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Monday, February 4, 2019

February 4, 2019: The Philippine American War: Spanish American War Origins

[On February 4th, 1899 Filipino rebels launched an attack on American troops in Manila, the opening salvo in what would become the Philippine American War (or Philippine Insurrection—see Thursday’s post for more on that distinction). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for that largely forgotten, brutal turn of the 20th century conflict, leading up to a weekend post on the war’s legacies for 20th and 21st century histories!]
On how remembering the Philippine conflict drastically reframes another American war.
I’m not sure the 1898 Spanish American War figures much at all in our collective memories, but the few details that do seem to stand out emphasize American interests (“Remember the Maine” as a battle-cry) and heroism (Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill). Those are both understandable and typical ways to remember a war, of course, and both do reflect complex but undeniable sides to the conflict (its fraught origins and its clear climax, respectively). Both also closely parallel an earlier military conflict, the Mexican American War, a war that similarly began with hazy justifications and ended with a decisive victory in enemy territory. As a result, it’s easy to see the Spanish American War, the nation’s first international military conflict since the Civil War, as a sort of return to form, a more unifying military battle and victory after the divisive horrors of the Civil War and its aftermaths (and the similarly brutal late 19th century “Indian Wars”).
Yet when put in context of the Philippine American War, our understanding of the Spanish American War changes significantly. For one thing, the two conflicts overlapped so fully that it’d be fair to say that American military action never really ceased: it’s true that outright hostilities between the U.S. and Spain ended with an August 12, 1898 Protocol of Peace, but the Treaty of Paris which formally ended the war wasn’t signed until December 10, and it wasn’t ratified by the U.S. Senate until February 6, 1899—two days after the battle that began the Philippine American War. The two conflicts certainly pitted the U.S. against different adversaries (and I’ll have more to say about the Filipino ones in the coming posts), but the same war can feature distinct fronts and theaters, and given that U.S. troops were only in the Philippines because of the Spanish American War, I believe a strong case could be made that the subsequent conflict with Filipino forces represented a second front in an ongoing conflict. If so, the Spanish American War would shift from one of our shortest conflicts to something far more long-lasting and destructive.
Even if we see the Philippine American War as a follow-up to, rather than an extension of, the Spanish American War, the subsequent conflict reminds us of a crucial element to the earlier one: that however we categorize its origins, the Spanish American War became an excuse for the United States to expand into and occupy imperial territories. In that way, and in all the concurrent histories it featured and that I’ll discuss in this week’s series (wars of occupation against local insurgents, debates at home over these imperial ventures), the Spanish American War foreshadowed quite potently (as John Sayles makes clear in his masterful historical film Amigo) 20th and 21st century conflicts such as the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. And reframing this side to the Spanish American War can even help us rethink the Mexican American War—the U.S. might not have stayed in Mexico after that conflict ended, but the territories added to the U.S. by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo certainly could be seen as imperial extensions, and the subsequent conflicts with both Mexican and Native American communities could be read as wars of occupation in their own right.
Next war context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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