Return the Bells of Balangiga

The Philippines plans to celebrate its centennial next month, and Filipino President Fidel Ramos has requested the return of two bells seized during America's conquest of the Philippines.

The Clinton administration has so far said no. Yet returning the bells would be one small step in righting a great wrong - the suppression of Filipino independence.

In 1898 the United States defeated Spain in what was then called a "splendid little war." The nominal cause of the conflict was to secure Cuban independence, but more than a few imperialists saw the opportunity to acquire an overseas empire. Washington established its preeminence in the Caribbean by seizing Cuba and Puerto Rico and gained an Asian outpost through its conquest of the Philippines.

There was just one minor hitch. Filipinos had no interest in trading their Spanish colonial masters for American ones. But US officials, many of whom treated Filipinos as dismissively as blacks and Indians, were not about to grant the Philippines the same right of self-government demanded a century before by American colonists.

A hideous, three-year guerrilla war ensued. The US, which had self-righteously denounced harsh Spanish tactics to hold onto its Cuban colony, adopted the same measures, including forcible relocation of civilians away from guerrilla-dominated areas. Estimates of Filipino deaths, due to starvation and disease, run 200,000. America's barbaric policies were backed by an unseemly militaristic coalition. Imperialists like Teddy Roosevelt believed the US had an obligation to dominate or destroy uncivilized races, businessmen wanted to force their way into Asian markets, and Protestant clerics desired to evangelize the largely Roman Catholic islands.

In September 1901 US soldiers arrived in the island province of Samar. Insurgents launched a surprise attack, killing 54 soldiers. The local US commander sent in reinforcements with an order to "kill and burn," including the murder of every male over the age of 11.

Some American historians argue that the latter command was never carried out, but even they acknowledge that villages were torched and residents forcibly relocated. US forces seized two church bells when they captured the town of Balangiga on Oct. 18, 1901.

The soldiers' awful depredations caused Washington to court- martial two officers. But the bells ended up in a military memorial in Wyoming, commemorating an unjust war fought with unjust means.

Unfortunately, though the Philippine government has been working assiduously to gain US support for the return of at least one bell, the local chapters of the Chamber of Commerce, American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars adamantly oppose such a step.

So do Wyoming politicians. Argues Sen. Craig Thomas (R) of Wyoming, "History brought the bells to Wyoming, and it is there they should remain."

But, of course, it was not history that brought the bells to Cheyenne. US soldiers did so. And "our obligation" to America's veterans, which the senator speaks of, does not include keeping ill-gotten, century-old war booty.

INDEED, if all Washington did was seize two church bells, they might well be forgotten. But the bells symbolize America's responsibility for mass death and destruction of another people who only wanted to be free.

A great power that purports to be moral should be willing to acknowledge its mistakes. Which is why Washington should return the bells of Balangiga.

* Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is "Tripwire: Korea and US Foreign Policy in a Changed World" (Cato 1996).

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