Pacifying the Philippines

Then and thereafter the victory achieved by policies of J. Franklin Bell was controversial. His concentration policy had successfully isolated Malvar’s guerrillas from the noncombatants. During a four-month campaign, four Americans soldiers were killed and nineteen wounded. The insurgents suffered 147 killed, 104 wounded, and 821 captured, and 2,934 surrendered. For many Americans the testimony of Malvar’s brother-in-law, who was also a province commander, vindicated Bell’s strategy: “The means used in reconcentrating the people, I think, were the only ones by which war could be stopped and peace brought about in the province.” However, there was the troubling fact that Bell’s policies also caused the deaths of about 11,000 civilians.

The problem of civilian deaths emerged by mid-January 1902 when it became apparent that civilians concentrated inside the protected zones faced famine. One American station commander reported that 30,000 civilians had been herded into an area that normally supported 5,000. Bell understood that General Order 100 decreed that the occupying army provide for the occupied. Accordingly, Bell issued orders to make the people cultivate crops inside the zones. He ordered the importation of a tremendous quantity of rice to feed civilians. He ordered his subordinates to bring food from outside the zones back to the towns. At the time he worried that these measures “might possibly create in the minds of some an impression that greater leniency in enforcing” past policies was desired. Not so, he hastened to assure his subordinates.

American food distribution efforts failed to stop the dying. Large numbers of people still went hungry because of the confluence of multiple factors: a natural plague had decimated the water buffalo, the draft animal indispensable for agricultural pursuits; American troops had slaughtered surviving water buffalo wherever they found them outside the zones; the imported rice was thiamine-deficient polished rice that compromised people’s immune systems; field commanders found it difficult to transport food from remote mountain hiding places back to the towns and often ignored this part of Bell’s instructions.

People inside the zones did not starve to death. Rather, the lack of food and the poor nutritional value of what food there was weakened them, making them susceptible to the real killers: the anopheles mosquitos. The mosquitos normally preferred water buffalo blood. Deprived of their usual prey, they turned to human targets, which, by virtue of Bell’s concentration policy, they found conveniently herded in dense masses. Malaria killed thousands. In addition, overcrowded conditions and extremely poor sanitation promoted the killing transmission of measles, dysentery, and eventually cholera. Civilian deaths in Batangas were an unintended consequence of Bell’s policy of concentration and food destruction.

On July 4, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, who became president after McKinley’s assassination, declared the Philippine Insurrection over and civil government restored. Roosevelt did make a caveat regarding Moro territory, a handful of southern Philippine islands dominated by an Islamic people, but in the general glow of victory few noticed. He issued a fulsome thanks to the army, noting that they had fought with courage and fortitude in the face of enormous obstacles: “Bound themselves by the laws of war, our soldiers were called upon to meet every device of unscrupulous treachery and to contemplate without reprisal the infliction of barbarous cruelties upon their comrades and friendly natives. They were instructed, while punishing armed resistance, to conciliate the friendship of the peaceful, yet had to do with a population among whom it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe, and who in countless instances used a false appearance of friendship for ambush and assassination.”

Roosevelt’s effusive praise notwithstanding, the brutality of Bell’s campaign along with Smith’s crueler campaign fought on the island of Samar brought a Senate inquiry into army misconduct. On May 23, 1902, a senator read a letter purportedly written by a West Point graduate serving in the Philippines that described a reconcentrado pen with a deadline outside. A “corpse-carcass stench” wafted into the writer’s nostrils as he wrote. “At nightfall clouds of vampire bats softly swirl out on their orgies over the dead.”

Roosevelt pledged a full investigation. His adjutant general established the principle for the investigation: “Great as the provocation had been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder, and torture against our men, nothing can justify . . . the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.” The subsequent investigation provided sensational allegations supported by extensive testimony. It became clear that torture had taken place and everyone knew it. One major candidly wrote a comrade, “You, as well as I, know that in bringing to a successful issue [the war] certain things will take place not intended by the higher authorities.” Numerous witnesses testified to the use of the “water cure.”

The shooting of unarmed men and the execution of wounded and prisoners also proved to be commonplace. A Maine soldier in the Forty-third Infantry wrote to his local newspaper that “eighteen of my company killed seventy-five nigger bolomen and ten of the nigger gunners . . . When we find one that is not dead, we have bayonets.” The official War Department report for 1900 revealed how widespread was the practice of finishing off wounded insurgents. The U.S. Army had killed 14,643 insurgents and wounded a mere 3,297. This ratio was the inverse of military experience dating back to the American Civil War and could only be explained by the slaughter of the wounded. When asked about this during the Senate inquiry, MacArthur blithely explained that it was due to the superior marksmanship of the well-trained U.S. soldiers.

MacArthur, like the other senior commanders in the Philippines, had issued orders and guidelines against coercive behavior while acknowledging that sometimes field conditions required extraordinary behavior. The senators accepted this explanation. In the end, the Senate inquiry documented frequent American excursions outside the bounds of behavior permitted by the laws of war while whitewashing the conduct of the officers in charge. This conclusion satisfied Roosevelt, who had promised to back the army wherever it operated lawfully and legitimately. Thereafter, Roosevelt kept faith with the hard men of the Philippines. During his administration he named Adna Chaffee and later J. Franklin Bell to the army’s highest post, chief of staff of the U.S. Army. For Chaffee it represented an unprecedented climb that began as a Civil War private. For Bell, it represented vindication after the humiliating Senate inquiry.


The collapse of the organized insurgency in the Philippines removed the islands from the forefront of American consciousness. The tactics employed to squash the guerrillas disillusioned Americans and most were happy to forget about the distant islands as soon as possible. Thereafter American history recalled the sinking of the battleship Maine, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and the “Splendid Little War” against Spain. Yet the Spanish-American War had lasted only months, while the Philippine Insurrection officially persisted for more than three years and involved four times as many American soldiers. Regardless, few Americans paid attention to what had transpired in the Philippines until forty years later when a new event, Arthur MacArthur’s son Douglas’s doomed defense of the islands against Japanese invasion, superseded all else. Subsequently, even military historians largely disregarded the Philippine Insurrection until American involvement in Vietnam compelled renewed interest in how to fight Asian guerrillas.

By 1902, officers who served in the Philippines came to a near unanimous conclusion that commitment to a policy of attraction had prolonged the conflict. Colonel Arthur Murray expressed a combat soldier’s view. When he first assumed regimental command, Murray opposed punitive measures because they caused innocent people to suffer and turned potentially friendly people into insurgents. His experience on the ground changed his mind: “If I had my work out there to do over again, I would do possibly a little more killing and considerably more burning than I did.” Most officers concluded that the key to a successful counterinsurgency was decisive military action employing severe policies of chastisement. To their minds, the Filipino insurgents had given up the fight for the same reasons Robert E. Lee surrendered: both were unwilling to endure the pain that continued resistance would bring. As an inhabitant of Batangas explained in an interview decades after the conflict had ended, “When the people realized that they were overpowered they were forced to accept the Americans.”

When the Americans invaded in 1899, victory depended upon the suppression of violent opposition to the United States by replacing the control exercised by the Philippine revolutionary government with American control. The American solution had three components. First was to persuade the Filipinos that they were better off under the American vision of their future. This effort came quite naturally because Americans sincerely believed it. In American minds, the Spanish had exploited the islands. The revolutionary government continued both the exploitation and the entrenched, Spanish-style inefficiency and corruption. The Americans had no particular insight into Filipino “hearts and minds.” Without any extensive thought, they assumed that Filipinos—indeed, all reasonable people—wanted what Americans wanted. So both military officers and civilian administrators worked hard to make real physical improvements to show the Filipinos that their future was brighter under American rule. This notion guided the policy of attraction.

The second component of American pacification emerged when American leaders realized that attraction alone was insufficient. The military had to devise a way to end the insurgent hold on the people. In some areas the Americans were able to exploit ethnic, religious, or class differences to enlist native support. With the help of collaborators, the Americans identified and eliminated insurgent operatives. But in areas where resistance was the fiercest and the fear of insurgent retaliation too high, collaborators did not appear. So the American pacification effort forcibly separated the insurgents from the people by concentrating them in the so-called protected zones.

The third component of American pacification was military field operations. The field operations were essential to prevent guerrillas from massing against isolated American outposts and to deny them opportunities to rest and recover. Naturally most officers preferred such operations because they better represented the war for which they had trained. Likewise, their soldiers, particularly the volunteers who had come seeking adventure and fighting, preferred “chastisement” to attraction. As one lieutenant noted, the American soldier was a poor “peace soldier” but a mighty “war soldier.” Victory in the field came from the skilled practice of recognized military craft: scouting, march security, aggressive small-unit action. The American three-part strategy was like a tripod: without any one of the three legs it would collapse.

On a strategic level, the Philippine Insurrection highlighted the vital role of the civilian population. An insurgency could not be suppressed as long as the insurgents readily blended into a supportive general population. Accordingly, the army used a variety of measures to control the population while destroying the insurgent infrastructure, the shadow government. This destruction could not progress without Filipino assistance. In most areas, the people waited until they saw that the American army could protect them from insurgent terror before they supported the Americans. In southern Luzon, J. Franklin Bell found ways to compel civilian collaboration by extreme force, thereby proving himself to be, in the words of Matt Batson, “the real terror of the Philippines.”

An analysis of how the Americans won must recognize notable weaknesses and blunders committed by the insurgent leadership. Simply stated, the man at the top, Emilio Aguinaldo, was an inept military commander. After losing a conventional war to the Spanish, Aguinaldo and his subordinates adopted the same approach to fight the Americans. The result was an unbroken chain of tactical defeats that wiped out the best insurgent units. Only then did Aguinaldo opt for what always was his best strategic choice, guerrilla warfare.

The ilustrado class chose not to appeal to latent Filipino nationalism because they feared losing their hold on society. Consequently, the revolution of 1898 did not change the lives of most Filipinos. For centuries Filipinos had been forced by the Spanish to accommodate a colonial culture. Before the revolution a local elite had controlled the peasants’ daily life. The transition from Spanish to revolutionary government did not change this essential fact of life. The Americans came and made their own, but hardly new, set of demands. Now both the revolutionary government and the Americans levied taxes, administered justice, and used force as the ultimate suasion. A Filipino, poor or rich, assessed his prospects and either picked a side or tried to stay removed from the fray. The most adroit straddled both sides, portraying themselves as supporters of whichever side presented the most immediate peril. In the words of Glenn May, one of the conflict’s foremost modern historians, for an insurgency “to win any war with lukewarm public support is difficult enough; to win a guerrilla war on one’s own soil under those circumstances is virtually impossible.”

The insurgents suffered from a crippling lack of firearms and ammunition. Although the Filipinos tried to purchase weapons from other countries, they were seldom successful. Geography played a role. The U.S. Navy interdicted most vessels trying to deliver supplies for the insurgents, an operation made easy by the fact that no foreign government became involved in the supply effort. In addition, the navy prevented cooperation among the Filipino leaders on different islands. The Americans also benefited hugely from the fact that their enemy had no secure areas, no sanctuaries that were out of bounds to American intervention.

Throughout the war, the Americans could and did isolate the battlefield and bring overwhelming firepower to bear. This was not the indiscriminate firepower of a B-52 bomber or a battery of 155 mm howitzers. Rather, it was most often the firepower of a foot soldier sighting his Krag-Jorgensen rifle. Against the massive American superiority, the guerrillas could conduct pinprick raids but there was nothing they could do to change the calculus of battle. Their only chance was that the American public might turn against the war. At first the insurgents invested great hope that Bryan would defeat McKinley. While there was a spirited anti-imperialist movement at the turn of the century, it never achieved wide political support among voting Americans.

McKinley’s reelection reduced the anti-imperialists to harassing the administration without being able to change national strategy. It left the insurgents with only the hope that America would grow war-weary and abandon the struggle. American soldiers fighting in the Philippines keenly understood the vital importance of domestic support for the war. Brigadier General Robert P. Hughes, who served as provost marshal of Manila, told the Senate committee that it was the universal opinion of everyone who went to the Philippines “that the main element in pacifying the Philippines is a settled policy in America.”

The Senate Committee in January 1902 asked Taft if a safe and honorable method for withdrawal from the Philippines could be devised. He replied no and elaborated that at the present moment an assessment of the effort to end the insurgency was too bound up in politics. However, “when the facts become known, as they will be known within a decade . . . history will show, and when I say history I mean the accepted judgment of the people . . . that the course we are now pursuing is the only course possible.”


While most American historians cite the campaign in the Philippines as an outstanding counterinsurgency success, little mention is made of what took place after Roosevelt declared the war over on July 4, 1902. Five years after the declaration of peace, 20 percent of the entire U.S. Army still remained in the Philippines. American involvement in the islands was costing American taxpayers millions of dollars a year in an era when $1 million represented an enormous sum.

The U.S. Army handed responsibility for keeping the peace to the Philippine Constabulary, who found that they had their hands very full indeed. In all guerrilla wars, the distinction between insurgents and bandits becomes blurred. In the war’s aftermath, armed men accustomed to preying on the civilian population to obtain their material needs often find it difficult to stop. Jesse James comes to mind. In the Philippines this class of men were known as ladrones, or brigands.

The ladrones had been active before the Americans came; some became notable participants in the fight against the Americans, and many continued to operate after the peace. They imposed their will through intimidation and terror while specializing in rustling, extortion, and robbery. In the province of Albay, on Luzon’s southern tip, armed resistance resumed in the middle of 1902. The Americans insisted on calling them “bandits,” although their numbers peaked at some 1,500 men and they operated according to a military structure. The “bandits” held out for more than a year in the face of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign fought by members of the Philippine Constabulary and Philippine Scouts commanded by American officers. Elsewhere, a former guerrilla proclaimed the “Republic of Katagalugan” with the goal of opposing U.S. sovereignty. He surrendered in July 1906 and was duly executed. As late as 1910, Constabulary agents in Batangas warned that a shadowy organization whose roots stemmed from the fight against the Americans was preparing a new insurrection.

In Samar, late in 1902 armed bands again descended from the mountainous interior to raid coastal villages. They were a mix of ladrones, never-say-die common soldiers, and a bizarre mystical sect. The Constabulary fought a losing battle against them until 1904, at which point the U.S. Army intervened. The subsequent fighting on Samar became so tough that American insurance companies refused policies to junior officers bound for this region. The violence continued until 1911.

Roosevelt’s proclamation of peace had little impact on the Moros, a collection of some ten different ethnic groups who lived among the southern islands and followed the Islamic faith. They constituted about 10 percent of the Philippine population and were not racially different from other Filipinos but had been long separated due to their Islamic beliefs. Their conflict with ruling powers, in particularly Christians and Tagalogs, went back centuries. On Mindanao and Jolo in particular, they battled against the U.S. occupation troops in an effort to establish a separate sovereignty. A three-year campaign involving Captain John J. Pershing among others officially ended the so-called Moro Rebellion. Yet here too fighting continued past the official close of the conflict. Indeed, close-quarter combat convinced the army to introduce the Colt .45 automatic pistol in 1911, a weapon with enough stopping power to drop in his tracks the fanatical Muslim tribesman. Fighting persisted through 1913 but the Moro dream of sovereignty did not die with the advent of peace. This dream again spawned an insurgency in the 1960s, this time directed against the Philippine government. The violence continues to this day as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front struggles with the Philippine government and Al Qaeda–linked groups maintain training centers on the island of Jolo and elsewhere. Thus, the dictates of the worldwide “War on Terror” send U.S. Special Forces to the same areas that witnessed the Moro Rebellion.

While the Philippine insurgency still raged, two insightful men, one a war correspondent, the other an army colonel, contemplated the future for both Americans and Filipinos. The war correspondent, Albert Robinson, respected the Filipinos and deeply believed that they deserved self-rule. But he recognized this would not come easily. He thought that aspiring Filipino politicians lacked balance, a feat achieved in America by virtue of the embedded checks and balances in the Constitution as well as a cultural tradition. In time, he judged, the Filipinos would acquire this balance, but until that time the United States was “morally committed” to protecting “against disorder arising out of struggle for leadership.” This protection required American cultural sensitivity in the form of tact and restraint: “The great danger in American interference in Filipino affairs lies in the idea that American ways are best and right, and regardless of established habit, custom, and belief, these ways must be accepted by any and all people.”

At the end of 1901 a Colonel who had served as military governor of Cebu wrote eloquently about the possibility that the Philippines would one day enjoy the American promise of government for and by the people. Toward that lofty goal it was necessary to work hard to educate the Filipinos about self-government. Such education would take time: “We, and they, will be fortunate if it be secured in a generation.” He warned that many Americans underestimated Filipino mistrust of Americans and misunderstood how Filipino nationalism motivated their opposition to U.S. controls. The colonel observed that “too many Americans are inclined to think the struggle over” and the work of establishing a stable, just government nearly completed. They were wrong, he claimed, and added that guerrilla warfare would persist for years. He asserted that the correct American response was the sincere promotion of justice coupled with patience. This goal required the selection of “Americans of character, learning, experience and integrity” to implement civil government. “The islands are now ours, for better or worse,” he wrote. “Let us make it for the better by looking the future bravely in the face, without for one moment losing interest in our work. Above all, let it be a national and not a party question.”

During the war almost every unit in the United States Army served at one time or another in the Philippines. Here the army enjoyed its greatest counterinsurgency success in its history. Yet then and thereafter the army was not particularly enamored with its victory. Since its birth during the American Revolution, the army had measured itself against conventional European armies. With this mind-set, it viewed the Philippine Insurrection as an exception, something distasteful and outside its true role. Henceforth, it was more than willing to cede responsibility for fighting the nation’s “small wars” to a rival service, the United States Marine Corps. So the hard-earned lessons of a nasty fight against Filipino insurgents were quickly forgotten as army planners refocused on conventional warfare against European foes.

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