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[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 10/22/03 ]
Philippines not a good model


As a professor of history, I was quite appalled to see President Bush's recent reference to the Philippines as a model for the reconstruction of Iraq.

On the contrary, the history of American involvement in the Philippines offers timely and important lessons in the hazards and unforeseen consequences of U.S. intervention in the rest of the world.

In April 1898, the United States entered into war with Spain following the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor (an explosion, incidentally, that was later determined to be accidental). The sensationalistic activities of the press (what we call "yellow journalism") whipped up public sentiment against Spain. In addition to San Juan Hill and other well-known battles in Cuba, American troops, along with Filipino rebels, fought the Spanish in the Philippines, capturing Manila in August.

In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War the United States had to figure out what to do with the Philippines. President William McKinley decided upon outright annexation of the islands, pledging to "educate the Filipinos, and to uplift and civilize and Christianize them," conveniently ignoring the fact that, after centuries of Spanish rule, the majority of the Filipino population already was Christian.

The planned annexation of the Philippines sparked an intense, impassioned debate among the American people. An anti-imperialist movement emerged, including among its members such prominent figures as Andrew Carnegie, Jane Addams and Mark Twain. Opponents of U.S. expansion argued that annexation was profoundly un-American, in violation of the principle of self-government embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and would set an ominous precedent for empire incompatible with democracy.

Furthermore, the Filipino people desired independence. They had originally seen the Americans as liberators from Spanish domination, not as new colonizers. In early 1899, anti-American resentment erupted into insurrection, led by Emilio Aguinaldo.

The resulting war in the Philippines was far more nasty and brutish than the so-called "splendid little war" with Spain. American troops committed atrocities, attacked civilians, and destroyed their crops and villages.

By the time the war ended in 1902 (although intermittent fighting lasted for decades), more than 4,000 Americans, 20,000 rebels and perhaps 200,000 civilians lay dead. And the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world had permanently changed.

It was only in 1946 that the Philippines were granted independence, though the State Department's own briefing papers, distributed just this week to the Bush entourage, still state that "U.S. administration of the Philippines was always declared to be temporary."

In the intervening years, the U.S. government has continued to support a succession of antidemocratic, repressive regimes in the Philippines, notably that of Fernando Marcos. Far from being a model for nation building and democracy, as Bush has explicitly stated, the Philippines epitomizes an American foreign policy based on dubious premises and false promises. We would do well to heed the lessons of the Philippines today.

--Clifford Kuhn is a professor of history at Georgia State University.