History has an inconvenient habit of teaching lessons we wish could be forgotten. The situation in the Philippines is the latest example.
Americans would like to think that we gave the Filipinos a lesson in democracy during the years the island-nation was our possession and that Ferdinand Marcos is somehow perverting the lesson for his private aggrandizement.
The inconvenient truth is that Marcos has absorbed all too well one of the lessons America taught the Philippines: a lesson of brutality, connivance and relentless pursuit of advantage. We are reaping what we sowed.
In school, most Americans were taught that we gained control of the Philippines as the result of Adm. George Dewey's destruction of the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay, which began and effectively ended the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Our histories do not dwell on the fact that there was a Filipino independence movement that had begun before the United States got into the war, a movement with which we were briefly allied and which we then crushed. We destroyed that independence movement as ruthlessly as any imperial power ever has smashed an inconvenient insurrection, as ruthlessly as Marcos is killing and crippling his political foes today.
The leader of the movement was Emilio Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo was brought back to the Philippines from exile in Hong Kong by one of Dewey's warships, given a supply of captured Spanish arms and urged to raise an insurgent army to fight for freedom. Aguinaldo told his countrymen in 1898 that "the cradle of liberty," the United States, was committed "to the liberty of the Filipinos."
"Less than a year after Aguinaldo's statement," Daniel B. Schirmer writes in his book, "Republic or Empire: American Resistance to the Philippine War," "The United States armed forces were warring against him and his army in an attempt to subjugate the Philippines."
By that time, President McKinley had come to accept the view urged on him by American business interests and such politicians as Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. They contended that the United States needed the Philippines to protect its trade interests in the Far East. Lodge saw the European powers carving up China and its rich markets, and was determined that his merchant- constituents not be shut out.
In order to deny Aguinaldo's native forces access to the capital, America encouraged the Spanish garrison in Manila to hold out until U.S. forces could accept the surrender of the city. Gen. Wesley Merritt, the U.S. commander, was given orders "not to recognize them (Aguinaldo's forces) and not to promise them anything." He complied willingly, saying, "Aguinaldo is just the same to me as a boy in the street."
Cagily, the McKinley administration delayed any overt hostilities against the Aguinaldo forces until the Senate was ready to ratify the Treaty of Paris, in which Spain ceded sovereignty over the Philippines to the United States. Four days before the treaty was to come to a vote, secret orders were given to provoke hostilities, and two days later, troops of the 54th Nebraska Regiment, patrolling outside Manila, shot and killed two Filipino soldiers.
When the insurgents returned the fire, Gen. Arthur MacArthur later testified, "We had a pre-arranged plan. . . . When I got Col. Stotsenberg's (the commander of the Nebraska troops) report, I simply wired all commanders to carry out prearranged plans, and the whole division was placed on the firing line."
The treaty passed the Senate with one vote to spare and the United States unleashed a bloody, two-year struggle to suppress the Filipino insurrection. As in all such struggles, few distinctions were made between military and civilian populations and brutality became an accepted norm on both sides.
Schirmer quotes a dispatch from the Philadelphia Ledger's Manila correspondent: "Our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of 10 up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino as such was little better than a dog."
Today, that history seems remote to Americans. But it should not surprise us that the heirs of Aguinaldo may think that in the struggle for power, the end justifies the means. Or that the means include violence, intimidation and deceit. They have learned from us all too well.