American Fleet – Manila Bay 1898 Part III

Once it was evident that the shooting was over, curious civilians began to gather along the waterfront to stare at the American warships that had humbled their navy. As the sun set and the late afternoon breezes cooled the tropical air, the crowd grew. The Olympia’s band assembled on the ship’s foredeck and began to play. A witness recalled that “the ramparts were filled with a gaily dressed throng eagerly listening to the strains of ‘La Paloma’ and other Spanish airs which were being played for their benefit.” As the music wafted over the city, the Spanish colonel who commanded the city’s batteries, denied by the governor’s orders a chance to fire his guns in defense of the city, locked the door to his office and shot himself in the head.

The American victory was complete. Indeed, it was the most complete naval victory in the history of the nation, more complete even than Perry’s on Lake Erie eighty-five years earlier. This time Dewey had not only destroyed the enemy fleet but suffered virtually no casualties in doing so, aside from a few men lightly wounded on the Baltimore. And like Perry, Dewey was eager to communicate the news of his victory. He asked the Spanish if he could use the submarine telegraph cable from Manila to Hong Kong to report the outcome of the battle. Understandably, perhaps, the Spanish refused. Dewey therefore ordered the Zafiro to drag the bottom of the bay, find the telegraph cable, and cut it, thus isolating Manila from the outside world. At the same time, perhaps in unconscious imitation of Perry’s message to William Henry Harrison, he penned a quick note to Secretary Long that he had “engaged the enemy and destroyed the following vessels,” naming the eleven ships sunk in the action. He was pleased to be able to add: “The squadron is uninjured. Few men slightly wounded.” The only note of concern was his urgent request to “send immediately from San Francisco [a] fast steamer with ammunition.” He entrusted the note to the captain of the McCulloch, who steamed off to Hong Kong, from where it could be communicated to Washington. The McCulloch returned six days later with the news that Dewey had been promoted to the rank of rear admiral.

As the master of Manila Bay, Dewey was also the master of Manila itself, though the Spanish flag continued to fly over the walled city. But having destroyed the Spanish fleet and gained control of the bay, what was he to do next? The justification for attacking the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in the first place had been to fulfill the Mahanian doctrine that a nation’s first objective in war was to seize command of the sea by defeating its opponent’s main battle fleet. Montojo’s little squadron was not Spain’s main battle fleet, but as long as it existed, it posed at least a theoretical threat to American naval supremacy. Having now accomplished his mission, Dewey might have decided simply to steam away, though where he might go was problematic, for neutral ports were still closed to him as long as the war lasted. Months later, in the midst of a national debate about the Philippines and their future, one witness claimed to have overheard President McKinley mutter: “If Dewey had just sailed away when he smashed that Spanish fleet, what a lot of trouble he would have saved us.” That McKinley ever uttered such words is doubtful. Still, the comment suggests that the most important thing about Dewey’s victory was not that it had demolished a small Spanish squadron and thereby secured a kind of theoretical American command of the sea, but that it opened the door for a reconsideration of America’s role in the Far East.

Though this was an issue of the greatest national significance, it did not become a matter of national debate until after many of the critical decisions had already been made. The first was Dewey’s decision to remain in Manila Bay after the battle and effectively blockade the city. His decision was partly pragmatic; since the United States and Spain were still at war and neutral ports were still closed to him, there was literally no place for him to go. But in addition to that, Dewey believed that at some level his victory had made him, and by extension the United States, responsible for the Philippines, or at least for the security of Manila Bay. In his autobiography, he noted that his first thoughts after the battle were to ensure that “American supremacy and military discipline must take the place of chaos.” He therefore sent parties ashore to assume control of the Cavite Navy Yard; he assigned all foreign ships to designated anchorages in the bay; and although he allowed warships of other powers to enter the bay (ostensibly to check on the well being of their foreign nationals in the city), he made it clear that they did so at his sufferance. He even sent to Washington for “one or two battleships” to intimidate any foreign government that might be tempted to take advantage of the volatile environment to expand its own interests. And most importantly, he requested the dispatch of an army of occupation.

Dewey’s request for an occupying force was crucial, for it fundamentally changed the nature of his original mission. Moreover, his request seems to have sprung not from any real or perceived chaos in Manila itself but from Dewey’s own notion that, having conquered Manila, the United States was somehow entitled to possess it. Commander Nathan Sargent, who later wrote the semiofficial version of the campaign, wrote that his commander’s “fortunate isolation” in Manila Bay was a blessing because it “forced the Navy Department to leave matters to his discretion.” Reflecting the operational commander’s traditional view of the relationship between political and military authority, Sargent asserted that “governments rarely recognize the fact that their agents at a distance, if at all worthy of confidence, are infinitely better capable of forming correct judgments in emergencies than the home authorities probably thousands of miles away; yet the temptation to interfere is ever strong and can rarely be resisted.” Whatever the merits of such a view, there was no direct cable connection to Washington, and so it was left to Dewey to make the initial decisions about the future status of the Philippines in general and Manila Bay in particular, and among them was his decision to send for an army of occupation. Once that decision was made, much of what followed appears as inevitable.

Of course, McKinley did not have to accede to Dewey’s request. The president later claimed that “when the Philippines dropped into our laps, I confess I did not know what to do with them.” He even claimed that he had no idea where they were. “I could not have told where those darned islands were within 2000 miles,” he wrote. When news of Dewey’s victory arrived, he had to look up the location on a globe. But once he received Dewey’s request for an army of occupation, it seemed to him, as it did to Dewey, that the United States bore some responsibility to fill the power vacuum that Dewey’s victory had created. Without a great deal of thought about the long-term political consequences, the president acceded to Dewey’s request and ordered four thousand soldiers to Manila under the command of Brigadier General Wesley Merritt.

While these decisions were being made, news arrived in Washington of a second spectacular naval victory over the Spanish. On July 3, U.S. naval forces virtually annihilated Spain’s Atlantic Fleet off Santiago de Cuba. In even less time than it had taken Dewey to destroy Montojo’s squadron in Manila Bay, the combined forces of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson and Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley destroyed all six ships of Admiral Pascual Cervera’s fleet as they attempted to escape the Bay of Santiago, where they had been trapped. Besides losing four cruisers and two destroyers, the Spanish also lost 300 men killed, 150 wounded, and more than 1,800 taken prisoner, including Cervera himself; American casualties totaled a single man killed and another wounded. Spain still had the ships of its Home Squadron, which were even then steaming eastward across the Mediterranean for the Suez Canal, presumably en route to the Philippines. But the news of Cervera’s disaster led Spain’s leaders to recall them and accept the inevitable. Two weeks later, on July 18, they asked for a cease-fire.

That same day, the first elements of an American army of occupation went ashore south of Manila. Just as the Spanish request for an armistice marked a change in the course of the war, the arrival of American troops in the Philippines dramatically changed the political circumstances in those islands. If it was a stretch to explain Dewey’s attack on the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay as an essential part of a war to liberate Cuba, it was even more difficult to explain why an American army of occupation in Manila had anything at all to do with the liberation of Cuba. The arrival of American ground troops was questioned not only by the Spanish but also by a twenty-nine-year-old Filipino named Emilio Aguinaldo, who had arrived at the Cavite Navy Yard two months earlier on board an American steamer from Singapore. Before the outbreak of the war, Aguinaldo had led a resistance movement in the Philippines known as the Katipunan. Though he liked to present himself as a freedom fighter in the mold of George Washington, he was in fact an individual with a keen eye for the main chance. In 1897 he had accepted a substantial monetary payment from the Spanish to go into exile. He later claimed that he had accepted the offer in return for Spanish promises of reform, but his enemies asserted that he simply took a bribe. Now he returned to the Philippines with the expectation of filling the vacuum of authority created by Dewey’s victory.

Almost at once Aguinaldo sought an audience with Dewey. There is no record of their conversation, and different versions emerged over time, but for the moment they agreed to cooperate in the effort to drive the Spanish from Manila, each very likely believing that he was using the other. Dewey agreed to supply Aguinaldo with arms, and Aguinaldo agreed to cooperate in the American siege of the city. Within days, however, Aguinaldo declared himself ruler of the Philippines, and on June 23 he proclaimed the establishment of the “First Republic of the Philippines” and issued a call for local elections. A week later, the first elements of an American army of occupation arrived. Now, instead of a vacuum of authority, there were two authorities—three, if one counted the Spanish, whose days were clearly numbered.

Dewey’s decision to accept and even encourage the cooperation of Aguinaldo’s irregulars in the siege of Manila gave the Filipino nationalist a certain legitimacy. Aguinaldo himself later claimed that Dewey had at least implied that in exchange for this help, the United States would recognize Philippine independence. It is unlikely that Dewey made any such pledge, but it is also easy to see how Aguinaldo might have assumed it. In any case, Aguinaldo’s troops virtually surrounded Manila, and when Merritt’s soldiers arrived, the erstwhile allies cooperated to the extent of agreeing upon zones of responsibility.

As American soldiers and Filipino nationalists closed in on Manila, the Spanish in the city became terrified that Aguinaldo’s natives would break in and pillage the city. Like Hull at Detroit in 1812, they feared a massacre by their foe’s undisciplined allies more than they feared the ignominy of surrender. In secret negotiations with the Americans, they agreed to a kind of charade in which the Americans would launch a realistic-looking assault that would allow the city’s defenders to surrender to them with their honor intact. The Spanish agreed to this only on the condition that the Americans agreed to keep Aguinaldo’s forces outside the walls, a condition the Americans accepted. This charade was carried out in the second week of May, and the city “fell” to the Americans. Soon afterward news arrived that an armistice ending the war had been signed.

That same day Dewey wired Washington for a clarification of American policy. Now that Manila was in American hands, how should the United States deal with the nationalists who had claimed their independence? The answer came back four days later in a cablegram from the War Department declaring that “insurgents and all others must recognize the military occupation and authority of the United States.”

Spain’s request for an armistice was an admission of defeat. National pride had prevented the Spanish from surrendering to American demands without a fight, but the destruction of both her Pacific and Atlantic fleets compelled her to ask the French government to act as intermediary in arranging a cease-fire. Spanish authorities knew that it meant the loss of Cuba—and Puerto Rico, too, since the Americans made that a condition of a cease-fire. But the armistice agreement left the future of the Philippines unresolved. The Americans would continue to occupy Manila during the treaty negotiations in Paris in which the political future of the Philippines would be decided.

That fact triggered a national debate in America about what role, if any, the United States should play in the future of the Philippine archipelago. Naval authorities wanted an American port facility in the islands, preferably at Subic Bay, where Montojo had hoped in vain to conduct his defense of the islands. Possession of such a port would give the U.S. Navy the ability to operate in the Far East without depending on the hospitality of either the Japanese or the British. Some, such as Theodore Roosevelt, who had resigned his position as assistant secretary of the Navy to serve as the lieutenant colonel of a cavalry regiment in Cuba, believed the United States had a right to take the entire archipelago by right of conquest. Roosevelt’s former boss, Secretary Long, eventually came to agree that the United States should take possession of the Philippines, but for very different reasons. “To abandon the Philippine Islands,” he wrote in his diary, “is to return them to Spain,” a country that had already demonstrated its incapacity for just stewardship by its tyrannical behavior in Cuba. Long’s conclusion was that “our whole affair should be to Americanize and civilize them [the Filipinos] by the introduction of American institutions.”

Other Americans recoiled at the idea that their country, founded on the principle of self-government, should embrace imperialism. Wasn’t colonialism exactly what the Founding Fathers had rebelled against? Hadn’t the United States gone to war in the first place to relieve Cuba of the burden of colonialism? Was the United States now simply to replace Spain as the colonial master of the Philippines? Eventually those who found American imperialism distasteful rallied around William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1900, who made it the centerpiece of his campaign.

In Paris, the U.S. claim to the Philippines derived from a variety of pressures. The Navy continued to press for a coaling station and naval base. But taking only part of the Philippines struck many as awkward. If the United States took only Subic Bay, or even all of Luzon, what was to be done with the rest of the archipelago? Most Americans agreed with Secretary Long that returning it to Spain was unacceptable. Both Japan and Germany informally expressed a willingness to step in and occupy the islands, but the United States viewed both of those nations as rivals in the Pacific. A few suggested that the Philippines, like Cuba, should become independent, though most Americans regarded the Filipinos as “not ready” for independence. After agonizing over these various options, McKinley finally decided that the only responsible position for the United States was to assume responsibility for the entire archipelago in the name of “duty and humanity.” Indeed, the president suggested that American annexation of the Philippines was somehow fated, an inevitable outcome of circumstances that were beyond his control. “The march of events rules and overrules human action,” he wrote. The war had brought “new duties and responsibilities” to the country, and it was time for the United States to step up and accept those responsibilities “as becomes a great nation.”

Having virtually no bargaining position left, Spain reluctantly but necessarily acceded to the American demands, accepting a $20 million payment as a balm for the loss of its overseas empire. The treaty was signed in November 1898, and although some Americans continued to argue that imperialism was inappropriate for a democracy, Bryan’s defeat at the polls two years later by an even wider margin than in 1896 effectively ended the anti-imperialist movement.

The fighting in the Philippines, however, was not over. Only days after the American occupation of Manila, Aguinaldo’s army began erecting fortifications facing the city. General Merritt negotiated a temporary truce in exchange for vague promises of American “beneficence.” But Merritt soon left to take part in the negotiations in Paris and was replaced in command by Brigadier General Elwell S. Otis.* In December McKinley ordered Otis to carry out “the actual occupation and administration of the entire group of the Philippine Islands,” in order to achieve what the president called the “benevolent assimilation” of the archipelago, “substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.” Aguinaldo recognized at once that assimilation, however benevolent, left no room for him, and the result was that open warfare broke out on February 4, 1899, between the U.S. troops in the Philippines and Aguinaldo’s ragtag army of nationalists.

While theoretically sympathetic to the principle of self-government, McKinley was disinclined to grant it to a people who resisted America’s helping hand. To him, and to most Americans, Aguinaldo was not George Washington, he was Geronimo. “It is not a good time for the liberator to submit important questions concerning liberty and government to the liberated,” McKinley declared, “while they are engaged in shooting down their rescuers.” For the next three years, therefore, the United States fought a bloody and increasingly vicious war to suppress the Philippine independence movement and secure its outpost in the Far East.

It was an ugly little war, one in which the putative rules of combat gradually gave way before the realities of fighting an elusive enemy that depended in part on guerilla tactics. For all the outrage Americans had felt toward General Weyler (“the Butcher”) in Cuba, American troops in the Philippines soon adopted tactics that were nearly identical. Moreover, given the prevailing racist character of American society in that era of Jim Crow, it is not surprising that American soldiers in the Philippines routinely referred to their darker-skinned opponents as “niggers” and seldom accorded them the rights of a belligerent. Indeed, the United States prosecuted the war with a thoroughness and vehemence that often outstripped Weyler’s. In southern Luzon, the United States gathered the loyal population into concentration camps (called “zones of protection”), where thousands died of disease, and U.S. forces conducted lengthy sweeps through the countryside that denuded whole islands of both crops and villages. On the island of Samar, Major W. L. T. Waller of the Marines sought to turn the island into a “howling wilderness” and ordered his men to regard every male over ten years old as an enemy combatant.

U.S. Army soldiers battle Filipino insurrectos outside Manila. The long and bloody war of pacification in the Philippines lasted far longer, and claimed far more lives, than the war against the Spanish. (Photograph by Frank R. Roberson in Murat Halstead, Life and Achievements of Admiral Dewey)

News of such tactics did not go unnoticed in the United States. The Philadelphia Ledger noted the irony that “the same policy” pursued by Weyler in Cuba was now “adopted and pursued as the policy of the United States.” The less restrained New York Evening Journal expressed its outrage at Waller’s conduct on Samar with a headline that shouted: “Kill All: Major Waller Ordered to Massacre the Filipinos.” As Max Boot has noted, “the Philippine War was a rude awakening for those Americans who imagined their country to be morally superior to the sordid Europeans.”

The U.S. Navy played a crucial role in the war, ferrying troops from island to island, interdicting supplies of the rebel bands (mainly rice boats), and intercepting arms shipments. Inevitably in this guerilla war, U.S. Navy vessels sometimes opened fire on the wrong target. In September 1901 a pro-American rally brought a thousand or more Filipinos to a public meeting. The commanding officer of the U.S. gunboat Arayat, unaware of the planned event, opened fire on the crowd.

Though such events made pacification more difficult, U.S. forces eventually triumphed not only by overwhelming the Filipinos with firepower but also by engaging in what later generations would call “nation building”—constructing roads, schools, and hospitals. It was, as Brian Linn has pointed out, a different kind of war for Americans, one in which “army officers would have to devote at least as much attention to civic projects, public works, government, and education as they would to military operations.” Though no one knew it at the time, it was a template for many of America’s twentieth-century—and twenty-first-century—wars.

The Philippine War (or Philippine Insurrection, as it is often labeled) lasted over three years, cost over forty-two hundred American deaths (more than eleven times the number killed in the war with Spain), and ended officially on July 4, 1902, though sporadic resistance continued for decades, and indeed never ended completely.

The assertion that Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay in 1898 marked a turning point in American history is hardly novel. To some it was a “metamorphosis” or “rite of passage.” Others noted that it plunged America “into the maelstrom of world politics,” even “into the role of superpower and conqueror.” Redfield Proctor, the Vermont senator who had urged Dewey’s appointment, declared, “It is almost a creation or a new birth.” Observers in Europe also noted its significance. Writing in the Frankfurter Zeitung, a German editorialized that Dewey’s victory marked “a new epoch in history, not only for the United States, but likewise for Europe,” since in consequence “the United States now reaches beyond the American continent, and claims its share in the conduct of the world’s affairs.” More than a few in that racist age saw it as a victory of Anglo-Saxon superiority over the weaker races of the world. Henry Cabot Lodge declared confidently that the American triumph marked the final victory of Englishmen, Dutchmen, and their American descendants over the ruins of the empire of Philip II. To him, there was a direct historical link between the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and Dewey’s victory in 1898. Spain collapsed, in Lodge’s worldview, because it was “unfit” and “for the unfit among nations there is no pity.” That same year, Rudyard Kipling published his poetic plea to America to take up “the white man’s burden” by bringing the enlightenment of Western values to the darker races.

Even those Americans who questioned such explanations saw in Dewey’s victory a new opportunity for America to reassert its role as a “city on a hill”—a model for the less enlightened. If democracy by example was not enough, Americans now accepted the notion that it was justifiable to use force to extend the blessings of democracy to others. McKinley himself defended the American occupation of the Philippines as an altruistic act, declaring that in later years, the Filipinos would “bless the American republic because it emancipated and redeemed their fatherland.” Like a father who knows best, McKinley predicted, in essence, “You’ll thank us later.”

The final peace treaty negotiated in Paris gave the United States not only the Philippines and Puerto Rico but also Guam in the Ladrones (Marianas) and tiny Wake Island, halfway between Guam and Midway (which was also a U.S. possession, having been acquired by purchase in 1867). Separately but simultaneously, the United States decided to annex the Kingdom of Hawaii. McKinley had submitted a treaty for Hawaiian annexation before the war, but he had not pushed it in Congress. It was the war that made annexation a matter of urgency. Three days after Dewey’s victory, a new annexation bill was introduced in the House. McKinley came out openly and enthusiastically for it in June, and it passed both houses of Congress within weeks by more than a two-to-one margin.

No longer would U.S. Navy forces in the Far East have to operate seven thousand miles from a friendly port. From Hawaii to Midway, Wake, Guam, and finally the Philippines, the United States now possessed a string of islands that stretched across the Pacific Ocean like beads on a string—or, more appropriately perhaps, like stepping stones—to support America’s commercial and naval presence in the Far East. Of course, those possessions brought new responsibilities as well as new opportunities. American occupation of the Philippines extended the nation’s territorial responsibilities some seven thousand miles westward. It not only gave the United States a presence in the Far East, it made the United States a Pacific power.

The war liberated Cuba from Spain, but that war-torn island became “independent” only in the most nominal sense. Though the Teller Amendment to the declaration of war had prohibited the United States from acquiring Cuba for itself, another amendment—the 1901 Platt Amendment, which was inserted into the Cuban constitution—gave the United States the right and the responsibility to intervene in Cuba whenever, in the view of the American government, it was appropriate to do so. The initial U.S. occupation of Cuba ended in 1902, but American forces continued to intervene periodically. In 1906 an American “army of pacification” arrived to suppress another rebellion, and it remained there until 1909. Other interventions occurred with some regularity until the introduction of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in 1934.

In addition to the acquisition of an overseas “empire,” another consequence of the astonishing success of the U.S. Navy in the Spanish-American War was that it prompted a dramatic increase in the size of the fleet. On December 7, 1900, a month after McKinley’s reelection victory at the polls, the government invited bids from contractors for the construction of five new battleships and six new armored cruisers, a force that would more than double the size of the Navy. All of the new ships would be significantly larger than the ships of the existing fleet. It was, as a contemporary noted proudly, “the largest single addition to our armored ships ever advertised for at one time.”

McKinley never lived to see it. He was shaking hands in a receiving line in Buffalo, New York, in September 1901 when an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz stepped forward and fired two shots into his chest. The mortally wounded president lingered for over a week before he died, leaving the office to his new vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, who presided over the subsequent naval expansion and who dispatched the so-called Great White Fleet on its global circumnavigation five years later.

As for Dewey, his great popularity after the victory in Manila Bay led to a short-lived “Dewey for president” boom. But the stoic and phlegmatic naval officer made a poor candidate, and the boomlet soon faded. Dewey lived out the rest of his professional career as chairman of the prestigious but only modestly influential General Board of the Navy. In the end, Dewey’s place in history—his fifteen minutes of fame, to employ the modern euphemism—depended on a single event, and the phrase most closely associated with him is the not-quite-heroic command he gave to the Olympia’s captain on the morning of May 1:“You may fire when ready, Gridley.”

The man to whom those words were addressed, Captain Charles V. Gridley, having lived to participate in a great naval battle, surrendered command of the Olympia and started home soon afterward. He never made it. The ill health that had plagued him for months, exacerbated perhaps by the pressure of recent events, claimed his life before he made it as far as Japan.

Montojo returned to Spain to face a court-martial. Accused of dereliction of duty, the wounded veteran argued that his squadron had been defeated not because of any failure on his part or that of his men, but because they were simply overmatched by Dewey’s newer and larger force. At Montojo’s request, Dewey wrote a lengthy letter acknowledging that Montojo had fought bravely, as befitted the great Spanish Navy, but he stopped short of admitting that the American force had been vastly superior. That, after all, would demean his own accomplishment. It probably didn’t matter, because someone needed to take the fall for the humiliation of Spain’s once proud navy. Montojo was found guilty and expelled from the service.

Though some scholars have attempted to suggest that American imperialism in the Pacific and the Caribbean was the product of a deliberate conspiracy by industrialists and expansionists who sought to turn the United States into an empire, a more likely explanation is that the Battle of Manila Bay triggered a sequence of events that led all the participants down a road that few had foreseen and for which even fewer were prepared. For most Americans, the rhetoric of 1898 was real; to them liberating Cuba was a noble and unselfish goal. But in the process of achieving it, forces were unleashed that led the United States into an entirely new chapter of its national history. Sympathy for Cuban rebels had led to war; Mahan’s theories of naval supremacy had led Dewey to Manila Bay; the destruction of Montojo’s fleet had created a vacuum of authority in the Philippines; America’s decision to fill that vacuum led to a brutal war of conquest. In the end, the United States emerged from the war as an acknowledged world power. Given America’s circumstances, this moment would surely have come sooner or later even if Dewey had never steamed into Manila Bay. But as it happened, his victory there was the milestone event that signaled this turning point in American and world history. The United States was a world power, a status from which there would be no retreat.

The Spanish-American War, and the Battle of Manila Bay in particular, marked not only the advent of an American empire in territorial terms, but also the first manifestation of American efforts to remake the world in accordance with its notion of what constituted proper government. In that respect, it marked a critical redefinition of America’s place in the world and an appropriate beginning to what subsequent historians would label “the American century.” As the London Times put it four weeks after Dewey’s victory: “This war must in any event effect a profound change in the whole attitude and policy of the United States. In future America will play a part in the general affairs of the world such as she has never played before.”