It may be unwise to follow the tweet-based utterances of Donald Trump, President and CEO. But sometimes a stupid tweet by Trump affords the opportunity to reflect on the ways American Empire is thought about today and in the past. Yesterday, following an attack in Barcelona that killed fourteen and injured many others, Trump wrote, “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” Before yesterday's tweet, Trump often repeated a false claim that during the American occupation of the Philippines, one of the United States's more famous generals, John J. Pershing “dipped fifty bullets in pig’s blood, lined up his captives, and then shot forty-nine of them, letting the last one go to spread the news.” The popularity of this untrue tale, apparently circulated on some Right-wing websites, speaks to a particular orientation toward American Empire: that ruthlessness against enemies must be celebrated. One historian’s response to Trump’s tweet on Slate, raises another understanding of American Empire. He describes Pershing’s campaign of counterinsurgency against Filipinos as a “cordial” relationship and his cultivation of Muslim elites and comments about Islam are seen as exemplary instances of intercultural understanding. Indeed, the historian writes: “It’s an admirable sentiment, brimming with tolerance for a foreign culture. Perhaps the president could learn from that.” For our historian, the brutal “pacification” of the Philippines deserves only passing mention, the lesson of war, he tells us, is tolerance.

Fortunately, we too can read Pershing’s writings. In his own memoirs, Pershing notes his debt to Lord Cromer’s policy on Islam during the British occupation of Egypt. High level administrators in an imperial bureaucracy, Cromer — the British Viceroy in Egypt — and Pershing were certainly not interested in any kind of equality with their Muslim subjects. Rather, they used the images and languages of Islam to further their respective imperial projects. Moreover, the ruthless methods of counterinsurgency deployed in the Philippines were first developed in the service of the United States's settler project on the North American continent. "Many of the US military governors of the Philippines," writes Laleh Khalili, "had fought and administered Native Americans." Decades later, American counterinsurgency would make its way to Vietnam, then back to Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles. Trump is right in one sense, studying what Pershing and the rest of the U.S. forces of occupation did in the Philippines — as well as its antecedents and afterlives — is not a bad idea. But we must be cautious. In our attempts to counter Trump's own way of empire, we cannot simply celebrate another. Below, some notes, historical and historiographical.


The magnificent mosques of Cairo were filled with classes grouped in sitting posture around their white robed teachers, reciting in sing-song fashion their lessons from the Koran. The British wisely refrained from meddling with the religious faith of the people but devoted themselves only to questions of government. Their success under Lord Cromer left a striking example for us to follow in the control of our own Muhammadan wards—an example which I studied with much benefit…. The Moro is of a peculiar make-up as to character, though the reason is plain when it is considered, first, that he is a (semi) savage; second, that he is a Malay; and third, that he is a Muhammadan. The almost infinite combination of superstitions, prejudices, and suspicions blended into his character make him a difficult person to handle until fully understood. In order to control him other than by brute force one must first win his implicit confidence, nor is this as difficult as it would seem; but once accomplished one can accordingly by patient and continuous effort largely guide and direct his thoughts and actions. He is jealous of his religion, but he knows very little about its teachings. The observance of a few rites and ceremonies is about all that is required to satisfy him that he is a good Muhammadan. As long as he is undisturbed in the possession of his women and children and his slaves, there need be little fear from him…

— John J. Pershing, My Life Before the World War, 1860–1917: A Memoir, edited by John T. Greenwood (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013)

But most significant of all at this period is the fact that the colored population of our land is, through a new imperial policy, about to be doubled by our ownership of Porto Rico, and Havana, our Protectorate of Cuba, and conquest of the Philippines. This is for us and for the nation the greatest event since the Civil War and demands attention and action on our part. What is to be our attitude toward these new lands and toward the masses of dark men and women who inhabit them? Manifestly it must be an attitude of deepest sympathy and strongest alliance. We must stand ready to guard and guide them with our vote and our earnings. Negro and Filipino, Indian and Porto Rican, Cuban and Hawaiian, all must stand united under the stars and stripes for an America that knows no color line in the freedom of its opportunities. We must remember that the twentieth century will find nearly twenty millions of brown and black people under the protection of the American flag, a third of the nation, and that on the success and efficiency of the nine millions of our own number depends the ultimate destiny of Filipinos, Porto Ricans, Indians and Hawaiians, and that on us too depends in a large degree the attitude of Europe toward the teeming millions of Asia and Africa.

— W.E.B. Du Bois, The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind,” Church Review 17 (1900)

In the southern Philippines, the Moro Province became the exoticized setting for America’s greatest colonial saga. While indirect rule of the Christian lowlands was complexly antiheroic, the Moro province had all the ingredients for a classic colonial script: unexplored jungles, pirate-infested oral seas, and, above all, bloody combat against Muslim “fanatics.” Two of the greatest U.S. military heroes of this imperial age, Leonard Wood and John J. Pershing, served as governors of the Moro Province, leading mass slaughters of Muslim rebels that added to their allure in the eyes of the American public. In reportage, fiction, and later films, colonial writers celebrated the constabulary’s American officers as agents of civilization. “The Moros are incredible,” read a popular book published in 1938. “No word picture could paint … the ferocity and inherent fighting ability of these Mohammedans of the southern Philippines.” Using similarly hyperbolic language, Col. James Harbord, the first PC chief for Mindanao, noted that his work with the Moros was done “on the frontier of savage treachery.”

— Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009)

The American torture of prisoners—some fraction of which appeared in soldiers’ letters, newspaper accounts, and court-martial proceedings—was often, if not always, justified as a means of intelligence-gathering. The most notorious form of torture by the American side, if far from the only one, was the ‘‘water cure,’’ in which a captured Filipino was interrogated while drowned with buckets of filthy water poured into his mouth. The scale of its practice and the frequency of death remain difficult if not impossible to establish. Later blamed almost exclusively on the United States’ Macabebe Scouts, it was in fact the tactical expression of the military policy of attraction, undertaken in many cases by U.S. and Filipino forces working together both secretly and with the tacit approval of U.S. o≈cers. In the context of guerrilla war, the water cure would simultaneously cure Filipinos of their unknowability and Americans of their ignorance.

Despite later claims that distanced U.S. soldiers from torture, U.S. soldiers not only carried out the water cure but apparently did so in a jocular manner. In 1902, Albert Gardner, in Troop B of the First U.S. Cavalry, composed comic works that made light of torture in a way that suggested familiarity and ease. The first, playing with the torture’s name, was a mock-testimonial patent-medicine advertisement addressed to ‘‘My Dear Doctor Uncle Sam,’’ by a certain ‘‘Mariano Gugu.’’ The author complained of a recent bout of ‘‘loss of memory, loss of speach [sic] and other symptoms’’ of a disease called ‘‘insurectos’’; among other things, he ‘‘had forgotten where I placed my Bolo and my rifle.’’ He had been miraculously cured with ‘‘only one treatment of your wonderful water cure.’’ ‘‘No hombre’s shack is complete without a barrel of it,’’ he concluded in a postscript. More striking still was Gardner’s original marching song, ‘‘The Water Cure in the P.I.,’’ which made no mention of interrogation but simply urged U.S. soldiers to commit torture as an expression of U.S. imperial patriotism. Torture and liberation would be expressions of each other. The song form itself suggests singers and possible public performance:

Get the good old syringe boys and fill it to the brim
We’ve caught another nigger and we’ll operate on him
Let someone take the handle who can work it with a vim
Shouting the battle cry of freedom

Hurrah Hurrah We bring the Jubilee
Hurrah Hurrah The flag that makes him free
Shove in the nozzel [sic] deep and let him taste of liberty
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.

A subsequent verse promised to teach a captured ‘‘nigger’’ that liberty was ‘‘a precious boon’’ and pump him until he ‘‘swells like a toy baloon [sic].’’ Another hailed ‘‘[t]he banner that floats proudly o’er the noble and the brave’’ and urged the men to continue ‘‘till the squirt gun breaks or he explodes the slave.

— Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

William Appleman Williams was among a small handful of American historians and scholars with the daring to “name” American imperialism and, to see it, as Marilyn Young testifies, “as not a passing phase but fundamental to the history of the country.” Something of Williams’ view and daring, still highly-contested, can bring back the ghost of forgotten perspectives (such as Rizal’s appreciation of the political potential of U.S. traditions). Young reminded a group of scholars gathered in a meeting to honor Williams' legacy that he coined the term, “anticolonial imperialism,” to specify or distinguish the forms of global suzerainty and national self-image that evolved in the United States. Williams' coinage struck Young as a “wonderfully flexible and resonant concept that reconciled America's righteous rhetoric with its venal practice.”

Personally, I find it more symptomatic of U.S. imperialism than "characteristic" of it (as Young seems to mean here).  The term's paradoxical and oxymoronic overtones, I wish to argue, are symptomatic of the odd nature, singular novelty, and (in political and critical terms) the formidable unrecognizability of the U.S. Empire among its citizens, its assiduous advocates, and even its most astute critics. Here, we cannot even begin to speak of what this kind of imperialism has meant for its subjects and "dependencies" and the immense difficulties that it posed to their "independence" struggles. Probably, it is not that "America's righteous rhetoric" is contradicted by its "venal practice" and needs to be reconciled to it (a rich source, nonetheless, of the most searching critiques made of the exercise of U.S. power "in the decades after 1898" and as early as the Philippine war and conquest that followed the 1898 war and Paris Treaty with Spain) but that this righteous rhetoric is, in a highly important sense, the venal practice. (By righteous rhetoric here I now mean the genetic claims upon [natural] "right" and not exclusively the "idealistic-moralistic'' problematic we associate with the U.S. exercise of global power.)

Indeed, the righteous rhetoric guarantees the venal practice. Ultimately, it is not reconciliation that is achieved in the yoking together of such contradictory elements in the exercise and the self-definition of this power but an endemic ambivalence. It is an ambivalence at the heart of the U.S. imperial project so anxious that it, paradoxically, becomes the protean source of U.S. global power itself, and the shifting force of its peculiar shapes.

— Oscar V. Campomanes,1898 and the Nature of the New Empire,” Radical History Review 73 (Winter 1999)

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