Social Education
February 1998
Volume 62 Number 2

This article from "Teaching with Documents" refers to archival documents which were reproduced in the print version of Social Education. Copies of these documents are available from the National Archives. Contact information is at the end of this page.

The Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection

Lee Ann Potter and Wynell Schamel

By 1898, Cuba and the Philippines were two of the few remaining overseas possessions of the Spanish Empire, but for nearly half a century, revolutionaries in both areas had sought independence. Americans were well aware of the Cuban struggle. Following the 10-year Cuban revolt against Spain (1868-78), American businessmen had purchased property in Cuba and paid close attention to events that affected their economic interests. Also, many Americans believed the Cuban struggle for independence was similar to the American colonies’ struggle against the British 100 years earlier. Few were as familiar with General Emilio Aguinaldo and his Filipino rebels, who also sought freedom from Spain. In fact, many Americans, including President William McKinley, admitted that they were unable to even locate the Philippines on a map of the world.
Despite American interest, or lack thereof, Spanish officials responded to the revolts in both Cuba and the Philippines by continually promising reforms and then failing to follow through with them. As a result, the rebellions had become more widespread, organized, and violent, and the Spanish reaction had become more brutal. As news of the violence in Cuba, just 90 miles away, regularly reached the United States, American sympathies went out to the rebels, and many Americans favored direct U.S. intervention.
The American press in its coverage of events contributed to this support. The New York World and the New York Journal were engaged in a circulation war and were eager to report on events occurring in Cuba. On February 9, 1898, under the headline “Worst Insult to the U.S. in its History,” the Journal published the infamous de Lome letter. In it, Enrique Depuy de Lome, the Spanish Minister to the United States in Washington, described President McKinley as a weak man and “a bidder for the admiration of the crowd.” Six days later, the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, and immediately the “yellow” press and many Americans—including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt—concluded that Spain was responsible. By the end of the month, war between the United States and Spain appeared inevitable. Many Americans believed that such a war would secure freedom for Cuba; some imagined that it would place the United States in the position of an imperialistic world power with overseas protectorates; but few suspected that the war with Spain would result in a far bloodier conflict in the Philippines.
Theodore Roosevelt was among those who envisioned the United States as a world power. Having written his own book about naval history, and having read Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, Roosevelt agreed with Mahan that sea power was the basis of national greatness. Roosevelt wanted to strengthen the U.S. naval presence in the Pacific and knew that the Philippines would give the United States access to the Far East.
On February 25, 1898, while Secretary of the Navy John D. Long was out of the office, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt sent a telegram to Commodore George Dewey, commander of the U.S. Asiatic Naval Force in Hong Kong. The telegram ordered Dewey to fill his ships with coal and directed, “in the event of a declaration of war [with] Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast.” He further ordered Dewey to take up offensive operations in the Philippines. According to historian David Trask in The War With Spain in 1898, Roosevelt was acting well within U.S. Navy pre-war planning when he sent these orders to Dewey.
Dewey’s response, which is this month’s featured document, was sent from Hong Kong on March 31. In it, he indicated the readiness of his squadron, described the condition of the Spanish forces, confidently stated that Manila could be taken in one day, and reported that 5,000 armed rebels were encamped near Manila ready to help the United States. Less than two weeks later, President McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war, which it granted at the end of April.
During the night of April 30, Dewey, accompanied by five cruisers and one gunboat, entered Manila Bay, and at dawn the next day, his squadron opened fire on the Spanish fleet at 5,000 yards. The Americans made five passes, each time reducing the range. When the smoke finally cleared, all 10 of the Spanish ships had been destroyed, and the Spanish had suffered nearly 400 casualties. No Americans were killed in the battle. Headlines across the United States mirrored that of the New York World boasting, “Dewey Smashes Spain’s Fleet.”
The rest of the war with Spain, though fought primarily in the Caribbean, was similar in its brevity and light U.S. casualties in all branches of the service. By mid-August, the war that had claimed the lives of fewer than 400 Americans in combat (but more than 5,000 to yellow fever, typhoid, and other diseases) was over.
The peace conference convened in Paris on October 1. In the resulting treaty, Cuba gained its independence from Spain, and the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines for $20 million dollars. The treaty was signed on December 10 and sent to the Senate for ratification during the winter of 1898-99.
The debates that occurred in the Senate were similar to those taking place throughout the rest of the country. Although the basic argument was whether or not to annex the Philippines, the larger issue involved the future of U.S. foreign policy. It concerned how active a role the United States would take in foreign affairs, and to what extent national greatness might depend on holding overseas possessions. Those who favored annexation claimed the Filipinos were incapable of self rule and needed the leadership of the United States, a nation of order and progress. Additionally, they feared that if the United States did not annex the Philippines, Japan or Germany might.
Opponents of annexation organized the anti-imperialist leagues, whose members included ex-Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, labor leader Samuel Gompers, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, author William James, social worker Jane Addams, and writer Mark Twain. The leagues presented five major arguments against annexation. First, they stated that annexing a territory with no plans for statehood was unprecedented and unconstitutional. Second, they believed that to occupy and govern a foreign people without their consent violated the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Third, they emphasized that social reforms at home demanded American energies. Fourth, they maintained that defending the Philippines would be expensive for the United States. Finally, they argued that fighting the Filipinos reflected American hypocrisy.
In addition to these five major arguments against annexation, some anti-imperialists were hostile to “colored” people. As a result, they spoke out against annexation on racial lines and focused on issues related to immigration. They feared that if the Philippines were annexed, Filipinos would be exempt from the Asian Exclusion Laws.
The argument over U. S. hypocrisy emerged from circumstances that developed on February 4, 1899. With the peace treaty still under debate in the Senate, both U.S. troops and Filipino rebel forces were claiming a number of areas of the Philippines, particularly those within Manila’s municipal limits. In one such area, a young American private fired on a group of Filipinos, they returned fire, and a new armed conflict began. Two days later, the treaty was ratified and signed into law by President McKinley.
According to members of the anti-imperialist leagues, the fighting and annexation reflected a double standard. They questioned why the Cubans had acquired the independence they sought, but the Filipinos had not. They pointed out that Filipino troops had cooperated with the United States during the war, and that the Filipinos controlled virtually all of the country (with the exception of the U.S. hold on Manila). Moreover, General Aguinaldo had proclaimed Philippine Independence and, with other Filipino leaders, formally announced the establishment of the first Philippine Republic. These actions, the anti-imperialists insisted, proved that the Filipinos had the ability to rule themselves.
Leading American political and military figures, however, disputed the legitimacy of the proclaimed Philippine Republic on the basis that it was hardly representative of the Filipino people. The right to vote was restricted to a tiny fraction of the population, military leaders intimidated or influenced elections, and in many provinces there were no elections at all.
Many Americans, including soldiers, viewed the anti-imperialists as traitors and believed that their opposition to annexation prolonged the conflict and contributed to casualties on both sides. Although Aguinaldo was captured in the spring of 1901, the Philippine Insurrection did not officially end until the summer of 1902, and skirmishes and local rebellions continued well into the next decade. Between 1898 and 1902, over 125,000 Americans served in the Philippines, and about 5,000 of them were killed—more than ten times the U.S. casualties in the Spanish-American War. The total number of Filipinos killed during the war is debatable, but the estimates listed in the Annual Report of the Secretary of War for 1902 suggest that they vastly exceeded American losses.
On July 4, 1946, the United States granted political independence to the Philippines. Sixteen years later, however, the Philippines declared June 12 its Independence Day, commemorating the date in 1898 when Aguinaldo declared independence from Spain.

Teaching Activities
1. Provide each student with a photocopy of both pages of the featured document. Ask one student to read the document aloud as the others read silently. Pose the following questions:
> What type of document is it?
> What is its date?
> Who wrote the document?
> What is its purpose?
> What information in the document helps you understand why it was written?
> What is the tone of the document?
> What information contained in the document explains this tone?
2. Ask students to write a paragraph explaining how they think the information contained in the document might have influenced the U.S. decision to go to war with Spain.
3. Digitized images of Commodore George Dewey’s report on the Battle of Manila Bay (Mirs Bay), May 1, 1898, are available online from the National Archives and Records Administration’s NAIL database at Encourage students to read the report and write a paragraph comparing the details of the actual battle with the information contained in the featured document.
4. Provide students with more information, or ask them to do research, on Emilio Aguinaldo and the Filipino insurrection against Spain and then the United States. Ask students to assume the role of a Filipino rebel and write a journal entry for (1) the day the rebels learned that the United States had declared war on Spain and (2) the day that they learned the United States Senate had approved the annexation treaty.
5. Divide the class into two groups representing imperialists and anti-imperialists. Ask each group to research and write their group’s position on the annexation treaty. Ask representatives from the two groups to conduct a mock congressional debate on the treaty.
6. Divide students into five groups and assign each group one of the major arguments of the Anti-Imperialist League. Ask them to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their argument in regard to the Spanish American War, and to compare it with arguments presented by anti-war protesters during other wars in U.S. history (e.g., the Mexican War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War). Ask them to report their findings to the class.

The document featured in this article is contained in the Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library [ONRL], RG 45, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. The photographs, listed with identifying numbers below, are available from the Still Picture Branch, National Archives and Records Administation, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001.
111-SC-98358 Emilio Aguinaldo (seated)
111-RB-1169 Emilio Aguinaldo (standing)
208-LU-37E-2 The Battle of Manila Bay
111-SC-83601 George Dewey

Additional documents related to the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection are available online from the National Archives and Records Administration. Conducting a search in the NAIL database will provide the telegram sent by Roosevelt to Dewey, Dewey’s report of the battle of Manila, numerous photographs, and other documents.

Wynell Schamel and Lee Ann Potter are education specialists at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. Schamel serves as editor for “Teaching with Documents,” a regular department of Social Education.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.