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Background Essay on Creating an Empire

This essay re-introduces an often forgotten event—the Philippine-American War—and explains contemporary debates around the war and the ascencion of the United States to the ranks of colonial powers.

History textbooks often ignore the Philippine War (1899-1902), and cover U.S. expansion at the turn of the twentieth century only in Cuba. Yet at the time, the war and occupation in the Philippines provoked widespread debate, resulted in thousands of casualties, consumed significant military expenditures, and helped shape U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century.

Sparked by the brief Spanish-Cuban-American War, the Philippine War was brutal and prolonged. After defeating Spain in Cuba, the U.S. negotiated possession of the Philippines as part of the peace treaty, much to the dismay of the Philippine nationalists who had been fighting for their independence since 1896. Under the leadership of Filipe Aguinaldo, the Nationalists had formed their own government after the departure of Spanish troops. The U.S. began amassing troops on the islands before Congress approved the peace treaty with Spain, and a small skirmish led the U.S. to declare war. The Philippine army was small and poorly armed, but widely supported by the population. As a result, the U.S. military targeted the civilian population as well, forcing residents to move into concentrated villages that could be patrolled by U.S. troops, and torturing citizens to reveal information about the armed resistance. U.S. soldiers burned many villages and towns to the ground, and historians estimate that over 220,000 Filipinos died of war-related causes. 

In the U.S., robust opposition to the war challenged U.S. imperialism and brought together a broad collection of groups and individuals ranging from Mark Twain to Andrew Carnegie, from Filipina activist Clemencia Lopez to Susan B. Anthony, and from labor leaders to volunteer soldiers. The Anti-Imperialist League held meetings and lectures, published newspapers and pamphlets, and supported anti-war political candidates. Some who opposed the annexation did so out of respect for the right of the Filipinos to govern themselves. But many more opposed the idea of granting U.S. citizenship to a group of Asians.

The Philippine War coincided with a series of World's Fairs that took place between 1893 and 1904. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the nation attended the fairs, which were major events that defined and celebrated the era's culture. The exhibits and controversies at the fairs show how assumptions about imperialism and racial superiority were embedded in domestic culture. Just as popular culture helped to shape expansionist policies in the U.S., foreign policies also shaped our national identity and domestic life. 

Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Creative Commons License
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Creating an Empire,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2371.

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