This exhibit juxtaposes the visual message presented by the stereoscopic images with excerpts from the letters written by U.S. soldiers that were first published in local newspapers and later collected in the Anti-Imperialist League’s pamphlet, allowing us to get a glimpse of the Philippine-American War as it was presented to Americans at home, reading the news or entertaining friends in their parlors.
The Philippine-American War was the United States’ first protracted counterinsurgency war in Asia. It started on February 4, 1899, just months after the end of the Spanish-American War, a war ostensibly fought to free Cuba from Spanish oppression. Like the Cubans, the Filipinos had been fighting for their independence from Spain since 1896. Many people within the United States objected to the annexation of Spain’s former colonies at the close of the Spanish-American War and, in November of 1898, an Anti-Imperialist League was formed in Boston to mobilize this opposition. When the war in the Philippines began three months later, it quickly became the League’s primary focus. The Philippine-American War would become the most divisive overseas war in United States history and it would retain that status for more than sixty years, until the war in Vietnam.
The counterinsurgency war for the “hearts and minds” of the Filipinos was mirrored in the domestic debate about the war. Politicians and editorialists who supported imperialism spoke and wrote of the civilizing mission of the United States, of taking up the “white man’s burden” of national sacrifice for the benefit of peoples they believed to be racially inferior and incapable of governing themselves. This rhetoric was matched with assessments of the value of Chinese commercial markets that lay “just beyond the Philippines” and the need to establish naval bases throughout the Pacific to expand and protect U.S. commerce.
The anti-imperialists highlighted the “un-American” nature of imperialism by quoting such documents as the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. To them, imperialism was a threat to the country’s anti-colonial and democratic traditions. Many anti-imperialists also opposed the annexation of foreign territories on racial grounds. They initially believed that any territory annexed by the United States would eventually become a state, and they opposed giving what they also believed to be racially inferior peoples a voice in the U.S. government.
From 1898 until July 4, 1902, the date Theodore Roosevelt symbolically used to declare the war over, nearly 200,000 U.S. soldiers served in the Philippines. About 5,000 of them were killed in battle. Most of the soldiers who initially fought in the Philippines had volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War and, as several of the letters excerpted here indicate, not all of them supported the war in the Philippines. Their appeals for return to the United States were eventually heeded, and the Army Bill of 1901 nearly quadrupled the official size of the standing army so that an adequate number of professional soldiers could be employed to serve in the Philippines.
The number of Filipinos who died from the war is staggering. Some 16,000 to 20,000 Filipino soldiers were killed. Estimates of the number of civilians who were killed or died from war-related causes range from 200,000 to 600,000. Evidence of the brutality of U.S. troops in the Philippines was used by the Anti-Imperialist League to argue for the independence of the Philippines. Their most effective ammunition came from the official reports to the War Department by the generals in charge of U.S. forces in the Philippines. Their reports of Filipino casualties showed that for every Filipino wounded, fifteen were killed. In contrast, during the United States’ Civil War, five soldiers were wounded for every one killed.
The U.S. military censored press dispatches from the Philippines, but many local newspapers published the letters sent home by soldiers fighting there. These contained racial slurs, stories of atrocities, and assessments of the army’s morale that were not allowed to be reported over the cable from Manila. They also provided local significance to the news from abroad. In May of 1899, the Anti-Imperialist League collected many of these letters in a pamphlet, Soldiers’ Letters: Being Materials for the History of a War of Criminal Aggression. It was immediately controversial. Supporters of the war discounted the accounts of atrocities as the boasting of soldiers wanting to impress their friends and families at home or, because the identities of some of the writers were withheld from publication, as outright fabrications. Although their truthfulness was hotly debated, the letters were an important part of how the U.S. public learned about the war as they read their daily newspapers.
Visual images of the war were also widely distributed. At the turn of the century, the viewing of stereoscopic images was an extremely popular form of parlor entertainment. Stereoscopic images were created by taking two photographs of the same scene from slightly different angles. These would then be pasted to a card made to fit a special stereoscope viewer. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the realistic 3-D effect obtained by stereoscopic images was worth at least two thousand more because it added credibility to the images. Although ostensibly meant as entertainment, they contain implicit — and sometimes explicit — messages about the nature of the war, and about the Philippines and the Filipino people the U.S. government was trying to conquer.
This exhibit juxtaposes the visual message presented by the stereoscopic images with excerpts from the letters written by U.S. soldiers that were first published in local newspapers and later collected in the Anti-Imperialist League’s pamphlet. That both contained partisan messages — often racial, violent, and disturbing — is highlighted here by their juxtaposition. While the Anti-Imperialist League’s collection of the letters marks them as having partisan value, we do not often think of the stereoscopic images in the same way. But they were also an important means through which opinions about the war were shaped. The stereoscopic images and the soldiers’ letters allow us to get a glimpse of the war as it was presented to the people at home, reading the news or entertaining friends in their parlors.
They will never surrender until their whole race is exterminated. They are fighting for a good cause, and the Americans should be the last of all nations to transgress upon such rights. Their independence is dearer to them than life, as ours was in years gone by, and is today. –Ellis G. Davis, Company A, Twentieth Kansas
Some think the insurgents are disheartened, but I think they will make a desperate struggle for what they consider their rights. I do not approve of the course our government is pursuing with these people. If all men are created equal, they have some rights which ought to be respected. –J. E. Fetterly, a Nebraska soldier
The building had been taken possession of by a United States officer, and he looted it to a finish. I suspected something and followed one of his men to the place. I expected to be jumped on by the officer as soon as I found him there, as I was away from my post, but it seems he was afraid I would give him away; in fact, we were both afraid of each other. He was half drunk, and every time he saw me looking at anything he would say, “Tennessee, do you like that? Well, put it in your pocket.” … The house was a fine one, and richly furnished, but had been looted to a finish. The contents of every drawer had been emptied on the floor. You have no idea what a mania for destruction the average man has when the fear of the law is removed. I have seen them — old sober business men too — knock chandeliers and plate-glass mirrors to pieces just because they couldn’t carry it off. It is such a pity. –D. M. Mickle, Tennessee Regiment, at Iloilo
We sleep all day here, as we do our duty all night, walking the streets. We make every one get into his house by 7 p.m., and we only tell a man once. If he refuses, we shoot him. We killed over three hundred men the first night. They tried to set the town on fire. If they fire a shot from a house, we burn the house down, and every house near it, and shoot the natives; so they are pretty quiet in town now. –A Corporal in the California Regiment
“The US Army”
The town of Titatia was surrendered to us a few days ago, and two companies occupy the same. Last night one of our boys was found shot and his stomach cut open. Immediately orders were received from General Wheaton to burn the town and kill every native in sight, which was done to a finish. About one thousand men, women, and children were reported killed. I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark-skin and pull the trigger. –A. A. Barnes, Battery G., Third United States Artillery
We can lick them, but it will take us a long time, because there are about 150,000 of the dagos back in the hills, and as soon as one of them gets killed or wounded there is a man to take his place at once; and we have but a few men in the first place, but we are expecting about 8,000 more soldiers every day, and I hope they will soon get here, or we will all be tired out and sick…. This is an awful bad climate and there have been from two to four funerals every day. The boys have chronic diarrhea and dysentery, and it just knocks the poor boys out. –Martin P. Olson, Fourteenth Regulars
I deprecate this war, this slaughter of our own boys and of the Filipinos, because it seems to me that we are doing something that is contrary to our principles in the past. Certainly we are doing something that we should have shrunk from not so very long ago. –General Reeve, Thirteenth Minnesota Regiment
The boys are getting sick of fighting these heathens, and all say we volunteered to fight Spain, not heathens. Their patriotism is wearing off. We all want to come home very bad. If I ever get out of this army I will never get into another. They will be fighting four hundred years, and then never whip these people, for there are not enough of us to follow them up…. The people of the United States ought to raise a howl and have us sent home. –Tom Crandall, Nebraska Regiment
The boys go for the enemy as if they were chasing jack-rabbits…. I, for one, hope that Uncle Sam will apply the chastening rod, good, hard, and plenty, and lay it on until they come into the reservation and promise to be good “Injuns.” –Colonel Funston, Twentieth Kansas Volunteers
Soon we had orders to advance, and we rose up from behind our trenches and started across the creek in mud and water up to our waists. However, we did not mind it a bit, our fighting blood was up and we all wanted to kill “niggers.” This shooting human beings is a “hot game,” and beats rabbit hunting all to pieces. –A private of Company H of the First Regiment, Washington State Volunteers
I never saw such execution in my life, and hope never to see such sights as met me on all sides as our little corps passed over the field, dressing wounded. Legs and arms nearly demolished; total decapitation; horrible wounds in chests and abdomens, showing the determination of our soldiers to kill every native in sight. The Filipinos did stand their ground heroically, contesting every inch, but proved themselves unable to stand the deadly fire of our well-trained and eager boys in blue. I counted seventy-nine dead natives in one small field, and learn that on the other side of the river their bodies were stacked up for breastworks. –F. A. Blake, of California, in charge of the Red Cross
Our Country Victorious and Now a Happy Home
A Spanish-American War Drama in Six Parts
This six-card set of stereoscopic cards was copyrighted in 1899 by Strohmeyer & Wyman and published by both it and Underwood & Underwood. The sets were available in at least two versions, one with Jack going off to fight in Cuba and the other with him fighting in the Philippines. The photographs and captions are identical except that “Manila” in the caption on card three is replaced by “Santiago.”
“I am so Sorry to Leave You, dear.” Underwood & Underwood, 1899.
“My Country Calls and I Must Go” Underwood & Underwood, 1899.
Sad News from the Battle-field — Jack has fallen at Manila. Underwood & Underwood, 1899.
“For my Country I can even give Jack up.” Underwood & Underwood, 1899.
“Oh Jack! Jack! — Not Killed, but Only Wounded!” Underwood & Underwood, 1899.
The Story of the Battle — Our country victorious and now a Happy Home. Underwood & Underwood, 1899.
This essay and exhibit, originally presented online in the early 2000s, were the work of the late historian Jim Zwick. Since Mr. Zwick’s passing, they have disappeared from the internet, as has the original host site. It is truly a shame for his important exhibition to disappear, especially considering its seemingly perpetual relevance. I present them here – with an expanded collection of stereoscopic images – in a purely academic spirit, with all due respect to Mr. Zwick and the educational value of his original work. Openendedsocialstudies.org does not profit in any financial sense by hosting this lesson.
This morning our group met with Aleksey Pushkov, an outspoken and prominent Russian politician, in a Soviet-vintage government meeting space set above a nondescript strip mall. He opened our audience in this wood paneled conference room with a humble, “What do you want from me?”
He then launched into a thoughtful outline of the world from Russia’s point of view, speaking immaculate English without an interpreter or even notes for reference. It was all that I could ask for…
To summarize, hopefully without oversimplifying, he pointed out that the world order has been in a state of transition for years. The US may still be the single most influential country by most measures – but it certainly has less claim to unchallenged dominance than it once had… His commentary was far reaching, but for me, the key take away was that Americans must consider how it sounds and feels to the rest of the world when we talk about our exceptionalism.
We tell ourselves that we know what it is right. That we are the good guys – the late arriving hero in world history. And this self-righteous attitude often makes us blind to other points of view. After all, if we are the good guys – and Russia disagrees with us about something – then logically, they must be the bad guys. Right?
We also refuse to learn from history.
Combine these traits, and you get a situation like Syria. The US espouses regime change in Syria. Russia does not. To hear Pushkov tell it, this has less to do with Russia liking Assad – and much more to do with lessons learned from Iraq. In Iraq the US made regime change our business, upending the Middle East, incubating ISIS, helping along the Syrian civil war, which has fueled the refugee risks that is now driving the EU apart… And now we want to topple the Syrian government, brutal as it may be, with no clear plan for what comes next… Pushkov calls that irresponsible, and it is tough to disagree.
The Russians certainly subscribe to a realpolitik view of the world… But US willingness to pursue ideals that are not grounded in reality – however well-intentioned those ideals may be – can lead to some very serious consequences…
When your default position is I’m the good guy, and I mean well, you don’t tend to examine your own actions quite so closely… You are not so self-aware.
In the second half of the day, I learned I was not fully aware of Russia’s past either. I visited a museum near Gorky Park, full of Russia’s 20th century art. I went for the social realism – the signature style of the USSR’s public and propagandistic art, but I was so pleasantly surprised to see a plethora of other styles created under Soviet rule… The work ranged from abstract to surprisingly personal… It was at times evocative and in moments, it hinted at subversion.
I have been taught to think of Soviet artists as closely managed and repressed, but I have found that many managed to produce expressive, diverse work. I know there were things that they were forbidden to say expressly in their art – but sometimes limitations push artists to communicate their message more subtly, right under the noses of their censors.
That said, the gallery featuring work from the 1990s – the years after the USSR collapsed and Russia became a more open society – is full of jokes these artists must have been waiting decades to share. And there is a heck of a lot of glee to be found in the work from this period as well. Just look:
How we choose to tell our stories sometimes matters more than the story itself.
If there is a theme for today, that is it.
Spent the morning at RT studios. In case you haven’t caught it somewhere on the high end of your satellite TV package, RT is a Russian news service that broadcasts in the English language. If you ever want to know how Russia is talking about Syria, Trump, or any of the other Russia-proximate stories that seem to dominate the American news cycle these days, RT is the place to find out. It isn’t a propaganda vehicle, per se. And yet, most of their coverage has a way of looking slightly off model to the American viewer.
But in truth, I think that is just how things look from this side of the planet.
Everyone we meet is very earnest – idealistic, even. They are excited about reporting the news. But the media’s relationship to power in this country is very different from America. Whereas there is an expectation in the US that the media should adopt a skeptical, even adversarial posture relative to the government, there is no strong tradition of this in Russia. None.
Not in czarist times. Not in Soviet. Maybe briefly in 90s, but all that got them was chaos, corruption, and unpredictability. And that is a high price to pay for an independent media.
Maybe Russians are naive for believing what they see on TV. Or maybe they are more sophisticated than the average American for taking it with a grain of salt.
So RT is telling a Russian story. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is propaganda. Or maybe it is propaganda, but that doesn’t mean that it is not also true.
The same could be said for the story told in the Victory Museum, which we visit after a fine lunch in restaurant devoted to Soviet-era nostalgia. Just as certain Americans remember the racially polarized, repressive 50s with fondness, despite those negatives, there is a big market here for golden warm memories of years past…
The Victory Museum outlines the broad strokes of Russia’s World War II experience – its struggle for survival against the Nazis, to whom it nearly succumbed. Most of the world had their money on the Nazis. It looked like Russia’s number was up. But through superhuman sacrifice – to the tune of more than 20 million lives – the Russians prevailed, breaking the back of the German army before a single boot hit the sand at Normandy.
Is the version of events portrayed in the museum self-serving? Sure. It leaves out many of the more egregious Soviet actions – the retribution against Nazi collaborators, for example… The ways in which the very telegraphed Nazi attack still managed to catch Stalin off guard…
But to be fair, most American stories about the war ignore the Russians more or less entirely. The invasion of Normandy is D-Day, which decided the war in Europe. We sort of saved the Russians, to hear it laid out in most history books or Hollywood films.
So we all tell stories.