Confronted with an enemy that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, the general in command of U.S. troops complained that at one time the guerrillas "are in the ranks as soldiers and immediately thereafter are within American lines in the attitude of peaceful natives, absorbed in a dense mass of sympathetic people." A domestic critic of the war stated that "we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater."
As the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaches April 30, we hear similar echoes about our experience in Vietnam. But these statements were made about a war three generations earlier in the Philippines. The general was Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas MacArthur. The critic was Mark Twain, the most prominent literary opponent of the Philippine-American War.
The Philippine-American War was the United States' first protracted counterinsurgency war in Asia. In our history texts, it is often called the "Philippine Insurrection" and treated as a postscript to the three-month Spanish-American War of 1898, but that is misleading.
"Cuban freedom!" was the rallying cry during the Spanish-American War, but it resulted in a peace treaty that ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. Of these, only Cuba was promised independence. The United States agreed to pay Spain $20 million for the Philippines, a payment Twain would later call the U.S. "entrance fee into society -- the Society of Sceptred Thieves."
"We do not intend to free but to subjugate the people of the Philippines," he concluded after studying the treaty. "And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."
Domestic opposition to the annexation of the former Spanish colonies was mobilized by an Anti-Imperialist League formed in Boston in November 1898. "We are in full sympathy with the heroic struggles for liberty of the people in the Spanish Islands," its first appeal for membership declared, "and therefore we protest against depriving them of their rights by an exchange of masters." No fringe movement, its national slate of officers included Twain; former President Grover Cleveland; Moorfield Storey, a Boston lawyer who later became the first NAACP president; steel magnate Andrew Carnegie; and Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor.
The league initially mobilized opposition to the peace treaty, delivering more than 50,000 signatures on a petition to the Senate calling for the independence of Spain's former colonies. Like the Cubans, the Filipinos had been fighting for their independence from Spain since 1896. Surrounding Manila on land while Admiral George Dewey's fleet controlled Manila Harbor, the Filipinos cooperated with the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War to drive the last remaining Spanish forces from the islands. After capturing Manila from the Spanish, U.S. troops were confined to that city and its immediate suburbs. The Filipinos controlled the rest of the country. On Feb. 4, 1899, with the peace treaty still under debate in the Senate, U.S. troops fired on a group of Filipinos and the new war began. Or, as Twain put it in "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," his first major satire of the war: "What we wanted, in the interests of Progress and Civilization, was the Archipelago, unencumbered by patriots struggling for independence; and War was what we needed. We clinched our opportunity."
Sixty-five years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident similarly swayed Congress to send additional troops to Vietnam, the Senate ratified the treaty with a one-vote margin just two days after this incident in the Philippines.
The Philippine-American War officially lasted until July 4, 1902, but skirmishes and local rebellions continued well into the next -- decade. The new war in the Philippines was qualitatively different from the war against Spain, and it divided Americans as no war would again until Vietnam.
In a sense, the war against Spain was a gentleman's war. For example, the United States captured Manila in a mock battle after negotiations with the Spanish convinced them that they would be better off surrendering to the United States rather than to the Filipinos who held 350 years' worth of grievances against them.
In sharp contrast, the war against the Filipinos was marked by racism and military atrocities. Many of the U.S. officers who led troops there had experience fighting American Indians in the West. Others brought the racial hatreds of the post-Civil War South to the Philippines. At home, political cartoons frequently portrayed the Filipinos as savages with feathers in their hair or as black-faced, grass-skirted Sambos. These inaccurate racial portrayals were an important part of the way the United States justified the conquest of the Philippines. It was in February 1899, the month in which the war began and the Senate ratified the treaty that formalized the annexation of Spain's former colonies, that Rudyard Kipling's classic exhortation to empire, "The White Man's Burden," was published in the United States. Kipling's sentiments found expression in Sen. Albert Beveridge's claim of "the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world" -- a mission he carefully balanced for the more practically minded with references to "China's illimitable markets" that lay "just beyond the Philippines."
While politicians and editorialists at home spoke of benevolent intentions, the reality in the Philippines was often brutal. A U.S. soldier writing home in early 1899 declared: "Our fighting blood was up and we all wanted to kill 'niggers.' This shooting human beings is a 'hot game,' and beats rabbit hunting all to pieces."
Another wrote that "the boys go for the enemy as if they were chasing jack rabbits. . . . I, for one, hope that Uncle Sam will apply the chastening rod, good, hard, and plenty, and lay it on until they come into the reservation and promise to be good Injuns."
Twain highlighted such racist sentiments and the atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers to argue that the Filipinos were more civilized than the Americans who sought to rule them.
"We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them, destroyed their fields, burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out of doors," he wrote. After two years of such devastating warfare, he remarked: "The White Man's Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man's?" With speeches and essays, and by signing the Anti-Imperialist League's petitions, Twain protested the forced relocation of Filipinos into "concentration camps" -- a precursor of the "strategic hamlets" of Vietnam. This policy of forcing the local population into heavily garrisoned towns was intended to isolate the Filipino army from its civilian base of support.
In March 1906, Twain condemned the massacre of 900 Muslim Filipinos who were trapped in the volcanic basin of Mount Dajo and fired upon by U.S. troops for four days until all were killed -- men, women and children. Gen. Leonard Wood -- who commanded this massacre, our first My Lai -- was later made Philippine governor general.
To this day, the total number of Filipinos killed during the war is hotly debated. Some 16,000 to 20,000 Filipino soldiers were killed from 1899-1902. Estimates of the number of civilians who died from famine, disease and other war-related causes during these years range from 200,000 to 600,000. These figures do not include the number of Filipinos who died during the warfare in the southern Philippines that continued until 1914. Of the nearly 200,000 U.S. soldiers who served in the Philippines from 1898 to 1902, only about 5,000 were killed.
Highlighting a similarly glaring difference in casualty figures in a speech given in 1902, Twain exclaimed: "This is not battle, for only one side is engaged -- it has another name. It is massacre."
Quickly labeled a traitor for his outspoken opposition to the war, Twain responded that "the country is divided, half patriots and half traitors, and no man can tell which from which." It was a time when "to be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, 'Our Country, right or wrong,' and urge on the little war."
But the war was so unpopular that, that phrase was not enough, and it was soon supported by another rationale: "Even if the war be wrong, we are in it and must fight it out: We cannot retire from it without dishonor."
To this Twain replied: "An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war."
With the defeat of Spain and the conquest of the Philippines, the United States obtained its first taste of "world power" status. From 1898 to 1901, the size of the standing army was nearly quadrupled and, for the first time in U.S. history, overseas deployment of troops was institutionalized in the Army Bill of 1901. In a short sketch written that year, Twain used unique imagery to forecast the "global policeman" role that the United States would later acquire.
Comparing the U.S. government with a prairie dog, he wrote: "It is the duty of our Government to stand sentinel, with solemn mien, and lifted nose, and curved paws, on top of our little World-Power mound, and look out over the wide prairie; and if anything suspicious shows up on the horizon, bark."
It was just such a bark of alarm over falling dominoes in Southeast Asia some 60 years later that would lead to the protracted entanglement in Vietnam.
Jim Zwick is the editor of "Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War," Syracuse University Press, 1992.