North Vietnam allegedly attacked US naval vessels on August 2 and 4, 1964. Faced with growing domestic hostility to the policy of escalating US military intervention, the Tonkin Gulf incidents gave the Johnson government the leverage to pressure the US Congress to authorize the open assault on Vietnam. Reports of the alleged attacks caused such a rumpus in the US that by August 7, 1964 the US Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution - with a vote of 416 to 0 in the House and with only two dissenting votes in the Senate.

Only later was it revealed that a draft version of the resolution had actually been prepared prior to the alleged attacks on US vessels. It was also exposed later that the provocation on August 2 actually came from the US – when an American destroyer deliberately entered North Vietnam’s territorial waters - and that the reported August 4 attack did not take place at all. By the time the Johnson administration’s manipulation of the Tonkin Gulf incident was exposed, however, the imperial objective had already been reached - the US was already deeply “committed” to the Vietnam War.

Farther down history but much closer to home, we have a similar and no less bloody account of imperial script-writing. The last decade of 1890 was an invigorating time for Filipino revolutionaries. After 4 centuries of largely inchoate and separate revolts, Filipinos had united in 1892 under the banner of an organization whose goal was to overthrow Spanish colonial rule and create a democratic Filipino republic. By 1896, borne out of well-articulated aspirations for national economic and political independence, open revolutionary war had commenced against Spain. Three years later, in the first few days of 1899, the revolutionary movement had not only defeated Spain; they had already assembled a government ready to administer to the needs of a victorious but war-weary populace.

The dreams of the emergent republic were not to be, however, for US imperial interests had different designs for the islands. Behind the back of the Filipinos, the government of President McKinley had signed with Spain the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898 under which the Philippines was ceded to America. The US Constitution, however, prevented the implementation of the treaty annexing Asia’s first republic until a final cog was in place: ratification by the Senate with a two-thirds majority vote of its members.

McKinley knew he lacked the required two-thirds vote when the Paris accord was signed but this did little to stop him from pushing through the treaty. Facing reelection in 1900, McKinley was quite eager to please his benefactors, chiefly the American Sugar Refining Co., whose sway over McKinley’s government is so strikingly similar to the influence wielded today by oil giant ExxonMobil over the Bush administration.

The equation governing America’s annexation of the nascent republic was quite simple. If the US took possession of the islands, Philippine cane sugar was projected to enter the US without any tariffs, thus reducing costs for sugar refiners the biggest of which was the American Sugar Refining Co. Nevertheless, arguments were made in the US that taking possession of the Philippines was not necessary in order for America to enjoy the economic opportunities posed by the islands. But, as US Admiral George Dewey – who would play a major role in the bloody US occupation of the Philippines - put it, “capital would not feel safe to invest in the Philippines unless the United States annexed the islands.”

In the end, outright bribery would muster for McKinley a large portion of the needed votes. In order to tip the balance, however, McKinley would manufacture a trigger so effective it served as a precursor to the Tonkin Gulf scenario.

After the Paris treaty was signed, instructions were sent to American forces deployed in the Philippines to avoid clashes with Filipino troops. Hostilities breaking out at that time would have only given ammunition to anti-annexationists in the US. Similar to directives received recently by media outfits such as CNN, CBS and the New York Times with regard to their coverage of the impending US war on Iraq, American commanders also received instructions at the turn of the century to censor press dispatches from the Philippines to prevent further fueling opposition to the imperial plans of the McKinley government. Only when opposition to the treaty’s passage was considered close to being neutralized did the policy shift from military restraint to military provocation. In his testimony to the US Congress on the Filipino-American War, no less than Gen. Arthur MacArthur revealed that “We had a pre-arranged plan. Our tactical arrangements there were very perfect, indeed … I simply wired all commanders to carry out pre-arranged plans, and the whole division was placed on the firing line.” Presaging close to a century the scorn heaped by the war planners of Washington today on an ignorant US public, a shrewd American senator projected “As soon as one American soldier fell in an attack by the Filipinos, sentiment would vanish, and the American people would stand behind the Army as they had always done.”

On January 21, 1899 the commanding general of US forces in the Philippines ordered American warships to be positioned in Manila bay so as to give supportive fire to American troops. Announcements conditioning the US public were made by the War Department that “US forces would have to defend themselves” if attacked by ‘natives’ even as US troops were deployed to Manila. On February 2, together with the US Navy’s dismissal of Filipinos employed in US ships in the harbor, American regimental commanders were given orders to provoke a conflict with the Filipino army. On the same day, a US regiment deliberately occupied an area called Santol where Filipino republican troops were positioned. The Filipinos protested but, not wishing to ignite hostilities, eventually withdrew.

On the evening of February 4, 1899 US soldiers in Santol were instructed to venture into more territory held by Filipino troops, with the order “to shoot if the need arose.” The Americans naturally encountered Filipino sentries whom they immediately fired on, with a private who fired the first shot shouting “Line up, fellows, the niggers are in here all through these yards.” Hours later, McKinley announced to the US press “that the insurgents had attacked Manila.” McKinley dispatched instructions the next day to crush the Filipino army. An emissary from the Filipinos was sent to the American commanders to request for “a cessation of hostilities” and to explain that the provocation actually came from US troops. The envoy was rebuffed by the US Army commander, who told the Filipino that the fighting “having begun, must go on to the grim end.” News of “savages” and “barbarians” who had “fired on the flag” subsequently filled US newspapers. On February 6, the US Senate ratified the treaty by a vote of two-thirds plus one and the Philippines formally became a colony of the United States. Yet it would take the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in a decade-long orgy of pacification before America finally crushed armed resistance to US rule.

The US wishes to frame its impending occupation of Iraq with talk of liberation and democracy? To determine the looming fate of Iraq, why not hear out first the words of America as it was ‘liberating’ the first republic of Asia.

“You never hear of any disturbances,” said a Republican congressman just back from Manila at the time of McKinley’s campaign of “Benevolent Assimilation” in the Philippines, “… because there isn’t anybody left to rebel … The good Lord in Heaven only knows the number of Filipinos that were put under the ground. Our soldiers took no prisoners, they kept no records; they simply swept the country, and wherever and whenever they could get hold of a Filipino they killed him.”

Before he took command, Filipino-American War Gen. J. Franklin Bell announced: “All consideration and regard for the inhabitants of this place cease from the day I become commander. I have the force and authority to do whatever seems to me good and especially to humiliate all those … who have any pride.” Explaining the brutality accorded by American soldiers to Filipinos, a Boston Herald correspondent covering the Philippine-US war said “Our troops in the Philippines … look upon all Filipinos as of one race and condition, and being dark men, they are therefore ‘niggers,’ and entitled to all the contempt and harsh treatment administered by white overlords to the most inferior races.” As early as April 1899, a US commander was already predicting that “It may be necessary to kill half the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher place of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords.” As it turns out, however, not that many died. As early as 1901, the number of Filipinos that had been killed or had died of disease as a result of America’s vile occupation was pegged by a US general at a ‘mere’ 600,000 – a horrific figure considering that it took America a decade after 1899 to literally wipe out Filipino resistance. And America has the temerity to ask “Why do they hate us?”

“We’re going to become guilty, in my judgment, of being the greatest threat to the peace of world,” said Senator Wayne Morse, who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in the US Senate. “It’s an ugly reality, and we Americans don’t like to face up to it. I hate to think of the chapter of American history that’s going to be written in the future in connection with our outlawry in Southeast Asia.”

Comments are welcome at xioi@excite.com

Sources: Leon Wolff, Little Brown Brother, 1991; Philippine-American War, Day One, Issues Without Tears, Volume 5, 1986; Recalling the Philippine-American War, Issues Without Tears, Volume 8, 1989; “The Iraq ploy and Resemblances to the Start of the Cold War,” Saul Landau, November 28, 2002; Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, The United States and the Modern Historical Experience, Gabriel Kolko, 1985; Republic or Empire: American Resistance to the Philippine War, Daniel Boone Schirmer, 1972; Conspiracy for Empire: Big business, corruption and the Politics of Imperialism in America, 1876-1907, Jonathan Shephard Fast and Luzviminda Bartolome Fransisco, 1985.

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