A century-old lesson in nation-building

TODAY IS the 146th birthday of William Howard Taft, our 27th president and our 10th chief justice (the only man to serve in both positions). His greatest service to his country, however, occurred before he rose so high.

The Taft presidency (1909-13) was an unhappy episode that killed his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt and doomed a divided Republican Party to defeat. His tenure on the Supreme Court (1921-30) got high marks for administration but offered little in judicial philosophy.


Mr. Taft's four years as colonial governor general of the Philippines from 1900 to 1904 were, however, a solid success - the more so since they came during a widely denounced war.

To put things in current context, he was our man in Manila as surely as L. Paul Bremer III is today our man in Baghdad. The job made Mr. Taft a national figure and enabled his influential friends to elevate him to the White House.


So far, Mr. Bremer has remained a two-dimensional figure in the Iraq war, a name in the newspapers, an overburdened bureaucrat without a political personality. Mr. Taft, too, was not exactly a household name when he left a congenial federal judgeship in Ohio in 1900 to take on a role so antithetical to America's anti-colonialist traditions. He even told President William McKinley he opposed annexation of the Philippines.

But when his efforts to pacify a fierce Filipino insurrection made significant headway - an outcome hardly within Mr. Bremer's reach at this juncture - he won sufficient popular approval back home to further his career. Only military hard-liners and anti-imperial pacifists were unimpressed.

Though Mr. Taft was an affable, roly-poly fellow weighing in at well over 300 pounds, he was no Falstaff. Armed with the confidence of the well-born, he did not shrink from unwanted confrontation - even with the likes of Gen. Arthur MacArthur, father of the more famous Douglas, or, sadly and later, his old friend TR. In the struggle with General MacArthur, he had the ear of their mutual boss, Secretary of War Elihu Root. And when it was over, General MacArthur was out as the top U.S. official in Manila and Mr. Taft was in.

His triumph helped establish the supremacy of civilian authority over the military even in circumstances of conflict far from American shores. The pattern prevailed during Vietnam as American forces confronted the armies of a contiguous communist state. In the current Iraq war involving Islam worldwide, the Bush administration wasted little time in replacing a general with Mr. Bremer. Yet decades of U.S. involvement overseas have fostered civilian-military cooperation in healthy ways.

The governance Mr. Taft established in the Philippines was based on a combination of tough security measures and vigorous civil action. While veterans of the Indian wars on the Great Plains pushed militarily into remote sanctuaries of the "insurrectos," other Americans built roads and bridges and schools, encouraged municipal and provincial administrations, revised tariffs, drafted laws, promoted democracy and performed other functions that now come under the rubric of nation-building.

Mr. Taft's slogan was "The Philippines for the Filipinos," and he genuinely learned to love the people, the place and the job. Though the Supreme Court was his lifelong ambition, he twice turned down appointments rather than abandon his post in Manila.

Mr. Taft believed Filipinos, lacking allies, could be wooed into friendly acceptance of indefinite American suzerainty by treating them with good deeds and good works. His fear was civil war and chaos if Americans left. His ideal was some kind of Philippine version of American democracy. Sound familiar?

In actuality, the Filipinos never relinquished their passion for their independence, which finally arrived in 1946. During the 40 years that intervened, their wartime animosity gave way to a mixed bag of disappointment over American indifference and appreciation for some of the benefits of American-style colonialism.


Compared with what his British, French, Belgian and German colonial counterparts were doing a century ago, Mr. Taft's accomplishments were fairly altruistic. In 1907, the Filipinos enjoyed the first democratically elected assembly in Asia. Their literacy rates skyrocketed when compared with other Third World populations. Their escape from cholera and other dread diseases was a model for the rest of the world.

Which is not to say that America's colonial record was unblemished. Far from it, as courts martial for military atrocities affirmed. Or that the U.S. entry into the Philippines was other than an unintended offshoot of the war with Spain over Cuba. But the task was there. And Will Taft took it on with zest and goodwill.

As a president, he theoretically is honored each year (along with every other chief executive) on Presidents Day. Which is just as well. There will be no Colonial Governors Day in a nation so proud of its early history.

Joseph R. L. Sterne is a former editorial page editor of The Sun.