America’s First Iraq


If all of this sounds eerily like a precursor to Vietnam, nothing appears more familiar than the seeming ambivalence of American troops and administrators toward the people whose land they were occupying. U.S. soldiers cursed the Filipinos continually as deceitful, lazy, “brainless monkeys,” “niggers,” and “gugus” and longed to go home. At the same time, they threw themselves into every sort of effort to improve life in the country they were occupying, building sewers, distributing food, vaccinating people against smallpox, and even reforming the Spanish judiciary by appointing Filipino judges. American soldiers started and taught in makeshift schools throughout the islands, bringing formal education to many rural areas for the first time.

It was, as one observer put it, “a harsh and philanthropic war at the same time.” By the time President Theodore Roosevelt declared the conflict officially over, on July 4, 1902, it had ended up costing the United States 4,234 dead and 2,818 wounded, not including thousands more who later died at home of diseases they had caught in the islands. Some 20,000 Filipino soldiers and at least 250,000 civilians had also died, out of a population estimated at 7.6 million.

Even before the war was over, though, our occupation had taken a philanthropic turn when a federal judge named William Howard Taft arrived to serve as the islands’ first civilian governor. Taft considered most of the rebels no better than murderers and referred to his new subjects as his “little brown brothers.” Yet he was also a highly competent administrator, imbued with a strict sense of public duty. From the start it was clear that America’s role in the Philippines was to prepare the country for independence.

“We hold the Philippines for the benefit of the Filipinos, and we are not entitled to pass a single act or to approve a single measure that has not that as its chief purpose,” Taft declared on arriving in the islands, and in his considerable wake came thousands of American volunteers, who would quickly transform our first colonial possession. They would build roads and ports, sewers, water systems, and railroads everywhere. They would reform the archaic law and tax codes left over from the Spanish, stimulate industry and finance, break up the old monastic estates and distribute their land to rural villagers. Before long Filipinos would enjoy the highest literacy rate in Southeast Asia. And vast improvements in public hygiene and health care would go a long way toward doubling the islands’ population by 1920.

“Compared to European colonialism, the United States was indeed a model of enlightenment,” the journalist Stanley Karnow writes in his seminal work on the subject, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines. In 1916 an act of Congress pledged eventual independence to the Philippines; the islands were made a semiautonomous commonwealth in 1935, and full independence, delayed by World War II, became a reality in 1946.

Yet in Karnow’s assessment, the Americans’ performance in the Philippines “was neither as brilliant as their publicists claimed nor as bleak as their critics contended.” The Americans tried to make the country over into another America but also made clear they considered the Filipinos their racial inferiors. They preached democracy but dispersed patronage to those Filipino politicians who supported U.S. policies. They fought side by side with their “little brown brothers” against the Japanese, during some of the most ferocious combat in World War II, and against Southeast Asian communism during the Cold War, but also felt free to suborn the Philippines’ nascent democracy for years. Since the Reagan administration’s tardy but decisive support for Cory Aquino’s People Power movement in the 1980s, U.S.-Filipino relations have gotten on a more even keel, but not even enough to have kept the country from closing key American military bases for eight years in the 1990s.

Of course, Iraq presents its own unique challenges and possibilities. Among other differences, the United States does not view it as a colony at all and certainly not as a possession. But if we can learn anything from our long adventure into the Philippines, it is that we need a policy that will be consistent not only in deed but in word and attitude as well, one that will avoid condescension and be directed toward making a restored, democratic Iraq truly independent.