This exhibition occupies only one hall, which is just the right size for a low-museum-stamina type like me. In addition to clear and well written presentations on the major events, it contains some unusual angles on the Philippine–American War. There is a separate section on African-American US soldiers, for example, and excerpts from diaries and correspondence throw light on the impact of the war on both young Americans and Filipinos. The exhibition is fair, covering both water torture by the US army (highlighted in a 2008 New Yorker article) and atrocities by the Filipino forces. Although it doesn’t use the phrase “war crimes,” it doesn’t hold back in its description of the US Army’s scorched earth policy in Samar.
Here are a few snippets I noted down:
• As is well known, the US war with Spain began with an explosion on the USS Maine in Havana harbour on 15 February 1898, which the US claimed was caused by a Spanish mine. However, an investigation in 1978 by Admiral Hyman, USN found that the probable cause was spontaneous combustion. That sets off some intriguing “what if” questions. If those molecules had not combined in such lethal way in the hold of the Maine, perhaps the Spanish–American war, which had such far-reaching consequences for the Philippines, Cuba, the USA, and Spain, might never have taken place? Or would the Americans simply have found another casus belli?
• President McKinley’s message to Congress on 11 April 1898 stated that forcible annexation of Cuba “by our code of morality, would be criminal aggression,” a comment that reads oddly when set beside his later authorization of exactly that to the Philippines.
• “Had the Filipinos been white and fought as bravely as they have, the war would have ended and her independence granted long ago,” Bishop A. Wuthers, speech to the National Afro-American Congress on 2 September 1899.
• About 20 African–American US soldiers went over to Aguinaldo’s forces, one of them becoming a general.
• This next quotation is well known, but loses none of its impact through the retelling. In October 1901, after Filipino guerrillas had killed 48 US soldiers at Balangiga in Samar, Brig. General Jacob H. Smith ordered marines under Major Littleton W. Waller to make Samar “a howling wilderness … I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn and the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms.” Smith applied the latter definition to all over the age of 10.
• In 1903, new President Theodore Roosevelt ordered “the most stern measures to pacify Samar” and Admiral Chaffee virtually declared war on the civilian population, incarcerating 300,000 people in “reconcentration camps.
• McKinley was not sure where the Philippines was when Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet.
• Although the war began because of events in Cuba, on 20 May 1902 the US Army withdrew from the island and the Cuban Republic was born (albeit as a de facto US protectorate). However, with the exception of the period of the Japanese occupation, the US was not to relinquish direct control over the Philippines until 4 July 1946.
• In 1999, the US Library of Congress reclassified the conflict from “the Philippine Insurrection” to “the Philippine–American War.”
• The exhibition contains a map of the colonial possessions of the European nations at the end of the 19th century showing the northern part of what is now Papua New Guinea as “Kaiser Wilhelm Land.” Gotta love that name.