Give the Country the Facts

The country is tired of the Philippine War. It would like to close the account.

Rubber Trees in Porto Limon, in the 1800s.

[Harper's Magazine, pre-1900.]

As month after month passes, and the Fifty-Sixth Congress nears its close, it becomes clear that the administration owes one debt to the country which it is slow to pay. The country deserves to know all the obtainable facts about the Philippine situation. It desires these facts, and it has a right to them. By an unmistakable popular vote last November the public asserted its confidence in the present administration. It believed, and it still believes, that American interests are more secure in the hands of the Republican party than they would be if controlled by a demoralized Democratic party, under incompetent leadership. But the majority for President McKinley, however impressive, was not great enough to warrant any confident irresponsibility on the part of the Republican leaders. Their admirable party discipline has been freshly illustrated by the promptness with which they have passed upon many issues of national importance. They have already accomplished much. They have much still to accomplish. And they have thus far shown themselves singularly unconcerned about one issue, in which the plain people of both parties and in every section of the country have a great deal at stake.

The country is tired of the Philippine War. It would like to close the account. Nearly three years have passed since the battle of Manila Bay, and the pacification of the islands is as yet hardly begun. The administration has had all the money and the troops it has asked for. With unquestioning loyalty, Americans have sent their young men to perish in the Philippine swamps, believing that this was a sacrifice demanded by national duty. We do not like to put our hand to the plough and turn back. We are not in the habit of abandoning a task because it is difficult. The country as a whole has appreciated the obstacles encountered by our soldiers in their endeavor to restore order. It has resented—and justly resented—the recriminations and extravagances of anti-imperialistic criticism. It does not believe that anything is to be gained by calling names,—by dubbing the President of the United States a “murderer and a villain.” In a word, the country has “stood by the flag,” believing that the flag has gone only where it had good right to go.

This feeling was never stronger than on the morning after the November election. But the leaders of the victorious party have presumed upon the vote of confidence then given to them. Nearly four months have elapsed, and there has been not only no appreciable progress in establishing civil government in the Philippines, but no indication that the majority in Congress realize that the country has a right to expect from them a definite Philippine programme. While the lives of volunteer American soldiers have been in deadly peril, Congress has been debating the details of a shipping subsidy bill. What is still worse, the country has been deceived as to the plain facts of the Philippine situation. The reports of generals in the field, the findings of the two commissions, the messages of the President, the speeches of recognized leaders of the party, contain absolutely irreconcilable statements. Ours is a government by public opinion. But how is the public-spirited citizen to learn the truth about the most elementary facts concerning the Filipinos, such as their tribal relations, the extent to which they use a common language, the state of popular education and political intelligence, and the territorial limits of their present rebellion against the United States? Even upon fundamental questions like these, our newspapers and magazines are as confused and contradictory as any intelligence given out by the administration. Are the revolutionists “a few disaffected Tagalogs,” or are we encountering the patriotic resistance of a practically united people? Every American voter has a right to the possession of these facts, provided the facts are known at Washington. If they are not known at Washington, they ought to be.

The precise fashion in which this necessary information is to be gathered and laid before the American people does not now concern us. It may be through an unpartisan information bureau, such as has lately been organized by private persons. It may be in accordance with the plan of Senator Hoar or of Senator Spooner. Any plan is better than no plan. If we can get an honest Philippine Blue Book, one publisher is as good as another. But by some means or other the country will insist upon knowing precisely what it is doing in the Philippines. It wants the facts.

We have spent a vast amount of money in this Philippine investment. If we have wasted it in the impossible task of trying to force our civilization upon an unwilling people, we cannot find out our blunder any too soon. The war has cost many thousands of American lives. We have always been reckless of life in a good cause, but the fathers and mothers of boys who have fallen in the Philippines have a right to know the precise grounds of the quarrel. Finally, in our forcible annexation of foreign territory there are involved certain principles fundamental to our existence as a nation, certain ideals of liberty and self-government which are more important to the perpetuity of the United States than any sacrifice of treasure and life in a single generation. It is because of the vast interests involved that our Philippine policy should not be shrouded in any official mystery.

The Atlantic does not often comment editorially upon matters of political controversy. It believed thoroughly, as its readers will remember, in the justice of our war with Spain. It accepts cheerfully all of the logical consequences of that war. But it recognizes that in undertaking to govern the Philippines we have ventured upon a difficult and perplexing course. We need all the light we can get, from whatever quarter; we need caution, patience, tact. Our present predicament may be likened to that of a company of woodsmen who are following a very blind trail across an unknown swamp. We must make the best of it. If we are to make any progress, we must stick together, and stick to the business in hand. It is useless now for the anti-imperialist to drop his pack and shriek and wail because we did not take the path he wanted us to follow. It is equally ridiculous for some youthful imperialist to climb a stump, and, with much drumming of reverberant wings, to vociferate that we have a genius for geography, and that the trail is perfectly plain. The homely truth is that we are meanwhile up to our knees in mud and water, and in no temper to listen to speeches. We want to know where we are. The compass of political theory can doubtless helps us, but close observation of this unfamiliar region will help us more. We shall get through somehow. We have been in the woods before, although not in this particular swamp. We may conclude, by and by, to swing back on to the ridge again, as the safer plan, and to leave the Philippine Islands, under some amicable arrangement, to the Philippine people. But all that is in the future. The duty of the present moment is to cease petty recrimination; to take our bearings, and face the situation. We want the plain facts, however unflattering to our woodcraft they may be. Give the country the facts about the Philippines, and everything else may safely be left to the good sense and the patriotism of the American people.

By Paul Ford
A letter to the president regarding the Philippine war.
Monday, October 27, 2003




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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