Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur
Review of David J.
Sibley, A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American
War, 1899-1902. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007. Pp. xvi, 254.
David Sibley (Alvernia
College) has written a compact, well-researched book on a minor war
with large consequences for both the Philippines and the United
States. It contains an Introduction ("The Urgency of the Asking"
[xiii-xviii]), a body of six chapters plus a conclusion, a short
annotated bibliography, footnotes, index, some interesting photos, and
three maps--one of the Philippines, one of Emilio Aguinaldo's
wanderings as a fugitive before his capture by American forces, and a
third of the U.S. Navy's attack on Manila Bay. However, it sorely
lacks a large map indicating the locations of the guerrilla war on
Luzon and other islands.
Chapter One, "A War of
Frontier and Empire" (3-29), provides the background, beginning with a
brief introduction to the geography of the Philippines archipelago,
the history of its discovery and colonization by Spain, and the
conversion of most of its inhabitants to Roman Catholicism. Because Spain
valued the Philippines mainly as an entrepôt for trade with China,
where it exchanged silver from the Americas for Chinese luxury goods
then shipped to Europe, the colonial government maintained only a
light presence outside capital-city and main port Manila. The Catholic
Church, however, played a significant role in most of the colony
because, except for Mindanao and several small islands where Muslims
predominated, most Filipinos had converted to Catholicism. As Spanish
power decayed, revolutions broke out among several of its remaining
colonies in the 1890s. In the Philippines, which lacked a sense of
nationhood, the rebels were disunited, and by 1897 Emilio Aguinaldo,
the defeated leader of a major rebel faction, was in
exile in Hong Kong.
Chapter Two, "McKinley
and American Imperialism" (30-66), shifts to the United States, where
a post-Civil War era of neglecting the navy was ending due to public
demand for a modern fleet commensurate with growing American power on
the world stage. Advocates of a strong navy often cited Admiral Alfred
Mahon's The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660-1783,
published 1890, as did British and German military strategists.
Congress appropriated funds to build a navy to match those of the
great European powers. In the 1896 presidential elections, the
anti-imperialist Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, lost to
the pro-expansion Republican, William McKinley
When a revolution against
Spain broke out in Cuba (1897), the revolutionaries and their cause
enjoyed considerable American sympathy, and the blowing up of the USS
Maine in Havana Harbor in February 1898 enflamed American
public opinion and helped precipitate war with Spain. Fearing that
Spain might redeploy its Philippines naval squadron, stationed at
Manila, to Cuba, Washington dispatched seven ships under Commodore
George Dewey to prevent it. En route to the Philippines, Dewey took
control of a Spanish naval base on the island of Guam whose commander
did not even know Spain and the United States were at war. On 1 May
1898, Dewey's flotilla sank all Spanish war vessels at Manila Harbor
with no American losses. At this point, Aguinaldo returned to the
Philippines, formed an informal alliance with Dewey, and proclaimed
the establishment of the Republic of the Philippines under his
presidency. Because Spain still controlled Manila city and nearby
outposts, U.S. army units, consisting of volunteers from western
states, began to arrive in anticipation of a struggle for control of
the islands. In the end, there was no battle because the Spanish
governor, with about fourteen thousand troops in Manila and very few
anywhere else, chose to surrender with honor.
What would the United
States do with the Philippines? Turning it over to its untried "ally"
Aguinaldo seemed as unrealistic and ill-advised as restoring it to
Spain. Could an independent Filipino government hold off Germany,
which had already sent a large fleet to the region? What were the
intentions of Great Britain, France, and Russia? By the terms of the
Treaty of Paris (December 1898), which formally ended the
Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States
in return for $20 million, arrangements that accorded with U.S. voter
sentiments in the 1898 congressional elections.
The remaining four
chapters--"'At the Cannon's Mouth'" (67-104), "A New Army Arrives"
(105-25), "One War Ends, Another Begins" (126-69), "'Satisfactory and
Encouraging'" (170-206)--treat the ensuing conflict between the United
States and Filipino forces called the Army of Liberation (AOL) with
its predictable outcome. After six months of conventional warfare, the
original U.S. volunteer units plus thirty newly arrived regiments
(including several of black soldiers), all volunteers, had thoroughly
defeated the AOL. Hampering the badly outclassed AOL were poor
training, antiquated European guns, and inferior, locally manufactured
ammunition and light artillery. Additionally, AOL troops labored in
the context of old-fashioned patron-client relationships with their
officers. The Filipino soldier "had a different cultural conception of
what war meant and how far to take the fighting. Combined with
difficulties of logistics and training, and coming up against a
Western army unified by a potent nationalistic ideology, such cultural
preconceptions created serious difficulties for the Army of
Despite superior training
and weaponry, U.S. forces also faced formidable obstacles--dense
jungles, a lack of roads, torrential rainy seasons, and diseases that
claimed many more soldiers than did war wounds. Still, the casualty
ratio between AOL and American troops was approximately ten to one.
Compared with other wars, the numbers of troops deployed was low: for
example, during a month of campaigning that ended on 31 March 1899
with the capture of Aguinaldo's capital Malolos in the interior of
Luzon Island, General Arthur MacArthur lost fifty-six men killed and
478 wounded. Emilio Aguinaldo was himself partly responsible for his
forces' defeat. He was a poor leader, who insisted on maintaining
personal control, envied his able lieutenants, and may even have ordered a top commander assassinated. In contrast, the
experienced and charismatic MacArthur and Charles King maintained high
troop morale and re-enlistment rates.
By December 1899, the
Philippines Republic essentially ceased to exist. AOL commanders who
surrendered with their men were rewarded with appointment to
responsible positions in the U.S. administration. General Elwell Otis,
commander-in-chief of U.S. forces, quickly organized new local
governments in pacified regions. Normal economic life resumed by early
1900. Many changes and reforms followed: an American-style legal
system replaced complicated and archaic Spanish laws, tax reforms now
favored the middle class and poor, new schools were built, and local
property owners elected municipal governments. Otis and his successor
MacArthur, by encouraging local leaders to form political parties to
contest future elections, made allies of many Filipinos and thereby
denied Aguinaldo potential supporters.
In desperate straits
after a year on the run, Aguinaldo was captured in April 1901: "I had
known for some time that our resistance was doomed to failure. Now it
is over and I was alive" (179). Brought to Manila, he was treated as
an honored guest rather than a prisoner. In return, he cooperated
fully, telling his supporters that "The complete termination of
hostilities and a lasting peace are not only desirable but absolutely
essential to the welfare of the Philippines…. By acknowledging and
accepting the sovereignty of the United States throughout the entire
Archipelago, as I now do without any reservations whatsoever, I
believe that I am serving thee, my beloved country" (179).
Those who ignored
Aguinaldo and continued fighting were called 'insurrectos" or
guerrillas. Secretary of War Elihu Root ordered U.S. commanders to
enforce General Order 100 (issued during the Civil War) in fighting
the insurgency. This guaranteed fair treatment to regular enemy
soldiers and civilians in occupied areas, but stipulated punishment
for captured guerrillas and their supporters, who were to be treated as
prisoners of war. At camps set up in disputed areas for civilians
suspected of sympathizing and aiding the guerrillas, there were
outbreaks of disease, including a cholera epidemic in 1902 that killed
some 120,000-150,000 civilians, in part due to the unsanitary living
conditions. There were also retaliations against local peoples
suspected of aiding rebels in ambushing American soldiers.
Although reports of U.S.
military excesses caused a backlash at home, most Americans favored
President McKinley's policy in the Philippines and he won a second
term in 1900 by a larger majority than he had had for his first term.
His assassination in 1901 brought Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to
the presidency. An enthusiastic supporter of U.S. expansion, Roosevelt
continued McKinley's Philippines agenda. In July 1902, Congress passed
a bill that ended military operations and granted amnesty to
guerrillas who surrendered. Military rule ended and power was
transferred to civilians under Governor (later President) William
Taft, although some units remained to conduct mopping up operations.
The last insurgents on Mindanao Island surrendered in 1913.
Sibley's Conclusion, "A
Most Favored Race" (207-18), appraises the largely successful outcome
of U.S. rule in the Philippines. It is difficult to imagine Aguinaldo,
given his incompetence, succeeding as president of an independent
Philippines or even to envision the country surviving at all in the
international climate of 1900. But accommodation between U.S.
authorities and Filipinos was smooth, and the latter gained "most
favored race" status in American eyes. Reforms proceeded along many
fronts, Filipinos increasingly participated in their government, and for many the war became "something of a lost history during most
of the twentieth century" (210). The Filipinos' gratitude to the
United States was definitively proved by their staunch resistance
against the Japanese during World War II, continuing right up to their
liberation by General Douglas MacArthur, son of the general who had
earlier pacified the islands. Liberation from Japan was followed by
full independence and good relations between the two countries.
In the end, it was a war of crossroads for all involved. For the
Spanish, it was, along with the war in Cuba, the end of an empire long
past its days of glory. For the Americans, it was the final war of
a frontier ethos that had driven them across a continent and the first
war of a global ethos that would send them over the oceans. For the
Filipinos, it was a defeat that looked, in later decades, a lot like
victory. A collection of islands, fractured by culture and society,
became, largely because of a shared experience of revolution, war, and
insurgency, a self-conceived nation (218).
A War of Frontier and
Empire should be read by students of colonial and military history
and American diplomatic history, since the war so plainly presaged the
growth of U.S. influence in Asia and the Pacific. This fascinating
book's clear organization and economic and smooth prose style make it
accessible to a general readership as well.
Eastern Michigan University