A sordid tale of Gen. John J. Pershing executing Muslim insurgents in the Philippines at the turn of the century is a favorite of President Trump.
“They were having terrorism problems, just like we do,” Trump told a throng of cheering supporters on the campaign trail in South Carolina in February 2016.
Pershing “caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pigs’ blood — you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem.”
It’s a story Trump has repeated, and echoed again Thursday after a terrorist attack in Barcelona that killed at least 13 people and left many more wounded when a driver smashed his van onto a busy sidewalk.
Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
“Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” he tweeted.
Brian M. Linn, a history professor at Texas A&M University, did just that nearly two decades ago when he published “Guardians of Empire,” a book on the U.S. military presence in Asia from 1902 to 1940.
His verdict on Trump’s claim?
“There is absolutely no evidence this occurred,” he told The Washington Post.
“It’s a made-up story. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times people say this isn’t true. No one can say where or when this occurred.”
But Trump’s claims, and the wider belief in a routinely debunked story, have far-reaching effects. Not only is the story untrue, but the convenient twist — of an insurgency defeated only with the use of brutal war tactics — points to precisely the opposite lessons Pershing and his troops learned in the Philippines campaign from 1899 to 1913, Linn said.
“The U.S. military learned escalating counterterrorism was not effective, and they took great steps, including Pershing, to de-escalate,” Linn said.
Who was John J. Pershing?
Pershing was a U.S. Military Academy graduate who first earned distinction in the Indian-American Wars, and later his nickname, “Black Jack,” after commanding a unit of all-African American “Buffalo Soldiers.”
He was an astute and battle-experienced captain when he arrived in the Philippines in 1899. There, he learned the value of defusing tribal grievances among the Moro, the followers of Islam on the archipelago’s southern islands who engaged in violence and insurrection against the United States. The Philippines was acquired after the United States won the Spanish-American War in 1898, and an insurrection arose following attempts to pacify the country as it sought independence from colonial rule.
Pershing studied the Koran and drank tea with tribal leaders to emphasize that he was there to put down violence, not continue a religious war the Spanish had waged for centuries. It was a people-centric strategy adopted a century later in Iraq and Afghanistan, as troops sought to isolate fighters from civilians.
“He did a lot of what we would call ‘winning hearts and minds’ and embraced reforms which helped end their resistance,” Lance Janda, a military historian at Cameron University, told PolitiFact. “He fought, too, but only when he had to, and only against tribes or bands that just wouldn’t negotiate with him.”
In one series of campaigns between 1902 and 1903 around Lake Lanao on the southern island of Mindanao, Pershing would focus on more violent religious groups in fortified positions, allowing them room to escape, Linn said.
Pershing then bypassed other factions in the area to show he could easily move his forces around but would not deliberately attack, demonstrating to other tribes he understood which groups posed a threat.
But Pershing was also the commander of aggressive offensives that killed women and children after insurrectionists occupied positions with their families. Still, Pershing was made an honorary Moro chieftain, Linn said.
Atrocities were committed by U.S. forces during the conflict. After a garrison of Army soldiers was overrun and massacred, a unit of Marines was dispatched in September 1902 to root out insurgents on the central island of Samar. Maj. Littleton Waller, who led the Marine unit, arrived from China and was unfamiliar with the terrain. Fever overtook him, his men panicked, and the Filipino porters carrying his equipment were accused of mutiny, though Linn said a report written later suggests that there were no overt acts and that the porters were instrumental in saving the lives of Marines.
Eleven porters were executed in a remote area, and news of the act quickly spread. “Dead men tell no tales, but they leave an awful smell” became a common American saying after the Samar killings, Linn said. Waller was later acquitted in a court-martial.
But the episode points to an example of what happens when news of deliberate killings spreads, Linn said, and if Pershing had committed a theatrical massacre, a similar result would have been likely.
Rise of the Pershing myth
Linn began to encounter the Pershing pig-blood-bullet story after Sept. 11, 2001, when Internet users searched for religious-themed military operations in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States.
“It seemed to me to be coming from sources that were strongly anti-Muslim, not military historians or scholars,” Linn said.
Concerned faculty at the U.S. Military Academy asked him to disprove the story of arguably one of its most storied graduates. Pershing would later head the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I as Commander of the Armies, a rank held by only two generals in U.S. history — Pershing and George Washington, who was posthumously awarded the rank in 1976.
Linn, along with Frank Vandiver, fellow Texas A&M professor and Pershing’s biographer, told the Military Academy that no evidence existed to back up the story.
Still, the myth persists with another twist — burying insurgents with dead pigs. In Pershing’s memoir, “My Life Before the World War, 1860-1917,” he said a fellow officer, Col. Frank West, told him at least one Muslim fighter was “publicly buried in the same grave with a dead pig.”
“It was not pleasant to have to take such measures, but the prospect of going to hell instead of heaven sometimes deterred the would-be assassins,” Pershing wrote about juramentados, knife-wielding religious extremists who targeted Christians.
Linn said it probably did happen at one point, but he doubts Pershing was involved or ordered subordinates to commit religiously insulting acts. Other artifacts, such as letters and memoirs from soldiers there describing similar events, do not point to credible claims of Pershing’s involvement, Linn said. A 1939 movie about the conflict starring Gary Cooper, “The Real Glory,” also includes a scene that resembles those moments and likely fuels the myth, the historian said.
The Philippine-American War ended in 1902, with the death of more than 4,200 American and 20,000 Filipino combatants. As many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died of violence and widespread famine and disease, according to the State Department. The Moro insurrection continued for years.
Pershing served as governor of the mostly Muslim Moro Province from 1909 to 1913, as the rebellion festered. Pershing’s decision to disarm the Moro in 1913 triggered more unrest, culminating in the Battle of Bud Bagsak in the south.
Pershing put down the Moro rebellion, but Trump’s suggestion of a fabled mass execution leading to peace is incorrect, Linn said.
“There was still lawlessness, homicide and banditry” that arguably continued for decades up to now, he said, as the government continues its brutal crackdown on drug traffickers and users.
Lost in Trump’s falsehood, Linn said, is the distortion of an officer who dedicated his life to a certain code of conduct.
“It’s a terrible defamation of the American soldier,” Linn said. “What does it say about Americans that they would take 50 people and shoot them? It’s a major war crime.”