McKinley and the Acquisition of the Philippines: Deja Vu All Over Again in Iraq
Gabriel Kolko, in his excellent book, Another Century of War?, shows how America has become the world’s sole superpower by engaging in a perpetual war to oppose an elusive enemy called “terrorism.” He notes that American wars and interventions have usually produced unintended consequences that in the end were far more harmful than beneficial to American interests. He further notes how the Bush administration consistently ignores our nation’s original foreign policy of noninterventionism as enunciated by Washington—a foreign policy that changed to interventionism with the Spanish-American War. It is this latter point that I wish to pursue briefly in this essay.
By the exigencies of that war, the responsibilities in the Pacific were thrust upon the United States for the first time. As in Iraq today, the McKinley administration faced the problem of “making the Philippines”—that is, “redeeming” the Philippines and building a “new civilization” upon the ruins of the Spanish misrule. I see at least two important similarities between modern-day Iraq and the Philippines of the late nineteenth century. The Philippine Islands were rich in natural resources and boundless possibilities of industrial and commercial expansion. They also possessed a heterogeneous population of some seven or eight million souls of many different races and tribes, a feature accompanied by the absence of any semblance of national unity, but in its stead universal jealousy, the Tagalogs distrusting the Visayans, the Christians hating the Mussulmans of Mindanao, etc. The post-war reconstruction policy of the United States was affirmed by McKinley in a letter to General Elwell Otis, dated December 21, 1898, which closed with these words: “…it should be the earnest and paramount aim of the military administration to win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines by assuring to them in every possible way that full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of free peoples, and by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.”
McKinley was widely supported in his foreign policy vis-à-vis the Philippines, just as Bush has enjoyed the support of the majority of Americans for “liberating” Iraq. However, McKinley had his detractors as well. His phrase “benevolent assimilation” was sneeringly criticized as hypocritical. He was charged with perfidy in promising independence to the Filipinos and failing to grant it. He was accused of turning the “much-vaunted war of liberation into a war of conquest and criminal aggression.” In the face of increasing criticism of his policy of occupation, McKinley refused to pull out. The army was there only to protect the lives and property of the people and to establish order and security, he insisted. The sovereignty of America, having once been established, must remain unsullied until voluntarily withdrawn, he said.
Another favorite criticism of the president’s opponents was that the Constitution of the United States granted no authority for annexing a sovereign nation. They argued, in light of the Declaration of Independence, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The president responded by saying that the right to hold and govern territory and peoples as the result of conquest is one of the inherent attributes of sovereignty. The framers of the Constitution, he insisted, intended to create a nation—not with limited powers as compared with their neighbors, but a strong, enduring, and self-sustaining nation with all the powers that make for growth and expansion. It was inconceivable, therefore, that the United States had no authority to retain and govern territory outside its borders, having obtained possession of it. If the Filipinos failed to understand the altruism of the president, it was only because in all their earthly experience they had never heard of such a thing as a philanthropic ruler. Thus, in his letter of acceptance for the Republican nomination for president on September 8, 1900, McKinley asserted, “We will not give up our own to guarantee another’s sovereignty.”
William McKinley was not the first American president to use the argument of philanthropy toward other “less fortunate” peoples. Lincoln “heard” a similar call and responded with the emancipation of four million slaves—at the cost of 620,000 war dead. But that was within our own boundaries. McKinley saw that the time had come when the United States, no longer a weakling nation, but strong and able, should take to itself the apostolic injunction, “We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak and not to please ourselves.” He believed that the unalienable rights that the nation’s Founders had so ardently desired for themselves were not the exclusive privilege of their own countrymen, but were part of the endowment of the people of Cuba, of Puerto Rico, and of the Philippines as well. When the events of history placed the destinies of these peoples within America’s hands, it was its duty to extend to them the same blessings of freedom that it enjoyed.
And so it was that the United States, ignoring the words of its first president to avoid entangling alliances, inaugurated a policy of “benevolent assimilation” in the development of the world and placed itself at the head of all nations as the chief uplifter of less fortunate peoples. The power subsequently wielded by the United States in its treatment of foreign nations was all the direct result of President McKinley’s exalted vision of the fundamental duty of America to make itself a power for righteousness.
October 13, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. He is currently finishing his latest book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon.