Recalling America's Boer War - Pacific Standard

Recalling America's Boer War

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Back when wars had endings that would be obvious to all, FDR gave a short shout out to Gen. Douglas MacArthur for landing on the Philippines during the waning years of World War II.

MacArthur had commanded U.S. and Philippine troops on the archipelago when the Japanese attacked simultaneously with the blow at Pearl Harbor. As they did to other European colonies throughout Southeast Asia, the Japanese quickly rolled over their new enemies and added lots of commodity-rich real estate to the nascent Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to flee to Australia, from whence the general issued his famous "I shall return" pledge.

It was in honoring that pledge — specifically when the U.S. Sixth Army landed on the island of Leyte — that Roosevelt issued the congratulations 64 years ago today:

The whole American Nation today exults at the news that the gallant men under your command have landed on Philippine soil. I know well what this means to you. I know what it cost you to obey my order that you leave Corregidor in February, 1942, and proceed to Australia. Since then you have planned and worked and fought with whole-souled devotion for the day when you would return with powerful forces to the Philippine Islands. That day has come. You have the Nation's gratitude and the Nation's prayers for success as you and your men fight your way back to Bataan.

The Philippines at the time were a commonwealth of the U.S., won in the short, sharp war with Spain at the turn of the century. At the time of the invasion by Japan, the Philippines were on course to become independent in 1946, a timetable that was met.

Since we referenced wars without end a few paragraphs before, wresting the Philippines from Spain proved much easier for the U.S. than holding it. Besides Spain, the U.S. was racing to keep the Germans — yes, the Germans! — from snagging the islands. Upon taking possession, the U.S. also encountered a recently empowered democratic government of Filipinos, a contingent that had assisted in the Spanish overthrow and worked in the U.S. interest. That alliance frayed pretty quickly, and that Filipino government eventually declared war on the United States.

Much like insurgents in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan, the
Filipinos were no match for American might — even projected across an
ocean — on the traditional battlefield. But when the fighting took place in the
jungle, the U.S. found lasting victory elusive — even with 126,000
troops committed to the fight.

Still, President McKinley and later President Teddy Roosevelt did not talk of an exit strategy. In his first State of the Union message, the first Roosevelt likened the war to the just-ended struggles against American Indians:

There are still troubles ahead in the
islands. The insurrection has become an affair of local banditti and
marauders, who deserve no higher regard than the brigands of portions
of the Old World. Encouragement, direct or indirect, to these
insurrectors stands on the same footing as encouragement to hostile
Indians in the days when we still had Indian wars. Exactly as our aim
is to give to the Indian who remains peaceful the fullest and amplest
consideration, but to have it understood that we will show no weakness
if he goes on the warpath, so we must make it evident, unless we are
false to our own traditions and to the demands of civilization and
humanity, that while we will do everything in our power for the
Filipino who is peaceful, we will take the sternest measures with the
Filipino who follows the path of the insurrecto and the ladrone.

He also threw is a little of the ol' "white man's burden":

History may safely be challenged to show a single instance in which a masterful race such as ours, having been forced by the exigencies of war to take possession of an alien land, has behaved to its inhabitants with the disinterested zeal for their progress that our people have shown in the Philippines. To leave the islands at this time would mean that they would fall into a welter of murderous anarchy. Such desertion of duty on our part would be a crime against humanity. The character of Governor Taft and of his associates and subordinates is a proof, if such be needed, of the sincerity of our effort to give the islanders a constantly increasing measure of self-government, exactly as fast as they show themselves fit to exercise it. Since the civil government was established not an appointment has been made in the islands with any reference to considerations of political influence, or to aught else Save the fitness of the man and the needs of the service.

The U.S. eventually triumphed, in part by capturing the enemy commander but more so by brutal subjugation of the insurgent areas through concentration camps, a lesson the British were learning in South Africa at the same time.

A peace treaty was signed in 1902, but intermittent guerrilla action — including against Islamic rebels in the south — continued for the next 11 years. By contrast, besting the empire of Japan had taken less than four years.

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