McKinley on the Philippines | Inquirer Opinion

McKinley on the Philippines

Between 1898 and 1899 onwards, Filipinos fought two wars for liberty and independence. The first was the resumption of the revolution against Spain after Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo returned from exile. It resulted in a victorious military campaign that saw the establishment of the First Republic in Asia on June 12, 1898. The Republic was short-lived in the face of a new aggressor from the West. After Adm. George Dewey destroyed the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay in May, President William McKinley ordered the military occupation of the archipelago. This led to a second war for freedom against the United States. Imperialists called the Philippine-American War an “insurrection” and derided our patriots and heroes as bandits, outlaws, and ladrones (robbers).

One could say this war was actually America’s first Vietnam, but with two significant differences. First, the Filipinos had no superpower ally; they fought alone. Vietnam had China and the USSR to provide arms and advice. Second, the Americans came not to assist but to conquer the Philippines.


In November 1898, McKinley met with a group of Protestant clergy at the White House in Washington, DC. Just before his guests were about to leave, he said to them:

“Before you go, I would like to say just a word about the Philippine business. I have been criticized a good deal about the Philippines but don’t deserve it. The truth is, I didn’t want the Philippines and when they came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them. When the Spanish war broke out, Dewey was at Hong Kong and I ordered him to go to Manila and he had to; because, if defeated, he had no place to refit on that side of the globe and if the Dons (i.e., Spaniards) were victorious they would likely cross the Pacific and ravage our Oregon and California coasts. And so he had to destroy the Spanish fleet and did it! But that was as far as I thought then. When next I realized that the Philippines had dropped into our lap, I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. I thought first we should take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands, perhaps, also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night.


“And one night late it came to me this way — I don’t know how it was but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain — that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) That we could not turn them over to France or Germany — our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) That we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government — and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there, worse than Spain’s was; and (4) That there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace, do the very best we could by them as our fellowmen for whom Christ also died.

“And then, I went to bed and went to sleep and slept soundly and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our mapmaker) and told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States [pointing to a large map on the wall of his office]; and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!” (“The Roots of the Filipino Nation,” Volume 2, O.D. Corpuz)

McKinley would not finish his second term in office. On Sept. 6, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, an anarchist Leon Czolgosz, would shoot him with a revolver at close range. After a brief recovery, he expired a few days later on Sept. 14. His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, would be an even stronger exponent of American power and influence in world affairs.

The Roman philosopher Cicero said: “To remain ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain always a child.” A popular version of this saying is “Unless we look back at what took place in the past, we shall never get to our destination.”

Today we are faced by a new threat, one that would make us a province of another foreign power. As we commemorate the 123rd anniversary of Philippine Independence, let us remain vigilant and united in our determination to preserve freedom in our land, upholding the national sovereignty against those who would take what is rightfully ours.

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