Frontline World

PHILIPPINES - Islands Under Siege, June 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Islands Under Siege"

On the Front Lines in Mindanao

Rebellions, Wars and Insurgencies in the Philippines

Population, Government, Economy

Muslim Rebels, U.S. Presence, Politics




A Conflicted Land: Rebellions, Wars and Insurgencies in the Philippines
1898-1933: America’s Colony 1934-1964: War and Independence 1965-1986: The Marcos Years 1987-2003: Reform and Rebellion

1898-1933: America's Colony

The Philippines become a reluctant part of a new empire.

American troops on the ramparts of Manila

American troops pose victoriously on the ramparts of Manila, circa 1899. (photo: Library of Congress)
America's involvement in the Philippines started with a bang. On the morning of May 1, 1898, an American flotilla commanded by Commodore George Dewey sailed into Manila Bay and, without losing a single sailor, promptly sank a Spanish squadron that was anchored there. President William McKinley would later admit that when he first heard the news of the victory, he "could not have told where those darned islands were within 2,000 miles."

When the Spanish-American War ended in December 1898, Spain sold the entire Philippine archipelago to the United States for $20 million. The Philippines had acquired a new colonial ruler. The United States had acquired a colony the size of Arizona, located more than 4,000 miles away across the Pacific.

But in the purchase, the United States also had received control over ancient Muslim sultanates still angry about the Spanish takeover centuries earlier. More urgently, it confronted a separate Catholic nationalist rebel movement, led by Emilio Aguinaldo. War soon erupted between the nationalists and the American troops stationed in the islands. The outgunned Filipinos adopted guerilla tactics; the U.S. army responded by rounding peasants into "reconcentration camps" and declaring entire areas battle zones, in which no distinctions were made between combatants and civilians. At least 4,200 American and 16,000 Filipino soldiers are thought to have been killed in the fighting. Historians have debated the scale of civilian deaths, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to almost 1 million.

Back in the United States, a newly formed anti-imperialist movement protested the war as an act of criminal aggression against the Filipino people. But self-described imperialists insisted that America had a duty to bring order and civilization to what Indiana senator Alfred Beveridge called a "barbarous race." As the senator insisted, "The Philippines are ours forever. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our duty in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world."

Emilio Aguinaldo (seated 3rd from right)

Filipino insurgents, led by Emilio Aguinaldo (seated third from the right), waged a guerrilla campaign to expel Americans from the islands. U.S. soldiers captured Aguinaldo in 1901. (National Archives)
Aguinaldo was captured in March 1901 and eventually pledged allegiance to the United States. The Philippine-American War was declared to be over a year later, though Muslim fighters in the southern Philippines continued to resist until 1914.

To run America's new possession, President McKinley implemented a policy of "benevolent assimilation," under which the United States would control the Philippines temporarily while it oversaw the transition to self-rule and independence. The colonial administration, headed by future president William H. Taft, set up local governmental bodies and a system of universal public education. But it did little to reform the land tenure system, which gave a few wealthy landlords control over the rural areas where most Filipinos lived.

Filipino nationalists suspected the United States of postponing independence indefinitely while exploiting the islands' economic resources and using their country as a military base. A 1910 editorial in a Manila journal summed up the first decade of American colonial rule as "10 years of bitter deception."

NEXT - 1934-1964: War and Independence

PREVIOUS - Introduction

back to top