The Philippine War and the Saviour syndrome

Feb 9, 2018

The American war against the Philippine Republic which began in 1898 and its subsequent colonisation  of the Philippines teaches us many things about perennial American beliefs and actions. The concept that the US is saving somebody from something is a constant in American foreign policy. Some even believe they saved Europe from Hitler! We need to examine carefully the clash between manifest destiny and isolationism but mostly to look at the influence of the genuine belief  amongst most Americans that they have a duty to save the less fortunate from something and bring them to accept truth, justice and the American Way. Combine this with ignorance of what others may want and a belief that force may be needed to save the heathen and you have a dangerous formula.

A recent visit to Manila led to some rereading of Philippine history and contemplation of the differences, if any, between the US behaviour during the Philippine American War (1898-1904) and the present. While the racism was quite overt and unashamed as you would expect at that time, there are striking similarities with Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan and other recent conflicts. A feature which seems to be constant is the idea that Americans are saving someone from something. In the Philippines, the natives were saved from the cruel Spaniards or their own backwardness. They needed to be uplifted and brought to see the superiority of American ways. Later people were saved from Communism, poverty, terrorists or dictators.  The less fortunate culture had to be, as Vicente Rafael puts it,  led to “build a new civil society on the basis of a stable nation state naturally predisposed out of gratitude and economic and political interests to ally itself with the United States”.Nowadays, Southeast Asia has to be saved from Chinese and Russian hegemony. American aggression has been well documented but we perhaps need to take account of what could be called the saviour syndrome.

But first, let us cut through the American propaganda and obfuscation to what actually happened in 1898. As with the other conflicts, independent American scholars and witnesses have been amongst the sternest critics beginning with Judge Blount in 1912. When the Spanish American War broke out in 1898, Commodore Dewey was instructed to take his fleet to Manila and engage the Spaniards. At this time, Spain held only central Manila  (Intramuros) and were under siege from the forces of the Philippine Republic. Dewey brought General Aguinaldo back from Hong Kong on the understanding that they would be allies against Spain. It was clear the Spaniards could not hold out much longer against the Republic. The Americans destroyed the fleet and then did a deal with the Spaniards to engage in a token battle after which Spain would surrender to white men rather than the indios. The US then attacked the Filipinos and engaged in a brutal colonial war against the Republic. Purchase of a country Spain no longer held provided a fig leaf. Egged on by Teddy Roosevelt and the Hearst press, President McKinley said he had prayed to God for guidance and been told to go and Christianise the Philippines from which we must assume that God did not know the Philippines was already Christian. A very nasty colonial  invasion of a free republic was apparently “benevolent assimilation” by a superior race. The Americans knew absolutely nothing about the Philippines but civilised the natives with the krag rifle and the gatling gun as the song went. What was later known as waterboarding was called the water cure and was freely applied to civilians and soldiers by US forces. Massacres of civilians took place. To this day, most Americans believe they bought the Philippines from Span and that they saved the Filipinos from Spanish brutality for which the Filipinos should be grateful. They also saved them from being colonised by other colonial powers except of course that the US was not really a colonial power in its own eyes.

The disaster resulting from the invasion of Iraq is a blatantly clear example of the invaders not knowing what they were doing. Afghanistan looks like going the same way. The US troops were not greeted as liberators but as invaders in Vietnam, Iraq and the Philippines. However, in their own eyes the Americans were saving the Iraqis from a dictator and presumably the Afghans from themselves.  Secondly, expressions like benevolent assimilation, the coalition of the willing and various other fig leaves all show the PR attempts to gild the lilly.. Perhaps we can also compare Teddy Roosevelt and Hearst with George W Bush/Trump and Rupert Murdoch? Manifest Destiny has become American exceptionalism expressed as a God given right or even duty to remake the world in the American image. In short, the US came to all to save them and uplift them. Are the neocons simply the old imperialists renamed? Of course many Americans do not agree with their governments’ policies but they are not the people taking the decisions.  In the case of the Philippines, social Darwinism and racism were rampant. It is hard to be sure how much has changed because such sentiments are no longer expressed publicly by mainstream Americans but the melody lingers on in the assumption that Americans know best and others simply need to be saved from ignorance and brought to adopt American ways. But mixed with genuine faith and perceived benevolence is a hard edged side to government which has overthrown democracies and propped up brutal dictators to protect US strategic and commercial interests. John Menadue has documented this recently.

Although it was by no means the main reason, the US wanted the Philippines for commercial  reasons mainly to help them in the Chinese market. They sent troops from Manila to put down the boxers and support European drug pushers. Japan was seen by some as a threat. So was the yellow peril the equivalent of the red terror later on? We sometimes forget that Kipling’s famous poem was specifically directed to the USA and they did accept his exhortation to take up the white man’s burden which rapidly became the brown man’s burden. The US introduced an English language based education system which taught the Filipinos to be grateful to the US but did meet one of the demands of the revolutionary movement which was for education.. To be fair, the US did promise independence by 1946 before Japan invaded and behaved very badly in the Philippines. This led to the Americans being welcomed back as liberators and the Second Republic was established in 1946, albeit with special privileges for Americans. Two positive sides of the American colonial record were education and health but with the caveat that the education  system taught the benevolent assimilation myth and ignored the American war while stressing the perfidy of Spain. The Spanish record deserves to be criticised but so does the American.

China is also a good example. Americans have forgotten their aggression against China in the 19th century, drug pushing, support for the losing faction in the civil war and refusal to recognise the PRC for many years after it was obviously the government. The hysteria about who lost China is instructive. The US had a duty to save China from Communism and for many to Christianise the Chinese. Americans assume that they have the right to dominate the Pacific and make the rules because their ideology is superior to the Chinese. The same applies to Russia which believes that the US reneged on promises not to encroach on Russian borders (which it may have done) and broke an agreement on reducing nuclear weapons (which George W Bush certainly did).  Christian missions were very active in China and had political influence in Washington because they were saving the souls of the heathen Chinese – well, trying anyway!

While isolationism has always opposed manifest destiny it is not clear where things will end up. Michael Keating has cogently argued that economics will lead Americans  towards a pull back simply because they cannot afford to defeat China economically. While there were differences in the USA about whether or not to invade the Philippines back in 1898, there were people who knew very clearly what they wanted. Today, President Trump doesn’t seem to know what he wants and it is hard to know whether the tweets will be acted on.  But we should not dwell too much on Trump because the theme of saving others remains strong throughout the country. It is often mixed up with religion or at least religiosity and the firm belief that God has given Americans the job of converting the world. The converse of American virtue is that someone else must be evil. This was communism and now is Muslim terrorism. The Christian missionary spirit and overseas missions have been very strong throughout US history and there is probably a connections between religion and the secular desire to save the heathen. While some cynical politicians may use this belief as a fig leaf for economic or strategic aggression, we should never underestimate how widespread a genuine faith in American virtue and duty towards others is in the USA.

So, in the Philippines in 1898 we see noble sentiments about saving the poor ignorant natives clashing with brutal racism, rape and massacres. We see the promotion of American commercial and strategic  interests  along with genuinely idealistic attempts to improve the lot of the lesser breeds without the law. When the Philippine Republic appealed to the views of the US founding fathers they were ignored because they had to be saved until they were ready for a higher status. Superman fought for truth, justice and the American Way. The Hollywood Western almost always has the good guys saving the innocent from the bad guys and so many Americans see themselves wearing the white hats and using their two six shooters to bring virtue and justice to others. Unfortunately, far too often as Indian chiefs occasionally say in the Westerns, white man speak with forked tongue.

Cavan Hogue is a retired Australian diplomat who served in the Philippines where he was the Counsellor. He was also Ambassador to USSR, Russia, Thailand ,Mexico and High Commissioner to Malaysia. He speaks Tagalog and Spanish and has a long standing interest in Philippine history, He has also lived in the United States in Boston and New York. He has travelled widely in both countries.


Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!