Honor in the Dust
The historical lessons of Gregg Jones's exhaustively researched book about the US's campaign in the Philippines deserve to be remembered.
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The book’s central character is Theodore Roosevelt who, from before the time he had completed his education at Harvard University, had already formed the “expansionist” mindset he would maintain and advance throughout his lifetime. In a post as New York City Police Commissioner, he was intent on making his mark on the national political stage. Roosevelt’s friendship with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was instrumental in securing him an appointment by President William McKinley as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under John D. Long. The ambitious and energetic Roosevelt took advantage of Long’s relative
inactivity to build up naval forces and aggressively push for confrontation with Spain in the Caribbean. In Cuba, as in the Philippines, armed nationalist revolt grew out of 350 years of Spanish exploitation and misrule.
Roosevelt, haunted by the constant and embarrassing specter of his father’s having hired a substitute to serve for him in the Civil War, believed strongly that by not only advocating but participating in military action, he could reclaim his family’s sullied reputation. But Roosevelt went even farther than that. In speeches about the initial campaign in Cuba, he assailed “the unintelligent, cowardly chatter for peace at any price”, and that such beliefs would produce “a flabby, timid type of character which eats away the great fighting features of our race.” Not only that, he added that “the clamor of the peace faction has convinced me that this country needs a war.”
No one who staked a more moderate position on attacking the Spaniards was safe from Roosevelt’s taunts. President McKinley, who had distinguished himself in the Civil War – rising to the rank of Major in the process – stated “I have seen war ... I have seen the dead bodies piled up, and I do not want another.” His declaration, “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations [and] cultivate peace toward all” was met with angry dismissal from Roosevelt, who huffed that McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”
The Cuban incursion, dubbed “a splendid little war” by then Secretary of State John Hay, was not an unqualified success; for instance, in capturing both San Juan Heights and El Caney, Americans lost 205 men to the Spaniards’ 215. And they suffered nearly three times the number of wounded. However, the cavalry Roosevelt had hand-picked to serve with him, the “Rough Riders,” acquitted themselves remarkably well, and their bravery was captured by numerous journalists - among them author Stephen Crane, whose novel "The Red Badge of Courage" was a stark reminder of the moral and psychological complexities of war. At the time, Crane (or "Little Stevey", as he was affectionately referred to) was corresponding for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.
But as relatively faithful as Crane's dispatches had been, the bombasts of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst resembled a Petri dish of yellow journalism - busily "infecting Americans with war fever." Hearst, who just a few months prior to the war's commencement had audaciously inserted himself in the news by allegedly "rescuing a Cuban damsel whose imprisonment had become a cause celebre in the United States", now piloted his yacht Buccaneer to Santiago Bay, bringing with him a correspondent, Karl Decker, and a team of Edison Company cameramen to film the war for New York theatre newsreels.
The Americans emerged victorious in the Cuban theater largely under the leadership of rotund and gout-ridden General William Rufus Shafter – prevailing chiefly through timely support by the battleship Indiana, which relieved Shafter's pinned-down American ground forces and led a blockade that smashed the inferior Spanish fleet led by Admiral Pascual Cervera. With this victory, the McKinley administration, largely through the aggressiveness of the peripatetic Roosevelt and his ally in the US Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, was led to press its advantage in securing the Philippines. The archipelago was looked upon as an important strategic outpost, and as much as wanting to "liberate" it, Roosevelt wanted to prevent it from instead becoming a British, Russian, or German protectorate.
While Roosevelt's sudden and powerful celebrity earned in Cuba was helping him bulldoze a trench leading inexorably to the Philippines, the political war for the conscience of America raged. Indianapolis attorney Albert Jeremiah Beveridge charismatically and bombastically orated in favor of America colonizing the islands. In doing so, Beveridge asserted, China would become the grand prize, with America sitting on its very doorstep. Admiral George Dewey, who had served with Admiral David Farragut, was sent to Manila Bay to pacify the existing Spanish fleet. It wasn't long before he had successfully achieved victory, for which he received salutary praise – most notably (and resoundingly) from Roosevelt.
However, in places like Massachusetts, another movement ran counter to empire-builders like Roosevelt and Beveridge. In addition to the liberal reformers known as "Mugwumps," the dissenters included some prominent Republicans, including Massachusetts Senior Senator George Frisbie Hoar. Hoar was backed by, among others, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, former President Grover Cleveland and labor leader Samuel Gompers, and sought to counter the imperialist and "unconstitutional" objectives of those intent on subjugating Filipino self-rule and independence. In their unsuccessful opposition to the 1899 Treaty of Paris, critics warned against arousing the same kind of colonial antipathy the Filipinos felt toward the Spanish. Spain balked at the US terms of surrendering the archipelago, but after promising to pay $20 million to the economically bereft Spaniards, the US government secured their reluctant signature on the treaty.
It wasn't long before tensions in Manila arose to the boiling point, and soon America had another fight on its hands. American ground troops led by, among others, battle-hardened and combative Colonel Fred Funston of Kansas and General Arthur MacArthur, were repeatedly stymied trying to decisively tamp down the forces of Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo, who, after enduring the ravages of several months of fighting, decided to move from conventional to "guerrilla" warfare, which "placed a premium on ... familiarity with the local terrain and its population, a war without fronts or fixed positions." Though Aguinaldo was later captured, this network of small guerrilla bands persisted in frustrating American forces through intimidation of US informants, setting booby traps, and staging surprise attacks.
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