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Imperialist Nonsense: The US Takeover of the Philippines

Robert Kagan is a well-known neoconservative historian who believes that America ought to exercise a “benevolent hegemony” over the rest of the world. In his just-published book, The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900–1941 (Knopf, 2023), he presents an odd argument for America’s takeover of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.

When United States armed forces arrived in the islands, many Filipinos hoped for American support in setting up an independent state. The American forces instead suppressed the independence movement and tortured and killed a great many people in the course of fighting a long guerilla war. The US government then established a protectorate over the Philippines, which was not granted independence until after World War II. Kagan doesn’t defend the atrocities, but he argues that American policy was on the whole justified. In this week’s article, I’ll examine his argument.

In essence, Kagan’s argument is this: because of the brutal Spanish colonial policy in Cuba, America was justified in freeing Cuba from Spanish rule. Since the Spanish wouldn’t give up control of Cuba voluntarily, America was required go to war with Spain. This in turn required that America strike at the Spanish Pacific fleet, which was stationed at Manila. Once the fleet was destroyed, the Philippines were open to a takeover by stronger imperialist powers, such as Germany. Such a takeover would have been contrary to America’s interests, and the Philippine people were incapable of resisting colonization by a European imperialist power.

In spite of all this, many Filipinos wanted independence. America thus had an interest in blocking Philippine independence, and since the independence movement was fighting for just that, in suppressing that movement by force. Although the use of force was regrettable and the use of torture wrong, Kagan argues, the American occupation of the islands brought many benefits to the Filipinos and was on the whole justified. In my view, each step of this argument is mistaken.

First, it is without doubt true that Spain’s attempt to maintain control of Cuba led to a great loss of life, but it does not follow that America was justified in going to war with Spain to free Cuba. Spanish control of Cuba posed no threat to American independence, and from a Rothbardian perspective, there was inadequate cause for war. (See Murray Rothbard’s article “Just War.”)

Many people accept war for “humanitarian” reasons, contrary to Rothbard, but the argument for American colonization of the Philippines does not meet that standard either. Kagan writes that the destruction of the Spanish fleet would have opened the Philippines to German control and that this was not in America’s interests:

The only great power eager for some or all of the Philippines was Germany, but this was not an attractive option. . . . To Americans, it seemed that Germany had its eyes on “every beachhead in Latin America and every atoll in the South Pacific.” These concerns only grew when, just after [Admiral George] Dewey’s victory, a potent German naval force arrived in the waters of Manila Bay, commanded by the same officer who had taken [the Chinese port of] Kiaochow. . . . Even in the unlikely event a stable government could be established, . . . . [i]t would only be a matter of time before either Germany intervened or the competing powers began struggling for control. (pp. 46–47)

Suppose Germany had colonized the Philippines and that Germany would have been much harder to dislodge than Spain had been. Why would this have been against America’s interests? Kagan offers no evidence that Germany posed a military threat to America, and he offers no other characterization of “interests” by which we can assess the claim that Germany threatened American interests.

But supposing that Germany would have posed something beyond a military threat, such as the potential ability to interfere with American commerce and naval maneuvers in the area, why is that a justification to take over the Philippines? Is a nation always justified in using force to halt a move against its “interests”? Further, the assumption that Germany would attempt to seize control of the Philippines was speculative. Why not delay preventive action until such an attempt was in the offing? And even if an independent Philippine state could not have prevented a German takeover, why not offer military assistance to a Philippine government rather than assume direct control?

Suppose, however, that one thought American control of the Philippines justified, at least until the nation was capable of adequate defense against foreign invasion. (Doesn’t this supposition sound ridiculous? “We are a foreign country who must control you so that other foreign countries won’t control you.”) If the moral costs of doing something are bad enough, the policy is wrong, even if the policy is otherwise justified. The Filipino independence movement was determined to resist the American occupying forces, and putting down that resistance involved killing and torturing many people:

The costs did rise, including the moral costs. . . . From the end of 1900 through the summer of 1901, the army conducted increasingly large and effective operations against the insurgents in over half of the Philippine provinces. . . . American brutality also increased. American forces began taking “punitive” measures against both insurgents and suspected supporters, destroying crops and property, without much concern for who actually owned them. More than one Civil War veteran compared the army’s tactics to Sherman’s devastation of the South. They moved civilians into “protected zones” to separate them from insurgents, drawing comparisons with Weyler’s reconcentrado policies in Cuba. . . . Captured prisoners were sometimes subjected to “the water cure.” (pp. 56–57)

For Kagan, America’s gross violations of human rights are excusable in a way that the offenses of Spain and Germany, discussed throughout the book, are not. Those of us who accept the requirements of ordinary morality will not follow him in this.

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