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Home-front antiwar sentiment soared as ever more troops were sent to fight a fierce guerilla enemy in the Philippine “Black Jack” was caught in the cross fire
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
But soon Pershing was in territory where no white soldier had ever marched before. Three more times he had to send his infantrymen over the walls of defiant forts. As at Bacolod, each attack was meticulously planned and flawlessly executed. Although there were times when the engineers had to corduroy a road through swamps, and mules and horses had to be all but carried through jungle mud, Pershing completed his circuit of the lake in six weeks. By then the entire region had sullenly conceded that the American datu was a fighting man more than equal to the toughest son of Allah. Back home, news of the whirlwind campaign, which cost less than twenty American lives (some were cholera victims), thrilled the entire country. Landor said that Uncle Sam owed the pacification of the Lake Lanao region “entirely to the tact, consideration and patience and strategic skill” of Captain John J. Pershing. And then the writer added: “If there is one man who deserves to be made a Brigadier General, it is this gallant officer.”
Pershing was by now showing symptoms of battle fatigue. He had been in the Philippines for almost thirty-six months, eighteen of them in the nerve-stretching tension of Camp Vicars. The doctors, against Pershing’s protests, sent him home. Theodore Roosevelt, in his annual address to Congress, singled him out as an answer to the anti-imperialists’ attempt to picture American soldiers as brainless butchers. He added: “When a man renders such service as Captain Pershing … it ought to be possible to reward him.” But the Army system of promotion by seniority, which Congress refused to change, left the President helpless.
As for the anti-imperialists, there was a strange note of defeat in the oratory at their 1903 meeting. Harvard’s great psychologist, William James, warned: “To the ordinary citizen, anti-imperialism is something petrified, a religion that means only to prophesy and denounce.” He advised them to stop protesting the war and work on a plan for Philippine independence.
The guerrilla war slowly flickered out, but not without further incident. At Zamboanga on Mindanao, Moros charged into the very heart of Army headquarters and killed the commanding general’s secretary. On one northern island, members of a native constabulary company rebelled, assassinated their American commander, and had to be hunted down.
Captain Pershing, meanwhile, was still on Roosevelt’s mind. Fuming over his defeat by the Army lobby on the promotion issue, he sent Pershing to the Army War College, kept him on duty in Washington as a military attaché for a year, and then decided to jump him—over the heads of 862 senior officers—directly to brigadier general. Although the President cannot promote officers to lower ranks, the right to appoint generals belongs exclusively to him.
Late in 1906 Pershing returned to the Philippines, where eventually he was made the military governor of Moro Province. He played a key role in the drawn-out process of final pacification. In 1913 he led his men in a last pitched battle, which crushed some five hundred rebellious Moros holed up in Mount Bagsak, an extinct volcano on the island of JoIo. When one of his captains was killed in the assault, Pershing himself joined the kris-swinging, bayonet-slashing melee with highly ungeneral-like enthusiasm.
The news of the fight brought a last flicker of protest from the anti-imperialists at home. But Pershing stood his ground and replied that the rebels were “notorious cattle thieves and murderers.” William Cameron Forbes, the U.S. governor general of the Philippines, backed him wholeheartedly, declaring that Pershing had “exercised the utmost patience in endeavoring to appeal to the reason of the Moro people and in avoiding a recourse to arms.”
Six months later Pershing sailed for home. Soon, after a frustrating chase after another guerrilla leader, Pancho Villa, in Mexico, “Black Jack” would be making history on a larger scale—as commander in chief of American doughboys in World War I. As for the now pacified Moros, they paid him the kind of tribute Pershing probably understood better than any other American: they promoted him from datu to sultan.