A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902

by David J. Silbey, Hill and Wang, New York, 2007, $26.

The Philippine-American War defined the United States’ emergence on the world stage at the beginning of the 20th century. America’s decision to annex the Philippines marked a fundamental transition in self-image. From a developing society fulfilling its “Manifest Destiny” in the context of an expanding frontier, the United States derived an identity based on a sense of global mission, incorporating both religious and secular characteristics. Americans remain ambivalent about the Philippine conflict: Its roots were murky, its duration excessive and its advantages debatable.

The Filipino perspective is clearer: The war was the matrix of Philippine identity. David J. Silbey, a historian at Alvernia College, presents that development in the context of three separate yet connected conflicts. The first was a joint operation against Spain. Filipino insurgents were on the brink of winning, unaided, their long-running war with Spain and were initially dubious about accepting help from an American expeditionary force that appeared almost literally out of the blue. The apparent shortcut to independence, however, proved too tempting to resist.

When the Americans did not propose to leave, a second war broke out, a conventional struggle between two legitimate governments. The embryonic Philippine Republic was decisively outfought, an outcome Silbey ascribes to the U.S. Army’s combination of professionalism and flexibility. Unexpected in the context of the blundering Cuban campaign of 1898, this success affirmed the reforms discussed in Graham Cosmas’ classic An Army for Empire. At the same time, Silbey demonstrates how that lost war became the essential source of the Philippines’ national definition. The Filipino revolutionaries reconstructed themselves around a form of warfare relying on ambush and small-scale engagements. They kept the field until the U.S. presidential elections of 1900 went to a Republican administration committed to winning the war.

As increasing numbers of Filipinos sought accommodation with the Americans, the third war developed as a coda: a guerrilla conflict between U.S. armed forces and an increasingly locally focused insurgency unable to sustain itself as its regions were successively occupied and pacified. Though the American victory involved episodes of efflorescent brutality, particularly during the third stage, Silbey demonstrates that the guerrilla war was not deeply vicious on either side. Once fighting ended, former opponents were able to cooperate amicably for the duration of U.S. control.

As America fostered connections among the 7,100 islands in the archipelago and ruled with a relatively light imperial hand, Filipino defeat came to look much like victory. Americans may have paid a higher long-term price by being deceived as to the prospects of reconciling enemies in the aftermath of a low-intensity conflict. Clio, the Greek muse of history, is also a supreme ironist.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here