Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘forgotten war’ | Inquirer Opinion

Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘forgotten war’

Many of our people have scant knowledge of the war that Filipinos fought against Americans in our struggle for freedom and independence. History books refer to the conflict as the Philippine-American War, the Philippine War or the Philippine Insurrection. While watching a program on YouTube, I came across another characterization of hostilities in the Philippines. It was “Theodore Roosevelt’s forgotten war.”

While William McKinley was president of the United States during the Spanish-American War, it was his assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, who carried out initiatives to prepare the US Navy for possible conflict. While his boss, Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long, an elderly gentleman, was on vacation during the long summer months in Washington, Roosevelt was running the show and proceeded to issue orders to upgrade the Navy with new battleships, guns, armament and supplies.

As acting secretary, it was Roosevelt who ordered Commodore George Dewey of the Asiatic Fleet to proceed to Hong Kong and, in the event of war with Spain, to take action against the Spanish Squadron on Manila Bay.

In the beginning, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo was made to believe that the US Navy was dispatched to help the Filipinos in their fight against Spain, the common enemy.


Aguinaldo recalled Dewey as saying that “the United States would unquestionably recognize the independence of the people of the Philippines … pointing out that America was a rich nation with enough territory and no history of taking colonies.” He was lying, or out of touch with Washington.

Theodore Roosevelt was a strong advocate for keeping the Philippines and making it part of a growing economic empire. In fact, the position of governor general of the Philippines was “the post he desired above all others” (cited in “The Bully Pulpit” by Doris Goodwin). He was persuaded to run for vice president when McKinley ran for reelection in 1900. Their tandem won by a huge margin.

On Feb. 4, 1899, fighting broke out between the US and Philippine forces in the outskirts of Manila. After a while, Filipinos switched from large-scale formations to guerrilla tactics to compensate for their limited firepower, making the struggle uglier and more violent.

In recent years, the term “waterboarding” has been mentioned as one of the interrogation practices used by the US Central Intelligence Agency to secure information from captured enemy operatives. It was in the Philippine-American War that the practice was first used by American soldiers on captured Filipinos. “Waterboarding” was then known as the “water cure.” Lt. Grover Flint, who served in the Philippines, told a Senate panel that “this was routine torture of Filipino combatants and civilians—30 here, 40 there.”


Stanley Karnow’s “In Our Image” devotes a few paragraphs to the pacification campaign in Batangas. A war correspondent reported that US soldiers “killed men, women, children, prisoners, active insurgents and suspected people from lads 10 and above. They rounded up the natives, stood them on a bridge and shot them one by one, to drop into the water below and float down as an example to others.”

On Sept. 6, 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt, “that damned cowboy,” became the youngest president of the United States. A few weeks later, Filipino freedom fighters caught a US garrison in Balangiga, Samar, napping on a lazy Sunday morning. It was the one encounter during the war that led to so many casualties on the US side. Of the 74 members of the unit, only 20 escaped with their lives.


The Samar battle made headlines in the United States. “Disastrous fight,” reported the New York Tribune. It was the “first severe reverse” in many months and led to Gen. Jacob Smith’s infamous order to kill and burn. American public opinion was getting tired of all the atrocities being reported by newspapers, and the disaster at Balangiga brought even more pressure on President Roosevelt to end the conflict.

In his book “The Imperial Cruise,” author James Bradley writes: “On July 4, 1902, Roosevelt tried to make the Philippine conflict disappear into history with a wave of his hand, declaring that ‘the insurrection against the authority and sovereignty of the United States is now at an end.’”

The Filipinos were not impressed. Fighters led by Katipuneros continued to battle US forces for several more years. About 1,000 guerrillas under Simeon Ola were not defeated until 1903, and in Batangas, troops commanded by Macario Sakay resisted until as late as 1906. In Samar, fighting continued from 1904 to 1906.

In a moment of contemplation after the start of the Philippine-American War, President William McKinley noted: “If old Dewey had just sailed away when he smashed the Spanish fleet, what a lot of trouble he would have saved us.”

What a blessing it would have been for us.

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TAGS: George Dewey, Philippine-american war, Ramon Farolan, Reveille, Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley

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