[Marxism] Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 19 12:34:53 MST 2012

NY Times Book Review February 17, 2012
Looking for a Fight


Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of 
America’s Imperial Dream
By Gregg Jones
Illustrated. 430 pp. New American Library. $26.95.

What is striking about “Honor in the Dust,” Gregg Jones’s fascinating 
new book about the Philippine-American War, is not how much war has 
changed in more than a century, but how little. On nearly every page, 
there is a scene that feels as if it could have taken place during the 
Bush and Obama administrations rather than those of McKinley and 
Roosevelt. American troops are greeted on foreign soil as saviors and 
then quickly despised as occupiers. The United States triumphantly 
declares a victorious end to the war, even as bitter fighting continues. 
Allegations of torture fill the newspapers, horrifying and transfixing 
the country.

Nowhere will this book resonate more profoundly with modern readers, 
however, than in the opening episode, which is as difficult to read as 
it is jarringly familiar. Jones describes the use of an interrogation 
technique whose name alone instantly brings to mind a recent, highly 
contentious tactic. To force information from a Filipino mayor believed 
to have been covertly helping insurgents, American soldiers resort to 
what they call the “water cure.” After tying the mayor’s hands behind 
his back and forcing him to lie beneath a large water tank, they pry his 
mouth open, hold it in place with a stick and then turn on the spigot. 
When his stomach is full to bursting, the soldiers begin pounding on it 
with their fists, stopping only after the water, now mixed with gastric 
juices, has poured from his mouth and nose. Then they turn on the spigot 
again. The technique, which was perfected during the Spanish 
Inquisition, produced in its victims the “simultaneous sensations of 
drowning and of being burned or cut as internal organs stretched and 

Jones, who was once a correspondent in Manila and whose first book, “Red 
Revolution,” took readers inside the New People’s Army, has a thorough 
understanding of the Philippines. But it is on the United States that 
“Honor in the Dust” casts the brightest, and at times harshest, light. 
After America first entered the Philippines in 1898, during the course 
of the Spanish-­American War, President William McKinley insisted that 
it was the Filipinos’ “liberty and not our power, their welfare and not 
our gain, we are seeking to enhance.” The American people, however, 
flush with victory, had started to dream of expansion, even empire, and 
pressure mounted on McKinley not just to free Spanish colonies but also 
to lay claim to them. By 1900, an election year, McKinley had begun to 
give in, arguing that “territory sometimes comes to us when we go to war 
in a holy cause.” Addressing a campaign crowd in Nebraska, he asked, 
“Shall we deny to ourselves what the rest of the world so freely and 
justly accords to us?” The answer, as he knew it would be, was an 
instantaneous and uproarious “No!”

There was within the United States a strong and vocal anti-imperialist 
movement, which included former President Grover Cleveland, Andrew 
Carnegie and Mark Twain, but it struggled to tamp down the country’s 
growing expansionist zeal, and to compete with the energy, tenacity and 
bulldog ambition of one man in particular: Theodore Roosevelt. 
Roosevelt, who in the course of his meteoric six-year rise from New York 
City police commissioner to president, nurtured a deep and unshakable 
contempt for what he called the “unintelligent, cowardly chatter for 
‘peace at any price.’ ” Not only had the “clamor of the peace faction” 
left him unmoved, Roosevelt wrote, it had served to strengthen his 
conviction that “this country needs a war.”

To Roosevelt’s great frustration, McKinley was as reluctant to go to war 
as Roosevelt was eager. McKinley, who had been commended for his bravery 
during the battle of Antietam, wanted to be re-­elected, but he wanted 
nothing to do with war. “I have been through one war,” he said. “I have 
seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another.” When Senator 
Henry Cabot Lodge recommended Roosevelt for assistant secretary of the 
Navy, McKinley made the appointment hesitantly, guessing, rightly, that 
the young man would not give him a minute’s peace until he sent troops 
into battle. “I want peace,” he told another Roosevelt supporter, “and I 
am told that your friend Theodore . . . is always getting into rows with 

Although Roosevelt moves in and out of Jones’s narrative, disappearing 
for long stretches, he still manages to steal the spotlight, just as he 
does in every book in which he appears. When McKinley dragged his feet 
before sending troops to Cuba, Roosevelt sneered that the president had 
“no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” In the Department of the 
Navy, Roosevelt gleefully took over while his boss was on summer 
vacation, anointing himself the “hot weather secretary” and crowing to a 
friend that he was having “immense fun running the Navy.” In Cuba, after 
choosing his regiment of Rough Riders from 23,000 applicants, he ordered 
his famous charge up Kettle Hill wearing a custom-made fawn-colored 
Brooks Brothers uniform with canary-yellow trim.

By the time Roosevelt became McKinley’s running mate in 1900, he had all 
but moved into the White House. “ ’Tis Tiddy alone that’s a’running,” 
the political humorist Finley Peter Dunne wrote, “an’ he ain’t runnin’, 
he’s gallopin’.” It was as president, however, that Roosevelt’s hunger 
for expansion was finally tempered. When he suddenly found himself at 
the helm after McKinley’s assassination — an event Jones mentions almost 
in passing, his eyes fixed on Roosevelt — the national mood had already 
begun to shift. Stories of American soldiers torturing Filipino 
insurgents and slaughtering civilians had become too prevalent, and too 
convincing, to ignore. “There have been lies, yes, but they were told in 
a good cause,” Twain wrote, ridiculing the government with his acidic 
satire. “We have been treacherous, but that was only in order that real 
good might come out of apparent evil.”

The American people were finally beginning to realize that pacification 
of the Philippines was not going to be a replay of the Spanish-American 
War. The Filipinos were poor, but they were not unsophisticated. They 
developed shadow governments, used an underground system to finance 
their insurgency — collecting donations and even taxes — and repeatedly 
surprised American troops with guerrilla attacks, killing a few men at a 
time and leaving the rest in a constant, exhausting state of vigilance. 
Enraged, the soldiers responded by employing the same tactics for which 
they had so recently criticized the Spanish. They burned whole villages, 
executed suspected guerrillas and felt justified in using any 
interrogation technique at hand, including the water cure.

What was intended, in McKinley’s mind at least, as an effort to help the 
Filipinos, ended up igniting a deep hatred of Americans. In the spring 
of 1902, Senator George Frisbie Hoar, who had argued against the war 
from the beginning, delivered an excoriating three-hour speech on the 
Senate floor that left the nation stunned and Roosevelt fuming. “You 
have wasted 600 millions of treasure. You have sacrificed nearly 10,000 
American lives — the flower of our youth. You have devastated provinces. 
You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit,” 
he said. “Your practical statesmanship has succeeded in converting a 
people who three years ago were ready to kiss the hem of the garment of 
the American and to welcome him as liberator . . . into sullen and 
irreconcilable enemies, possessed of a hatred which centuries cannot 

In the end, “Honor in the Dust” is less about the freedom of the 
Philippines than the soul of the United States. This is the story of 
what happened when a powerful young country and its zealous young 
president were forced to face the high cost of their ambitions. There 
finally came a point, Jones writes, when even Theodore Roosevelt 
realized that “America’s dream of empire had passed.”

Candice Millard’s most recent book is “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale 
of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President,” about James A. 

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