Wednesday, February 29, 2012

l. 2815 -- “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

This statement, calmly uttered by Commodore Dewey after entering Manila harbor in late April 1898 (l. 2074), became a pre-Internet meme, so much so that I can clearly hear in my mind Bugs Bunny saying it to Elmer Fudd, a strong memory from the many happy hours wasted watching cartoons when young. That's a meme with legs.

The US annexation of the Philippines was largely the unintended consequence and ill-planned afterthought of America's quarrel with Spain over Cuba. Comparisons with our more recent and more moronic imperial adventures in the Middle East are almost too obvious to comment on – but not quite.

I was happy to see President McKinley come in for a sound drubbing for his behavior during the run-up to the Spanish-American. At one point a few years ago during the wretched reign of George W. Bush, his herd of tame pundits – eager to find a narrative to explain GW Bush's presidency more flattering than the one that was taking shape at the time – attempted briefly to resurrect McKinley as an unsung and unappreciated American hero, an interpretation even more unlikely and difficult-to-believe than the one about Saddam Hussein's weapon of mass destruction. Unlike GW Bush, McKinley had actually seen combat during the US Civil War, including conspicuous acts of bravely at Antietam and elsewhere (l. 2269). From this experience, he very reasonably took away a horror of war. However, he lacked the strength of character to resist the pressure of the pro-war party of media barons, Washington bureaucrats, and self-interested exiles, usually (cf. more recently) people who had never been to war themselves.

Concerning the Philippines, McKinley later confessed to a friend that he “could not have told where those darned islands were within two thousand miles” (l. 2810).

In the Dick Cheney role, we have future President Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt exercised power disproportionate to his position by virtue of good connections, a weak boss, and sheer bald-faced cheek. One afternoon, ten days after the Maine exploded, Roosevelt's boss left work early to visit and osteopath. While his boss was gone, Roosevelt sent out directive to US Navy commanders around the world to stock fuel and ammunition, asked Congress to authorize him to recruit more men, and cabled Dewey to assemble his ships in Hong Kong harbor. He told Dewey: “In the event of declaration of war with Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish Squadron does not leave the Asiatic Coast, and then offensive operations in the Philippine Islands.” This was America's “first step” toward the Philippines, Dewey later recalled (l. 2702).

When he returned to work the next day, Long was annoyed by Roosevelt's orders, but he took no steps to countermand them.

Officially, the Spanish fleet in the Pacific was monitored by the US naval attaché in Madrid, who picked up information from newspaper reports and diplomatic gossip (l. 2680). Fortunately for US imperial ambitions, the US Consul in Manila (like most diplomatic positions at the time, obtained through political patronage (l. 2306)), an elderly Ohio professor named Oscar Williams, had a hitherto undiscovered talent for espionage and peppered Dewey with information vital to an invasion including, most importantly, that Manila harbor was unmined and undefendable (l. 2682).

The battle of Manila Bay was a rout (l. 2778). The Spanish made very basic strategic mistakes at the beginning and the battle went downhill from there. Local insurgents spontaneously joined in harassing the Spaniards on land. The Spaniards thought this was deliberately planned and panicked. Two hundred Spaniards died. No American boats were damaged, and the only US casualty was one man who died from heat prostration (l. 2076).

Monday, February 27, 2012

l. 2063 -- “You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse.”

“Three centuries in a Catholic convent and fifty years in Hollywood.” This section of Karnow's book attempts to gauge the accuracy of the first half of this often-used description of modern Filipino history.

The Philippines suffered greatly from the 300-year-long period of “suspended animation” (l. 1275) generated by the medieval mindset and administrative sloth of their Spanish colonial masters, but very occasionally they also benefitted. Civil authorities were sent out for relatively short tours of duty by the king's viceroy in Mexico and were “most confined to scattered towns” (l. 1287). Catholic priests and monks often wielded more actual power by virtue of being present on the ground for longer periods. There were fewer precious natural resources to exploit, so life was quieter and more peaceful than other Spanish colonies.

An example of administrative sloth: in 1762, a British expedition attacked and captured Manila because, even though the Seven Years' War had started nine months previously, no one had notified Manila (l. 1521).

The encomienda system was designed to encourage colonization by distributing land to settlers. On its face, it appears similar to successful schemes from US history, but it quickly bogged down in corruption and abuse. However, the system was similar to its US analog in its disregard for the people who already lived and use the land. The abuses became so bad (“treated worse than slaves” (l. 1352)) they even attracted the attention of King Philip II of Spain, who has not otherwise gone down in history as an enlightened monarch.

“By the early seventeenth century, five religious orders had each carved out its distinct sphere of influence. The Augustians, Franciscans and Dominicans took over Luzon [the large northern island that includes Manila], leaving the Visayas and Mindanao [in the south] to the Jesuits and the Recollects, an austere offshoot of the Augustians.” (l. 1360) This aggravated the existing tendency to tribalism and regionalism.

If the colonial government had purposely tried to design a system which strangled trade and therefore impoverished themselves, they would have been hard-pressed to improve on the “galleon trade”, under which only a single large ship made a once-a-year round trip to Mexico in January. Space on the ship was limited. Result: more corruption. Wrecks and piracy were common, and the crews of ships risked a variety of horrible diseases in pursuit of a slender slice of the profit. For a relative few, great profit was possible. It was impossible to limit this wealth to the Spaniards. Over the hundreds of years of the galleon trade (last trip: 1811 (l. 1542)) and after, there developed a small but steady growth of wealthy native Philippinos (often with mixed Spanish and/or Chinese heritage, like a dynasty now surnamed “Lopez”, but descended from a Chinese named Lo). In a familiar pattern, some of these families sent their children off to Europe where, even in Spain, they were infected with dangerous ideas. This eventually coalesced into an intelligentsia, called the ilustrados.

Karnow compares this class with Caliban from The Tempest, who is educated by Prospero but becomes bitter because he cannot enjoy the benefits of his education (see title quotation, l. 1834).

An ilustrado named José Rizal y Mercado (1861 – 1896) became a national martyr. Karnow equates him with Ho Chi Minh or Nehru. He was the type of young man who, when struck by a police officer whom he had accidentally brushed past, rushed to the governor's palace and was outraged (for the rest of his life) at not getting service, even though it was nighttime. Eventually Rizal studied medicine in Madrid and came back an ardent reformer, advocating a fairer deal for Filipinos within Spanish sovereignty. He wrote novels (“the Philippine equivalent of Uncle Tom's Cabin” (l. 1852) is the description of one) which were officially forbidden but circulated widely. Naturally, conversative forces thought him a dangerous radical. They first exiled him to a remote island (where he worked as a doctor) and eventually killed him after a groteque parody of a trial, during which Rizal repeatedly pledged his loyalty to Spain. The long poem he wrote in his cell during this period is a mainstay of local literature. It was read out during a US Congressional debate in 1916, allegedly moving the members to tears and aiding in the passage of legislation granting the Philippines (very) gradual independence.

Unsurprisingly, future opponents of Spanish rule were less well-brought-up and less enchanted with their colonial masters, as dangerous in fact as Rizal was portrayed in fantasy. Andrés Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy were two revolutionary leaders who matched the Spaniards in ruthlessness and outdid them in cunning, but eventually turned on each other, weakening the effort as a whole. Eventually Aguinaldo had Bonifacio executed. Aguinaldo continued to fight against the Americans.

The two sides were at a truce when Commodore Dewey's squadron steamed into Manila Bay on 30 April, 1898.

Appearances by the US in this section:
  • “A survey taken by US specialists in 1903 found more than half the population to be illiterate, even in regional dialects” (l. 1403).
  • “The Philippines was first mentioned officially in the United States in 1786, when the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia pondered the notion of urging Spain to grant American trading privileges” (l. 1571).
  • The first documented, authorized stop by an American ship was in October 1796.
  • At that time, there were at least two Americans living in Manila. There was at least one prosperous American firm operating in the pre-US Civil War period.
  • Aguinaldo was captured and relieved of his belovéd ceremonial sword by Americans in 1901. In 1960, 92-year-old Aguinaldo received his sword back in a ceremony from Charles Bohlen, the US Ambassador to the Philippines at that time and father of future US Ambassador to Bulgaria Avis Bohlen.

Friday, February 24, 2012

L. 1271 -- “For a bag of pepper they would cut each other's throats...”

This section is largely about the long period of colonial mayhem and senseless slaughter which followed Magellan's “discovery” of the Philippines in April 1521. Desperately short on supplies and not at all certain where he was, Magellan (a Portuguese in Spanish employ) landed near the site of present-day Cebu, the second-largest city in the nation. He made the literally fatal mistake of believing that the first chieftain he ran into was the most powerful one in the area. Magellan died fighting a rearguard action against forces of a rival chieftain so his crew could escape. This chieftain responsible for Magellan's death was named Lapu Lapu. After a long period of obscurity, he was resurrected by nationalists as an proto-anti-colonialist. He has been honored in statues and postage stamps, and the principle town of the chieftain's native island is named after him (l. 1019).

In the mid 1540's, the Philippines received its present name by a subsequent explorer in honor of the king of that time, Philip II of Spain (i. 1162).

“[F]or the next three hundred years, the Spanish authorities in Mexico were to manage the Philippines as an imperial subsidiary, in effect making the archipelago a colony of a colony.” (l. 1176)

Spaniards first set eyes on the future site of Manila on 3 May 1570, with predictably unfortunate results for the Muslim chieftain and natives who happened to be living there. The city was officially founded on June 24 of the following year.

Interpretation of the ancient past is a political football in a way which would be familiar from anyone who has spent any time in the Balkans. Intellectuals attempt to influence the national narrative about exactly how long ago the archipelago was settled, whether settlers came from continental Asia, etc. However, there is little or no written evidence about life prior to the arrival of Chinese merchants, Malay Muslim imams, and Vietnamese farmers and fishermen, the primary foreign groups to precede Europeans to the Philippines. A fondness of amulets (l .1102) and marathon oratory (l. 1152) could be interpreted as signs of the existence of animism and an oral tradition, respectively, in societies of the region, whose infrequent writings on bamboo and tree bark have long since rotted or put to the torch.

The Spaniards dubbed the indigenous group of Malay Muslim heritage “Moros”, after the Moors that they found closer to home (l. 1094).

The tendency of various islanders to see themselves as separate communities made it easier for Spanish, and later American, colonialists, to divide and conquer (l. 1237)

The title quotation is from Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, and is cited (slightly inaccurately) at location 818.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Location 717 “Damn the Americans! Why don't they tyrannize us more?”

Stanley Karnow's In Our Image was completed in 1988 and published in 1989.

Opinion to take away about American imperialism and imperialists in Philippines: “... in contrast to the Europeans, they were uniquely benign” (location 367) and “Filipinos today feel a closer affinity for America than, say, Indians do for Britain or Vietnamese for France” (l. 371). This is a surprising conclusion to hear from Karnow, whose credentials as a hard-edged journalist and a well-informed critic of US policy in Asia are unmatched. Some dates to support Karnow's opinion:
  • 1907: The Philippines had the first elected legislature in Asia. At this time, the right to vote was restricted to the “educated class” (l. 389).
  • 1935: The Philippines gets internal autonomy under a commonwealth government, with independence scheduled for ten years in the future (l.424).
Also, Congress barred “American individuals and corporations from acquiring large land holdings in the Philippines”. Karnow makes clear that the motives for this were not all altruistic, but the overall effect was to spare the Philippines “exploitation of the kind practiced by the Europeans” (l. 381).

This general lack of villainy caused Manuel Quezon, the first President of the Philippines, to make the remark of the title.

Karnow makes clear that Americans were not angels, and there are many examples of open racism in thought and deed.

Future President William Howard Taft was the first American civilian governor of the Philippines (“our little brown brothers”, he is quoted (l. 417) as saying), and unsurprisingly he found the conservative rich intelligentsia, called ilustrados, sympathetic and that they shared his opinions about social reforms, meaning, they didn't like them.

Colonialism has resulted in predictably mixed and varying emotions of Philippinos toward the United States, including but not limited to admiration, resentment, and feeling unappreciated.

At the time of the book's writing, the Philippines “was still a feudal society dominated by an oligarchy of rich dynasties” (l. 275). The top 20% receives 50% of the country's income (l.624). “Elections are actually contests between rival clans” (l. 626). In all levels of society, the family is foremost, leading to familiar problems with nepotism, corruption, etc.

Much of the opening part of the book is a set piece chronicling Cory Aquino's 1986 official visit to Washington, where she was met with tepid enthusiasm by most of the Reagan administration (exception: George Schultz), who were, predictably, Marcos supporters. Members of Congress were enthusiastic until the time to vote foreign aid came.

Karnow's opinion was that the majority of Philippinos were in favor of American military bases, but in the early 1990's (after the publication of the book) both Subic Bay and Clark Field were closed after, first, they were trashed by a simultaneous volcanic eruption and typhoon, after which a treaty extending the lease of the bases negotiated with the Aquino government was rejected by the Philippino Senate.

Only about 30 percent of Philippinos speak Tagalog (also called “Filipino”), mostly in Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines and the location of the capital. About the same percentage, living in the islands in the center of the archipeligo, speak Cebuano (also called “Bisaya”).

Tagalog has a word – hiya – which is the equivalent of “face”, in the sense of “save face” or “lose face”. Karnow says that this is very important in Philippino culture.

The Tagalog word for “toothpaste” is Colgate.

Other things I learned because I am reading this book:

  • Most important thing: “Philippines” is spelled with only one “l” and a total of three “p”s, two of which occur in the center of the word.
  • Kipling's “White Man's Burden” was written to encourage American imperialism in the Philippines.
  • John Sayles latest movie (“Amigo”, 2011) is set in the Philippines, and his most recent novel (A Moment in the Sun, also 2011) includes long sections which take place in the Philippines. Both are set in the era when the U.S. became the colonial power. There are interesting interviews with Sayles on Youtube.
  • A three-part TV series, also called In Our Image and narrated by Karnow, was made at the time of the book's release and also viewable on Youtube. I've watched the first part and found it inferior to the book so far. It zigzags confusingly from one era to another for no apparent reason. The (at that time) only surviving veteran (allegedly 105 years old) of the fighting in the Philippines is interviewed. He is virtually impossible to understand and there are no subtitles. There are also interviews with wives of American soldiers who were veterans of the era, but given that all information presented is actually recollections of things that happened long ago of recollections of things that happened long ago, I thought that they were of uncertain value. Also, the audio track on Youtube is low quality and has a persistent tinny buzzing, as if you are watching in the presence of a pack of mosquitoes.
  • Last item in Youtube roundup: Relatively recent interviews with a now-agèd Karnow, one of which reminded me that Karnow had the honor to be on Richard Nixon's enemies list.
  • The Kindle edition of this book does not have page numbers, only location numbers.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pg. 0: Stanley Karnow's In Our Image

About 25 years ago, my future wife was in graduate school. There, she was saddled with a long reading list. She decided that I should do some of the reading for her. “Here,” she said, thrusting a volume into my hands. “Read this and tell me what I think of it.”

Time passes. We have both changed in many ways, but by the grace of God we are still together and still reading. A happy time has once again come where I can aid her in a small way, simply by reading a book.

The book is In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines by Stanley Karnow. It won a Pulitzer Prize for History in 1990. Read Karnow’s Wikipedia entry here.

Karnow is also the author of another great book, Vietnam: A History. I once asked an expert to recommend the best single book about the Vietnam War. The expert recommended Karnow's book. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

This blog will be a record of my thoughts and impressions of In Our Image. This blog is also an opportunity to experiment with Blogger, blogging in general, and Twitter, all of which (I admit with great shame) I come to as a very late adopter.

If this experiment is successful, I threaten you with the possibility that I may read and blog other books about PIMBS -- Phillipines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore.