The Lasting Consequences of the US Decision to Occupy the Philippines

Why people in US territories still can't vote today

Let’s rewind, subscriber,

To 1898, when Teddy Roosevelt launched the US into its first major war overseas. Millions of people are still paying the price today:

You can also watch on Instagram here. And ICYMI here’s last week’s ep on the US-backed coup in Guatemala.

This week’s story comes from How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson; How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr; The End of the Myth by Greg Grandin; and In Our Image by Stanley Karnow.

Next time on Skipped History…

We’ll add a wrinkle to Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy and explore the little-known Great Wall Street Scandal of 1905. Verrrrry spicy stuff.

Next week, paying subscribers will receive behind-the-scenes content and a little more info on US relations with the Philippines since the 1910s. I know what you’re thinking—wow, that sounds so interesting!!!!—and I couldn’t agree more 😁

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This week’s transcript

Hello, I’m Ben Tumin and welcome to Skipped History. Today’s story is about the US decision to occupy the Philippines in 1898. I read about it in How the South Won the Civil War, by Heather Cox Richardson; How to Hide an Empire, by Daniel Immerwahr; The End of the Myth, by Greg Grandin; and In Our Image, by Stanley Karnow.

Today, the idea of starting a war might sound unappealing. But at the end of the nineteenth century, it was all the rage! In 1898, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt—who had declared he would “welcome almost any war”—seized an opportunity to start one when the USS Maine mysteriously exploded outside of Spanish-held Havana. Some said it was an act of war by the Spanish; others urged caution, because maybe it had been the spontaneous combustion of dust in the coal bunker of the ship located for some reason right next to where the gunpowder was stored—who’s to say, really, but you can guess what Teddy thought. So, one week later, when his boss, Secretary of the Navy John Long, left the office for a doctor’s appointment, Teddy ordered all naval squadrons to prepare for war. When Secretary Long got back, yeah, he wished Teddy had just taken a long lunch, but he let the orders stand because public opinion was on Roosevelt’s side. Two months later, Congress declared war on the Spanish Empire, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and the Spanish-American War began.

Would this finally mean independence for Spain’s colonies? The answer, as we’ll see in the Philippines, would have lasting consequences. 

Let’s go back to when the Spanish first arrived in the Philippines in the 1500s. There, they found a dazzling, diverse array of 7,000 islands spanning a one thousand-mile stretch of ocean. In honor of Crown Prince Philip, explorers named the islands the Philippines, not to be confused with this peninsula in Inwood Park, which everyone calls the Benjamines. Of course, there were millions of people on those islands not named Phillip, and by the 1890s, they’d had enough of Spanish colonial rule, as had other Spanish subjects in Cuba and Puerto Rico. In 1895, Cuban rebels declared war against Spain, and in 1896, a group of Filipinos followed suit, led by a young revolutionary named Emilio Aguinaldo, followed suit. And many people in the US were keen to join the wars, emboldened by winning a different war against Native Americans.

In that conflict, Northern and Southern soldiers united to fight over 1,000 battles against Native peoples from 1865 to 1891. The battles functioned as a sort of rehabilitation program for the South, where soldiers could prove their loyalty to the union after the Civil War. By the 1890s, the pacification campaign was largely, tragically complete. So, people like Hernando de Soto Money, a Mississippi Senator, Confederate Veteran, and the inventor of money, viewed war with Spain as a “wholesome and purgatorial” opportunity for white people in the US to continue reunifying and emerge like “the Phoenix from its ashes, renewed and with glory.” This combination of racism and territorial ambition fueled widespread support for the Spanish-American War, which officially started on April 21st, 1898, and was over in months.

The Spanish, fighting on several fronts, couldn’t compete with US forces and their Filipino allies. At the outset of the war, US officials assured Aguinaldo that the US would protect the sovereignty of an independent Philippines if they all came together to beat the Spanish. Aguinaldo never got that in writing, but he agreed, and in May 1898, while the US defeated the Spanish navy outside of Manila, Philippine forces attacked on land and laid siege to the capital. By late spring 1898, after also defeating the Spanish in Cuba, the “splendid little war,” as one official called the conflict as if he were trying to sell it on Antiques Roadshow, was mostly done, which meant that the US was ready for its next military adventure—and who better to invade than the Philippines?! 

Why invade the Philippines? Well, one motivation was racism. As an Illinois man wrote to Harper’s Weekly, permitting Filipinos to govern themselves would be like turning “over the entire West to Geronimo and his band of Apache cutthroats.” Teddy agreed, criticizing those “who cant about ‘liberty’ and ‘consent of the governed,’” or as he might put it today, “I just can’t with this liberty stuff!” Another motivation was money. The powerful Sugar Trust, which controlled 95% of the US sugar market, supported annexation because if the islands were part of the US, sugar companies could avoid paying tariffs when importing any sugar grown there. So, after some spirited public debate, President William McKinley had a vision from God, who told him it would be “bad business and discreditable” to give the islands to commercial rivals, and that the Philippines couldn’t be abandoned to natives who were “unfit for self-government.” 

That was news to Aguinaldo, who over the spring of 1898 established a government, drafted a constitution, opened schools, issued currency, crowned himself dictator (we contain multitudes), and issued a declaration of independence “Under the protection of the powerful and humanitarian nation of the United States of America.” Not so fast. In August, the US brokered a secret agreement with Spain that allowed the US to purchase the Philippines for $20 million, and overnight their Filipino allies who had fought and died for independence became American colonial subjects. That raised two questions: 1) what the f—k? And 2) if the US ruled the Philippines, did Filipinos have the same rights as people in the US mainland?

The Supreme Court said kind of. In a series of cases collectively known as the Insular Cases, in 1901, justices concerned that “savages” would “wreck our institutions” and cause “the government to be overthrown,” created a new legal category for Filipinos: “noncitizen nationals,” who could travel to and from the US like citizens but who didn’t have any voting rights. The Court also declared that the islands were “unincorporated territories,” “foreign in a domestic sense,” kind of like the Taco Bell of colonies, which meant sugar growers could bring in their product without paying tariffs. As evidenced by the four million people who today live in “unincorporated territories” (for instance, in Puerto Rico, which also became a US territory in August 1898) the racist, the exploitative precedent set by the Insular Cases still stands.

And the consequences of the decision to occupy the Philippines don’t stop there. After the US reneged on its promises, Aguinaldo declared a new war, and that conflict would grind on for years, even though the new president, Teddy Roosevelt, said everything was going fine.

Tune in next time to learn more about that bit of Skipped History.

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