The forgotten war
One hundred twenty-five years ago, the United States went to war with Spain due, in part, to the sinking of the US battleship Maine in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 15, 1898. Fake news is not new, and on that day, US newspapers were quick to blame Spain with the meme “Remember the Maine!” Their brand of reporting was then called “yellow journalism” which the ignorant believe to be the foundation of “dilawan” in the 21st century Philippines. It’s a pity that US and Philippine history textbooks gloss over the events that led to the US turning from republic to empire overnight.
Following the defeat of Spain in that short and mismatched war were her possessions—Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam—becoming overseas US territories. Don’t forget Hawaii, too, that joined the list of American possessions after elements representing US and European interests in the island worked to depose Queen Liliʻuokalani. In my undergraduate history classes, I always point out that the first shot in the Spanish-American War was not heard anywhere near Washington or Madrid. That first shot was fired off Cavite on May 1, 1898. With the sinking of the proud but ill-equipped Spanish fleet, George Dewey was credited with one of the greatest victories in US naval history—the Battle of Manila Bay. Many people do not know that the bayside street we know as Roxas Boulevard was once Dewey Boulevard.
Since the Spanish-American War is but a blip in US and Philippine histories, we know of it as an event, but with all the details left out. Most of my students at the University of Michigan told me that the Spanish-American War was only mentioned in passing in their K-12 history and, if not for the rare conscientious teacher, the lectures and readings also skipped Emilio Aguinaldo or the Philippine wars of independence against Spain and the US. Only a handful had heard about the Philippine-American War because teachers hard-pressed to cover so much material in a semester decided to skip discussion on former US colonies like the Philippines. To fill in the gaps in common knowledge of US history, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington is currently presenting a show on that war and its legacies: “1898 US Imperial Visions and Revisions.”
The section devoted to the Philippines is impressive due to the loan from Manila of three oil portraits of major figures in the birth of the Filipino nation, painted by three important Filipino artists: Jose Rizal’s portrait by Juan Luna was loaned from the Collection of Luis Antonio and Cecile Gutiérrez, Felipe Agoncillo’s portrait by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo was loaned from the National Museum of the Philippines, and Apolinario Mabini’s portrait by Fabián de la Rosa was loaned from the National Library of the Philippines. Of course, Aguinaldo is represented by an autographed studio photo from 1901 loaned from History Nebraska. At the center of the space were two weapons we read about in school but rarely see in person, like a US model 1898 Krag-Jorgensen Rifle loaned from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, that is referenced in racist literature and documents of the period, a time when Filipinos fighting for their independence were met with the cry: “civilize ‘em with a Krag!” I expected a Mauser rifle to be displayed, too, as that was the weapon taken by “agaw armas” and used by the Filipinos. Instead, there was a wavy kris from Mindanao loaned from the National Museum of Natural History.
Luna and Agoncillo make another appearance in another part of the exhibition; they were part of a group photo of commissioners from Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico who were in Washington to argue their case against occupation by the US. They were not recognized and were kept from negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris, ending the conflict between the US and Spain. The first shot in the Philippine-American War was fired on Feb. 4, 1899, near a US blockhouse in Santa Mesa and not, as previously believed, on San Juan bridge. News of that shot was heard in the US Senate, then debating the ratification of the Treaty of Paris. Of the 84 senators voting on the measure, 57 were in favor and 27 against. Ratification passed by one vote. The Philippines was ceded to the US in exchange for $20 million, leading Sen. Thomas Reed to remark: “We have bought 10 million Malays at $2 a head unpicked and nobody knows what it will cost to pick them.”
Estimated cost of the Philippine-American War included 4,234 American soldiers dead, 2,818 wounded, and scores more who returned home to die with post-traumatic stress disorder, malaria, dysentery, and venereal disease. Not recognizing the Malolos Republic, the conflict was belittled as the so-called “Philippine Insurrection.” If the estimates are correct, the US paid $20 million for the Philippines which came with a $300 million war.
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