"Fire when ready Gridley"

“You may fire when you are ready Gridley.”

May 1, 1898, Manila Bay. Commodore George Dewey orders American warships to fire on the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. The Spanish fleet is destroyed in six hours. The US suffers one casualty.

Who is this guy, this “Six-Star Admiral” who played such a pivotal role to defeat the Spanish and set the scene for the Philippine-American War?

Was he a hero or a deceitful liar?

I will not try to construct a complete biography on Dewey, the Navy's highest ranking officer in history. Let's just say he had a pile of medals won by capable leadership during four campaigns in the American Civil War, exemplary service modernizing the Navy during the late 1800's, and command of the Asiatic Squadron that defeated the Spanish fleet.

Two main characters occupy lead roles in the little flash of history that follows: Commodore Dewey and Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the Philippine independence fighters and President of the Philippine Republic formed during the Philippine American War.

Now about the Admiral . . . After defeating the Spanish fleet, Dewey's ships blocked Manila Harbor until August 15,1898, when Manila, held by the Spanish, surrendered to the US. The US refused to cede the Philippines to Aguinaldo and the Philippine American War soon began. The navy under Dewey prevented ships from re-supplying Aguinaldo's forces. Dewey left the Philippines in May of 1999 and arrived back in the US in September, celebrated as a hero in a victory parade in New York City and parties in Washington DC.

Dewey's victory over the Spanish was not accidental. He had modernized the navy and he spent his time prior to the battle in Hong Kong and China arming, fueling and otherwise preparing his fleet for battle. Military excellence requires pragmatism, ingenuity, bravery and, more than anything, discipline. The discipline to overcome fear, the discipline to follow orders, and the discipline to fight well in the chaos of battle.

Dewey's tenacious character emerged during his early school years:

It is perhaps unfortunate, but true, that the things best remembered of the future admiral's school life are his fights. His older brothers say he was a perfect little gamecock. George was never a bad boy —a malicious or mean boy; but he had inherited from his father a quick temper, he had boldness and courage in a high degree, and a country boy's full measure of health, strength and vivacity. He was small for his years, but would face a larger, bullying boy, with utter fearlessness; and in general wanted it understood that in fighting he was better than any one else anywhere near a match to him.” (William J. Lawrence, “A concise life of Admiral George Dewey, 1899)

Admiral Dewey graduated fifth in his class at the US Naval Academy but was better known for a duel he accepted but did not get a chance to fight. He, a northern Yankee, was about to face off with pistols against a tormenting upperclassman from the South when classmates stopped the duel.

Dewey was the perfect military man, intelligent, tenacious, disciplined and confident. But a seminal question arises in looking at his record regarding the Philippine American War. Was Admiral Dewey a two-faced liar, or did something happen that changed his mind about Filipino ability to self-rule? There is no question that his opinion changed over the course of four years.

In a dispatch to the US on June 27, 1898, during his blockade of Manila Bay awaiting arrival of more American troops, Commodore Dewey offered the following view: 

“My relations with [Aguinaldo] are cordial, but I am not in his confidence. The United States has not been bound in any way to assist insurgents by any act or promises, and he is not, to my knowledge, committed to assist us. I believe he expects to capture Manila without my assistance, but doubt ability, he not yet having many guns. In my opinion these people are far superior in their intelligence and more capable of self-government than the natives of Cuba, and I am familiar with both races.” (Hubert H. Bancroft, Volume I, The Great Republic by the Master Historians, early 1900's)

Although voicing confidence in Filipino self-rule, Dewey's message is not at all nice. One who stands back and judges one race as superior or inferior to another is himself inherently racist. The term “these people” is outrageously condescending, as is the term “natives” that was used by US officials to diminish and denigrate Filipino ability to self-rule. President McKinley used the race card to justify continuing US occupation of Manila after defeat of the Spanish and the US later displayed racial prejudice at its worst in a brutal waging of war against Filipinos.

A year later, shortly before returning to the US, Dewey again endorsed Philippine self-rule during an interview with the London Daily News dated August 21, 1899. But note that he raises the issue of anarchy as a risk in the Philippines, and thereby begins his equivocation that later becomes an outright change in opinion.

"I have the question of the Philippines more at heart than any other American, because I know the Filipinos intimately, and they know that I am their friend. The recent insurrection is the fruit of the anarchy which has so long reigned in the islands. The insurgents will have to submit themselves to law after being accustomed to no form of law. I believe and affirm, nevertheless, that the Philippine question will be very shortly solved. The Filipinos are capable of governing themselves. They have all the qualifications for it. It is a question of time; but the only way to settle the insurrection and to assure prosperity to the archipelago is to concede self-government to the inhabitants. That would be the solution of many questions and would satisfy all, especially the Filipinos, who believe themselves worthy of it, and are so." (Bancroft)

Dewey lacked the broader strategic perspective emerging in Washington at the time. The Philippines was “in play”, vulnerable to occupation by any number of countries if the US did not retain control. It's resources were too rich to concede to others.

Admiral Dewey's testimony before the US Congress on June 28, 1902, showed that Dewey had re-aligned his thinking by doing a 180 degree flip-flop. As reported in the New York Times:

Senator Beveridge read extracts from the reports of the first Philippine Commission, of which Admiral Dewey was a member, in which the statement was made that the Filipinos were incapable of standing alone, and that if the American support was withdrawn, they would lapse into anarchy, and asked him if that had been his opinion. He replied in the affirmative, adding that he still entertained that view.

Senator Carmack: “Was that always your opinion?”

Admiral Dewey: “Yes. True, I made a comparison once with the Cubans, saying the Filipinos were more capable of self-government than the Cubans. I think that neither the Filipinos nor the Cubans are capable of self-government.”

It would seem rather evident that Dewey simply bent to pressures from his superiors to support US governance of the Philippines. But perhaps there is just a little more to it. Let's trace the time line of events through excerpts with the help of FV contributor Macapili's historical chronology. I have selected some excerpts from Mac's detailed log of events that pertain to Dewey, and added my thoughts in parentheses to help place these excerpts in perspective:

May 1, 1898: Defeat of the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay.

June 16, 1898: Mr. William Day of the State Department advises American Consul in Singapore, Mr. Pratt, to "avoid unauthorized negotiations with Philippine insurgents." (Mr. Pratt became a thorn in Commodore Dewey's side. Or perhaps it was a little lower and to the back.)

August 13, 1898: Surrender of Manila to the US by the Spanish. (The US controls Manila; Aguinaldo controls the rest of the Philippines and he has forces in Manila.)

September 08, 1898: US General Otis answers a letter from Aguinaldo and explains why the joint occupation of the city is not possible, that is, Aguinaldo does not represent a belligerent recognized under international law. (Dewey may have believed Filipino self-rule would be best, but that was counter to the reasoning of the civilian and army leadership.)

September 10, 1898: A US soldier fired on and killed a native. Filipinos are surly and agitated. (No s**t.)

September 15, 1898: Filipino troops withdraw from the city of Manila, its suburbs and defenses. (Aguinaldo acquiesces after repeated attempts to take control of Manila. He does this to preserve his military forces.)

September 18, 1898: Acting Secretary Allen cables Admiral Dewey to restrain insurgents hostilities towards Spaniards. (Okay, but the Filipinos are still fighting the Spanish, so that directive places Dewey in a bind. If given a choice, he must back the Spanish against Filipinos.)

October 1898: The Manila press continues to sow seeds of hatred against Filipino soldiers, which perhaps explained why the American soldiers loathed the Filipinos too much. (The resistance was hardly unified.)

October 1898: Admiral Dewey's fleet seizes Filipino army vessels bearing Filipino flags that regularly ply Manila bay transporting and supplying Filipino troops.

October 17, 1898: Aguinaldo issues a decree levying customs duties: 5% ad valorem on imports, 15% ad valorem on exports and 5% ad valorem on coastwise trade. At this time, the Philippine government controls all ports in the country, except the port of Manila. (This becomes pertinent later as we review Dewey's testimony to US Congress in 1902.)

October 18, 1898: Philippine Congress enacts a law to sell government bonds - 40-year, 6%, $20 million Mexican dollars, of which $5 million was floated with $388,650 actually sold. Aguinaldo repeats this effort to raise money a month later. The Philippine Congress also enacts a law to issue paper money to the value of $3 million Mexican dollars.
(Keep reading to see how this impacts Dewey . . .)

November 28, 1898: Spain accedes to President McKinley's demand for cession of the Philippine islands to the United States for $20 million consideration. La Independencia, a newspaper published in Manila by Gen Antonio Luna, states that "people are not to be bought and sold like horses and houses. If the aim has been to abolish the traffic in Negroes because it meant the sale of persons, why is there still maintained the sale of countries with inhabitants?"

December 10, 1898: The treaty of peace is signed by the commissioners of Spain and United States in Paris.

January 11, 1899: Certain incidents strike panic in Manila - two American soldiers shoot a dog; a native passing a U.S. sentry is shot dead.

January 12, 1899: British businessmen meet and agree to ask England to conciliate between Americans and Filipinos. H. W. Bray, the interpreter who introduced Aguinaldo to U.S. Consul of Singapore writes to Senator Hoar stating: “I frankly state that the conditions under which Aguinaldo promised to cooperate with Dewey were independence under a protectorate. I am prepared to swear on this.” (So Dewey told Aguinaldo one thing but his American superiors forced him into a different position. A military man is loyal to his superiors.)

January 22, 1899: The Filipino Republic holds presidential election and Aguinaldo is elected President. (The Philippines is on a clear path to international recognition, forcing the US to play the War card.)

Feburary 4, 1899: More American troops arrive. The first shot that started the hostilities between Filipino and American armies is fired. (American troops cross into Aquinaldo's recognized territory, forcing confrontation.)

February 1899: General Antonio Luna resigns in disgust over the lack of discipline in the Filipino army, but Aguinaldo prevails upon him to reconsider. (The Republic under Aguinaldo is not unified, giving Dewey a way to rationalize his change in opinion. In those days, “Anarchy” read much like “Terrorism” today; a pejorative term aimed at stoking fear.)

March 20, 1899: The newspaper Manila Times says Dewey made several promises to Aguinaldo, including independence, for his cooperation with the Americans. (Liar, liar, pants are on fire . . .)

May 6, 1899: The pacifists faction of the Filipino congress, headed by Pedro Paterno, demands the resignation of the cabinet identified with Apolinario Mabini and resolves to accept the terms laid down by General Otis under the Schurman proclamation, i.e., unconditional acceptance of American sovereignty. (Can't we all just get along?)

June 5, 1899: General Antonio Luna is treacherously killed at Cabanatuan by Filipino troops. (Dewey says this was Aguinaldo's doing.)

November 2, 1899: In a preliminary report to President McKinley, the Schurman Commission speaks of the wealth of the islands, and advances the theory that its temporary occupation has practically committed the United States to a permanent or at least indefinite tenure as a trust for civilisation. It urges that the United States take the islands, otherwise some other nation will. The report also says, "Should our power by any fatality be withdrawn, the government of the Philippines would speedily lapse into anarchy....” (And Iraq has weapons of mass destruction . . .)

December 23, 1900: Pedro Paterno and Felipe Buencamino, former members of the cabinet of the Malolos government, together with T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Florentino Torres, Cayetano Arellano and several other prominent Filipinos, organize the Federal Party, which stood unqualifiedly for acceptance of American sovereignty. (USA, USA, USA!)

March 23, 1901: Aguinaldo is captured by Gen. Frederick Funston, aided by Macabebe scouts led by Hilario 'Tal Placido, who once served the Filipino Republican Army under Gen. Antonio Luna.

July 4, 1901: Civil government is inaugurated by the Americans to replace military administration. William Howard Taft is appointed the first American Governor General. . . . From the American standpoint war has terminated and the remaining Filipino forces opposing the Americans are labeled bandits, ladrones or tulisanes.

August 23, 1901: The first contingent of American teachers - 160 young girls and 400 young men arrive on a rainy day aboard the steamship Thomas.

End of chronicle. Excluded is a recounting of the brutal way the Americans ran the war, but that is conceded, and is not the subject of this commentary.

Before the Philippine American War, Dewey was for Philippine independence. Afterwards he was not. How did he justify the turnabout?

From the New York Times, June 28, 1902, reporting on Admiral Dewey's testimony to a Senate committee investigating the Philippine American War:

Taking up the thread of the investigation . . . Senator Carmack asked the witness if all the trouble in the Philippines had been due to Aguinaldo.

I won't say that,” the Admiral replied, “but,” he continued, “I will repeat that if we had had 5,000 troops at Manila on May 1 the city could have been taken possession of and we would have had, at least for the time, no trouble with the natives. They were our friends then.”

Replying to another question the Admiral said it was the general report throughout the East that in 1897 Aguinaldo had betrayed his people to the Spaniards for money. Nor did he remember that this report had been denied by American officers in the Philippines.
. . .

Why do you say that Aguinaldo took the lion's share of the property gathered by the insurgents?”

Because he was living at Malolos like a prince. He had nothing when he landed at Manila, and he could have procured the means for this ostentation in no other way. He began immediately after arrival to take every dollar in sight. It may be ungrateful in me to state that fact, but it is true that he sent cattle to me – herds of them – for the ships. The stock were taken from the Philippine people.”

Was any statement made of this circumstance at the time?”

No: that is war, as you know.”

Continuing his reply to this question, the Admiral said the Philippine Army was then only a mob and without organization, and had to be fed and clothed. “He did as many have done – he made the country support him.”

'Did you regard that proceeding as pillage and loot?”

Well, we didn't do that way. For instance, I took all the coal in sight, but I paid for it.”

Dewey's argument seems a little thin, but if Dewey changed his mind because he simply wanted to be a good soldier, Aguinaldo's ostentatious rule certainly made it easy for him to rationalize the change. Throw in a little anarchy for a good scare, and you have Congress in your hip pocket. The senators continued to grill Dewey:

Senator Carmack: “Then it is a fact that you took a man to Manila to be a leader of the native people who had but recently betrayed these people for a bribe?”

Admiral Dewey: “I think that would have made no difference; the country was under a reign of terror.”

Then you wanted a man who could organize the natives?”

No; I didn't want any one. Aguinaldo and his people were forced upon me by Consul Pratt and others.”

Did the Consul and others have any power to force these people upon you?”

Yes, by constant pressure. I didn't want the Filipino refugees . . .

Then you placed the country at the mercy of a man who would plunder and rob, notwithstanding you had no need of his services?”

This question the Admiral declined to answer.

It should be pointed out that Dewey also refused to engage in any conversation about the generals who managed the Philippine American war because he did not wish to criticize them. Dewey, in effect, told his congressional inquisitors: “Ask them, not me.” The grilling continues:

. . . Senator Patterson took the witness, asking him if Aguinaldo had ever talked to him on the basis of selling out to the Americans. The Admiral replied in the negative, and Mr. Patterson then asked if the Philippine leader had ever asked him for money. The reply was that Aguinaldo had asked him to exchange gold for Mexican dollars.

I was pretty sure as to where he had gotten the dollars, as he hadn't brought them with him,” said the Admiral. “and I thought that the fact that he wanted gold was pretty good indication that he was getting ready to leave. That was one thing which made me think that the man was feathering his own nest, but it was only a suspicion.”

Here the Admiral again referred to Aguinaldo's style at Malolos and Senator Patterson asked if that style had not served the purpose of inspiring the admiration of his followers and holding their allegiance. To this inquiry the witness replied that the style was “probably more inspiring to them than to those from whom the property had been taken.”

So with this record behind us, what do we conclude?
  1. The Philippines was not unified from the getgo. It was fractionalized into power blocs. The most significant included US-favored aristocrats in Manila, positioned against Aguinaldo's Republic, which was substantially a military organization, not always harmoniously put together. It was easy to make the case that, without US rule, chaos would reign.
  1. American-inspired Filipino history books are very likely incorrect. It makes profound sense that the Philippine American war started, not by unfortunate incident, but WITH INTENT by America. Aguinaldo was on a path to international recognition. International recognition would render American protective control moot. The US needed to take over the country outright for “cause” to keep control.
  1. Americans felt no obligation to back Philippine independence, believing Filipinos were, at best, unqualified for self-rule and, at worst, as in the eyes of President McKinley, a sub-par race. The US kept control ostensibly to prevent anarchy and to prevent other nations from grabbing the Philippines.
  1. Aguinaldo lived high and was both considerate (conceding surrender of Manila to the US, and later, of the entire rebellion, to prevent further bloodshed) and ruthless (perhaps having a hand in Gen. Luna's murder). He took steps to fund the new Republic, but was a “hands on” man. Aguinaldo became the Filipino's new “chief aristocrat” once the Spanish were defeated.
  1. Admiral Dewey was a high-principled man with one principle being disciplined loyalty to higher authority. He believed Filipinos were capable of self governance, but he initially did not understand his own government's thinking about losing the Philippines to another nation. He did not agree with how the American military engagement was led, either before or during the Philippine American War. He changed his own view about Filipino self-rule to align with that of his superiors.
America would go on to address racism as a gross social flaw, enacting laws to mandate equal treatment and opportunity during the 1960's and 1970's. America today continues its aggressive global adventurism and hegemony in pursuit of self-interest.

The Philippines remains fractionalized by geography and wealth and has not yet resolved the problem of illicit acquisition of wealth by the empowered, where authority is often enforced through brutality.

Thanks to Lila and Karl for suggesting I write this blog. I learned a great deal. And special thanks to Macapili for his chronology of the war years. This record, starting with 1896, can be found at http://malolosrepublic.blogspot.com/2008/12/year-1896.html Those interested in Aguinaldo and a complete record of American brutality will appreciate the extraordinary rendition set forth by Macapili at: http://macapili-filipino.blogspot.com/