The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire 



By the end of the 19th century, America’s borders had spread across the continent from shore to shore. However the American victory in 1898 against the Spanish Empire forced the nation to decide whether it would join the imperial nations of Europe and take possession of overseas colonies. Republicans under the presidency of William McKinley jumped at the opportunity, while a passionate, anti-imperialist movement floundered as the U.S. army triumphantly took possession of the Philippines. Author Stephen Kinzer in his book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, describes how the anti-imperialist movement was resurrected when reports started to filter back to the States of U.S. troops torturing and committing widespread atrocities against the Filipino civilian population. In response the anti-imperialists requested and managed to procure a senatorial investigation to look into the rumors.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

However, the pro-war leaders in Washington, alarmed at the growing public interest in the conduct of the war, quickly attempted to get the situation under control. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts managed to obtain for himself the position of chairman over the Senate Committee, and for the next six months he busied himself with stacking the witness list with individuals guaranteed to present a favorable picture of the military’s execution of the war. Meanwhile, another pro-war senator, Albert Beveridge, took charge of the prosecution. Beveridge was more than willing to “browbeat soldiers who testified about abuses and scorned critics of annexation as apologists for terror” (Kinzer, The True Flag, 217).

There was little doubt about the direction the hearing was being pushed towards. The appointed civilian governor of the Philippines, William Taft, testified while on the stand that “never had a war been conducted in which more compassion, more restraint, and more generosity had been exhibited than in connection with the Americans war in the Philippines” (p. 217). However Taft did admit that there had been “some retaliation on the part of small bands of Americans,” along with “some cases of unnecessary killing, some cases of whipping, and some cases of what was called the water cure” (p. 217). Despite Taft’s admission, some of the more extreme members of the pro-war faction still refused to admit that any misconduct had been conducted whatsoever. Secretary of War, Elihu Root wrote that “in substantially every case . . . the report has proved to be unfounded or grossly exaggerated” (p. 217).

The anti-imperialists were furious that despite the continuing reports of atrocities coming from the Philippines, the Republican senators in charge of the hearings refused to investigate further. The anger between the two parties resulted in heated shouting matches and even violent fist-fights on the senate floor.

However, things became more complicated when the hearing began to interview individual soldiers. Despite Lodge’s careful selection of eye-witnesses from the War Department’s “safe list,” the soldiers were embarrassingly open about the atrocities they had witnessed and committed. “No fewer than six said they had witnessed the ‘water cure,’ other tortures, or reprisal killings. All said, however, that these were reasonable tactics when fighting an enemy who showed what one called ‘inability to appreciate human kindness’” (p. 220). Even one of the commanders, General Robert Hughes, admitted that he had “routinely ordered the burning of Filipino villages in order to deny shelter to insurgents” (p. 220).

As more and more such testimonies began to come out, the pro-war faction was forced to deny Elihu Root’s stance that no misconduct had occurred, and instead follow Lodge’s suggestion, and admit to some isolated instances of wrongdoing. The whole affair was becoming increasingly awkward. In two years President Theodore Roosevelt would be up for election for the presidency. He had been a staunch proponent of the war, and it would not do for him to look like he had implicitly tolerated war crimes. Instead he approved that several of the soldiers who had been implicated in war crimes be made scapegoats. However, the investigation quickly got out of hand when Major Anthony Waller revealed under questioning that General Smith had personally ordered him to engage in widespread extermination of the Filipino inhabitants and turn the land into a “howling wilderness.” Smith had said: “I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States” (p. 221). When Waller asked for a minimum age limit, Smith replied that it was to be ten years and older. Smith carried out the orders, razing every village they came across and massacring most of the inhabitants.


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