It was Mark Twain who said, "History
doesn't repeat itself, but it does
rhyme." Few today remember that
the celebrated author was also a vocal
critic of a U.S. war of empire a century
ago: the invasion of the Philippines.
Historian Paul Kramer, in his new book
The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the
United States and the Philippines (University
of North Carolina Press), details the longforgotten
history of the Philippine-American
War and the 40-year occupation that
followed. He argues that the Philippine
adventure in many ways "rhymes" with
the current U.S. occupations of Iraq and
Among the "eerier similarities," said
Kramer, professor of history in the Krieger
School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins:
- A conventional invasion and speedy
victory followed by an unexpected, protracted
- Violations of human rights norms by
the occupying Americans.
- Repeated claims that the war was
justified by and fought on behalf of higher
principles of "civilization" or "freedom."
- Declarations that the war was over in
hopes of ending domestic controversy about
- The sense that it was America's right,
duty and obligation to engage in nationbuilding
and installing "democracy," of
which the United States was considered an
"I'm not surprised at these parallels,"
Kramer said. "Indeed, what's remarkable is
our persistence in suppressing the memory of
this earlier war, a persistence that I think is
all that makes debacles like the present one
The U.S. experience in Vietnam is another
example of the nation's inability to focus on
the lessons of the Philippine-American War,
"In all three conflicts," Kramer said, "U.S.
officials predicted easy victories, underestimated
guerrilla forces and, arrogantly assuming
their objectives were universally shared,
were shocked when U.S. troops were not
greeted as 'liberators.'"
Kramer describes in The Blood of Government,
to be published April 17, how
the Philippine-American War began in the
unsettled aftermath of the Spanish-American
War, the 1898 conflict that Secretary
of State John Hay dubbed "a splendid little
war." Having declared war against Spain,
the United States sent Commodore George
Dewey to the Philippines, Spain's largest
Dewey's Pacific Squadron quickly defeated
Spanish naval forces at Manila Bay, but the
question remained, Kramer said, how U.S.
forces should engage with a Philippine
revolutionary movement that broke from
Spain in June 1898 and declared the first
republic in Asia. U.S. forces attempted to
make use of Filipino revolutionaries—who
were defeating Spanish land forces in the
islands—without recognizing their government.
Filipinos, they assumed, would greet
U.S. forces as "liberators." When Spain
surrendered, Filipino diplomats were not
invited to treaty negotiations. U.S. negotiators
pressed Spain to relinquish "sovereignty"
over the Philippines—an archipelago
Spain no longer controlled—for $20
In February 1899, U.S. forces outside
Manila fired on soldiers of the declared Philippine
Republic, and the Philippine-American
War began. It would in no sense be
either "splendid" or "little," Kramer said. It
lasted more than three years, in some places
as long as 10. It involved 126,000 U.S. troops
and resulted in nearly 5,000 U.S. casualties,
an estimated 12,000 Filipino military casualties
and the death by violence, dislocation
and disease of an estimated 250,000 Filipino
civilians. It began
as a conventional
struggle, but facing
early defeats, Filipino
Aguinaldo opted for
guerrilla tactics in
forces apparently dissolve,
equivalent to "mission accomplished"
and an "end to major combat operations."
But as U.S. forces occupied rural towns,
they found themselves persistently attacked
by guerrilla fighters supported by local peasants.
Increasingly, U.S. soldiers would see
the entire population as the enemy, expressing
their hatred using racial terminology
like "goo-goo" (which later evolved into
the Vietnam-era "gook"). They would also
use increasingly harsh tactics, including the
burning of whole villages and the torture of
prisoners using what was called the "water
cure" (the antecedent to today's "waterboarding").
Despite military censorship, word of
U.S. atrocities traveled back home and was
spread by anti-war activists organized into an
Anti-Imperialist League, Kramer said. The
anti-imperialists (among them Twain, industrialist
Andrew Carnegie and labor leader
Samuel Gompers) declared the U.S. invasion
immoral in both its objectives and its tactics.
They made the war a central issue of the 1900
presidential race between William Jennings
Bryan and incumbent William McKinley,
who defended it as a war for "civilization"
and "freedom." Anti-war activism resulted
in a Senate investigation and some courtsmartial,
although few were punished for war
crimes. In defending itself against critics, the
administration claimed that Filipinos were
not fighting a "civilized" war and were, therefore,
not owed the rights of prisoners of war;
instead, they were "war rebels" whom U.S.
forces could treat however they pleased.
Kramer's 538-page book deals both with
the invasion and the occupation, telling
of the first-ever attempt by U.S. forces to
engage in overseas "nation-building" in collaboration
with a local elite, even in the
midst of ongoing violence.
"I did most of the research long before
9/11 or the U.S. invasion of Iraq," Kramer
said, "and in many ways I was overtaken by
the eruption of a new, aggressive imperial
moment just as I was completing my manuscript
on an eerily similar one just over a
"The challenge," he said, "has been to
remain true to the idiosyncrasy and integrity
of the past while trying to comment subtly
and critically on the present: to allow the
past and present to touch without subordinating
my account of the earlier U. S.
invasion to the questions being asked of the