President George W. Bush perpetually invokes the goal of spreading democracy to sanctify his foreign policy. Unfortunately, he is only the latest in a string of presidents who cloaked aggression in idealistic rhetoric. Killing in the name of democracy has a long and sordid history.
The U.S. government’s first experience with forcibly spreading democracy came in the wake of the Spanish-American War. When the U.S. government declared war on Spain in 1898, it pledged it would not annex foreign territory. But after a swift victory, the United States annexed all of the Philippines. As Tony Smith, author of America’s Mission, noted,
Ultimately, the democratization of the Philippines came to be the principal reason the Americans were there; now the United States had a moral purpose to its imperialism and could rest more easily.
William McKinley proclaimed that in the Philippines the U.S. occupation would “assure the residents in every possible way [of the] full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of a free people, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.” He also promised to “Christianize” the Filipinos, as if he did not consider the large number of Filipino Catholics to be Christians. McKinley was devoted to forcibly spreading American values abroad at the same time that he championed high tariffs to stop Americans from buying foreign products.
The “mild sway of justice” worked out very well for Filipino undertakers. The United States Christianized and civilized the Filipinos by authorizing American troops to kill any Filipino male 10 years old and older and by burning down and massacring entire villages. (Filipino resistance fighters also committed atrocities against American soldiers.) Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died as the United States struggled to crush resistance to its rule in a conflict that dragged on for a decade and cost the lives of 4,000 American troops.
Despite the brutal U.S. suppression of the Filipino independence movement, President Bush, in a 2003 speech in Manila, claimed credit for the United States’s having brought democracy to the Philippines:
America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people. Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule.
Perhaps Bush believes that subservience to the U.S. government is the highest freedom that any foreign people can attain. His comments illustrated the continual “1984”-style rewriting of American history.
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