Theodore Roosevelt in PH history
US President Theodore Roosevelt does not figure in our public history as much as he should.
Roosevelt Street in Quezon City, which connects Muñoz market on the north end and Fisher Mall on the south, is named after US President Franklin D. Roosevelt or “FDR,” rather than “TR.”
Even the Roosevelt College System, made up of campuses in Cubao, Marikina, Cainta, and San Mateo, also honor FDR rather than TR.
When I was in grade school, I saw a photo of FDR in a wheelchair and associated his disability with Apolinario Mabini, the “Dakilang Lumpo” or “Sublime Paralytic.”
But TR seemed greater in my child’s eyes because he saw action in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, leading the first Volunteer Cavalry or “Rough Riders” to victory in the Battle of San Juan Hill.
I was to learn later that TR resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy in 1898 to serve in Cuba under Leonard Wood, who later became US governor-general in the Philippines.
TR seemed larger than life, so different from the soft, cuddly stuffed toys that carry his name—“Teddy Bears” (originally marketed as “Teddy’s Bears”).
TR’s hidden hand in Philippine history began when he was the assistant Navy secretary who lobbied, over and above the head of his superior, Navy Secretary John D. Long, to have George Dewey appointed commander of the Asiatic Squadron. Long, who took pride in not knowing anything about the Navy, was the opposite of his aggressive assistant secretary who authored “The Naval War of 1812” (published 1882).
Long did not believe in a war with Spain, but TR prepared for it, often issuing orders toward enhancing the capability of the Navy while Long was out of the office. Most famous was a coded telegram TR sent, without Long’s knowledge, instructing Dewey to engage the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. Remember, the first shot in the Spanish-American War did not occur anywhere near Washington or Madrid, but rang half a world away.
TR was vindicated after Dewey destroyed the antiquated Spanish fleet under Patricio Montojo, making the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, the greatest US naval victory in history.
When news of the victory in Manila reached Washington, President William McKinley could not decide what to do with the Philippines, because he couldn’t even locate the country on a map! His hand was pushed, no doubt, when informed that British, French, German, and Japanese warships were also in Manila Bay to protect their nationals, and could take over if the United States and Spain withdrew.
As a matter of fact, Germany had the biggest fleet, and under the command of an admiral, thus outranking then Commodore Dewey. While Dewey maintained a naval blockade in Manila Bay, he did not have ground troops to occupy the capital city, unlike the Germans who landed marines in Bataan. Tension escalated between the US and German fleets, prompting the British to defuse the situation by moving its warship between them.
Roosevelt’s unauthorized telegram to Dewey changed the course of history, dropping an overseas colony in the lap of the United States and robbing the Filipinos of their hard-won but stillborn independence.
Theodore Roosevelt deserves mention, or at least a footnote, in our textbooks, not as a glorification of imperialism but as a way to contextualize our moving from one colonial master to another—best described by Carmen Guerrero Nakpil as “three centuries in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.”
An impressive bronze statue of TR at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in New York will be removed after years of protest and vandalism, and preserved in storage for another time and another place.
TR is shown on a horse with an American Indian on foot to his left and an African to his right, gun bearers in the two continents, America and Africa, where he went hunting. Originally intended to portray TR’s interest in the unity of all races, the same statue is perceived differently today, as a glorification of racial hierarchy and white supremacy.
Each generation writes its own history, and writes multiple histories. One person’s memory is understood from different points of view. Decolonizing our past is a painful but necessary process.
However, the suggestion of removing the memory of controversial figures—Magallanes, Legazpi, McKinley, and Taft from our streets, for example—robs us of engagement and debate in history.
The removal of TR from view in New York, and his absence in our textbooks, likewise rob us of another opportunity to understand how we came to be.
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