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The American Experience

People & Events
The Spanish-American War in the Philippines (1898)


America's "splendid little war" with Spain may have been "little" in one respect -- as a military conflict -- but its historical consequences have been anything but small. With its victory and subsequent annexation of the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico, the United States stood poised to enter the 20th century as an imperial power.

Congress approved President McKinley's request for a declaration of war on April 25, 1898; yet the Spanish-American War was the culmination of decades of pressure toward U.S. expansionism. Since mid-century, proponents of America's "Manifest Destiny" had been arguing that the country should flex its newfound muscles and join the ranks of colonial powers. Egged on by "yellow" journalists like William Randolph Hearst, who in the 1890s gave inordinate attention to the suffering of Cubans at the hands of their Spanish colonizers, public opinion grew steadily in favor of annexing Spain's holdings nearest the United States. When the American battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, the drift toward war became inexorable despite Spain's attempts to negotiate a face-saving withdrawal from Cuba.

Although the victory of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders at San Juan Hill remains the most lasting image of the war, Admiral Thomas Dewey's exploits in the Philippines also captured the public's imagination and in the long run proved more significant. Dewey, having steamed quickly from Hong Kong, slipped into Manila Bay on May 1 and destroyed the obsolete Spanish fleet anchored there. While Dewey blockaded the islands, the U.S. quickly organized an army to dislodge the 35,000 Spanish soldiers trapped in Manila. Brigadier General Arthur MacArthur, then a Colonel in the Adjutant General's Office, was given command of the 1st Brigade of General Wesley Merritt's 8th Army Corps, which arrived in Manila on July 31. His involvement in the war would be the highlight of his public career, and offers a useful lens on what happened there.

Two weeks after his arrival, MacArthur led his brigade in the capture of Manila. Without telling MacArthur, General Merritt had secretly negotiated with the Spanish that they would offer only token resistance if the Americans kept Emilio Aguinaldo's dangerous Filipino insurgents away from them. But the Filipinos joined in anyway, and unlike the other American brigade, MacArthur's men actually met with resistance and took some casualties. Still, the Spanish were quickly subdued, and Merritt placed the city under marshal law, with MacArthur in charge of maintaining the peace as provost marshal.

In Paris on December 10, 1898, the United States paid Spain $20 million to annex the entire Philippine archipelago. The outraged Filipinos, led by Aguinaldo, prepared for war. Once again, MacArthur was thrust to the fore and distinguished himself in the field as he led American forces in quashing the rebellion. His efforts even achieved him some notoriety back home. As biographer Kenneth Ray Young noted, after a victorious battle in February, "newspaper headlines in the United States proclaimed that in the Philippines, 'Tis Dewey on the Sea, and MacArthur on the Land.'" But unlike his son, Arthur MacArthur refused to court the press, and his fame never grew.

Although they had failed to destroy Aguinaldo's army, the American government -- against MacArthur's objections -- declared the rebellion officially over in November 1899. In the spring of 1900, MacArthur replaced General Otis as military commander and governor of the Philippines. But MacArthur didn't have much of an opportunity to govern. One reason was that most of his attention went to supervising operations against the still quite active Filipino guerrillas. Another was that, in June 1900 the Philippine Commission, headed by William Howard Taft, arrived with instructions from president Roosevelt to "effect the transition from military to civil government." After a contentious year in which the two jockeyed for power, Taft was sworn in as civil governor on July 4, 1901. A bitterly frustrated MacArthur returned home, never to hold a significant position again.

Despite his personal defeat, MacArthur's belief in the importance of the Philippines never wavered. "The archipelago affords an ideal strategic position," said MacArthur in testimony to the Senate during an investigation into Philippine situation in 1902. "It is the stepping stone to commanding influence -- political, commercial and military supremacy in the East." One of those who heard him loud and clear was his own son, whose far more visible career would be largely dedicated to realizing that vision.
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