Bound for Goo-Goo Land

excerpted from the book


America's Century of Regime Change from Haiti to Iraq

by Stephen Kinzer

Times Books, 2006, paper

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not an isolated episode. It was the culmination of a 110-year period during which Americans overthrew fourteen governments that displeased them for various ideological, political, and economic reasons.

... No nation in modern history has done this so often, in so many places so far from its own shores.

... the United States rose to great power at the same time multinational corporations were emerging as a decisive force in world affairs. These corporations came to expect government to act on their behalf abroad, even to the extreme of overthrowing uncooperative foreign leaders. Successive presidents have agreed that this is a good way to promote American interests.


The Imperial Era

Bound for Goo-Goo Land

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean and the last great bastion of what had once been a vast Spanish empire in the Americas, was in turmoil during the second half of the nineteenth century. Patriots there fought a ten-year war of independence that ended with an inconclusive truce in 1878, and rebelled again in 1879-80. Their third offensive broke out in 1895. Its chief organizer was an extravagantly gifted lawyer, diplomat, poet, and essayist, José Marti, who from his New York exile managed to unite a host of factions, both within Cuba and in émigré communities. His success persuaded two celebrated commanders from the first war, Máximo Gomez and Antonio Maceo, to come out of retirement and take up arms again. After careful planning, the three of them landed on the island in the spring of 1895 and launched a new rebellion.

In the spring of 1897, William McKinley, a Republican who was supported by Midwestern business interests, succeeded the anti-imperialist Democrat Grover Cleveland as president of the United States. Like most Americans, McKinley had long considered Spanish rule to be a blight on Cuba. The prospect of the Cubans governing themselves, however, alarmed him even more. He worried that an independent Cuba would become too assertive and not do Washington's bidding.

McKinley had reason to worry. Cuban rebel leaders were promising that once in power, they would launch sweeping social reforms, starting with land redistribution. That struck fear into the hearts of American businessmen, who had more than $50 million invested on the island, most of it in agriculture. Early in 1898, McKinley decided it was time to send both sides in the conflict a strong message. He ordered the battleship Maine to leave its place in the Atlantic Fleet and head for Havana.

Officially the Maine was simply making a "friendly visit," but no one in Cuba took that explanation seriously. All realized that she was serving as a "gunboat calling card," a symbol of America's determination to control the course of events in the Caribbean. For three weeks she lay quietly at anchor in Havana. Then, on the night of February 15, 1898, she was torn apart by a tremendous explosion. More than 250 American sailors perished. News of the disaster electrified the United States. All assumed that Spain was responsible, and when the navy issued a report blaming the disaster on "an external explosion," their assumptions turned to certainty.

Many Americans already felt a passionate hatred for Spanish colonialism and a romantic attachment to the idea of "Cuba Libre." Their emotions had been fired by a series of wildly sensational newspaper reports that together constitute one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press. William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the New York Journal and a string of other newspapers across the country, had been attracting readers for months with vivid denunciations of Spanish colonialists.

... The moment Hearst heard about the sinking of the Maine, he recognized it as a great opportunity. For weeks after the explosion, he filled page after page with mendacious "scoops," fabricated interviews with unnamed government officials, and declarations that the battleship had been "destroyed by treachery" and "split in two by an enemy's secret infernal machine." The Journal's daily circulation doubled in four weeks. Other newspapers joined the frenzy, and their campaign brought Americans to near-hysteria.

With such intense emotion surging through the United States, it was easy for McKinley to turn aside repeated offers from the new Spanish prime minister, Práxedes Sagasta, to resolve the Cuban conflict peacefully.

... negotiations would most likely have led to an independent Cuba where neither the United States nor any other country would have military bases. This was hardly the outcome McKinley wanted, and it would have horrified expansionists like Roosevelt, Lodge, and Mahan. Lodge went so far as to warn McKinley that if he did not intervene, he would kill Republican chances in that year's election.

... on April 11 [President McKinley] asked Congress to authorize "forcible intervention" in Cuba.

Members of Congress were reluctant to vote for McKinley's war resolution as long as the Cuban people opposed it. They had refused to annex Hawaii after it became clear that most Hawaiians were against the idea. Now, five years later, Americans were showing the same reluctance. Many were uncomfortable with the idea of sending soldiers to aid a movement that did not want American help. To secure congressional support for intervention in Cuba, McKinley agreed to accept an extraordinary amendment offered by Senator Henry Teller of Colorado. It began by declaring that "the people of the island of Cuba are, and of right ought to be, free and independent" and ended with a solemn pledge: "The United States hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for the pacification thereof, and assets its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people." The Senate approved it unanimously.

That promise, which came to be known as the Teller Amendment, calmed the rebels' fears.

... On April 25, Congress declared that a state of war existed between the United States and Spain. Members of the House of Representatives celebrated their vote by breaking into rousing choruses of "Dixie" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as they left the chamber. "A spirit of wild jingoism seems to have taken possession of this usually conservative body," McKinley's secretary wrote in his diary.

A nation that was still recovering from the bitter divisions of the Civil War finally had a cause everyone could embrace. President McKinley called for 125,000 military volunteers, and more than twice that number poured into recruiting stations. The New York Journal suggested that heroic athletes like the baseball star Cap Anson and the boxing champion "Gentleman" Jim Corbett be recruited to lead an elite unit. Not to be outdone, the rival New York World published an article by Buffalo Bill Cody headlined, "How I Could Drive the Spaniards from Cuba with Thirty Thousand Braves!" Theodore Roosevelt announced that he would quit his post as assistant secretary of the navy to raise and lead a fighting unit.

"It was a war entered without misgivings and in the noblest frame of mind," the military historian Walter Millis wrote thirty years later. "Seldom can history have recorded a plainer case of military aggression; yet seldom has a war been started in so profound a conviction of its righteousness."

Events moved quickly in the weeks that followed. Roosevelt ordered Commodore George Dewey to proceed to Manila Bay, in the Philippines, and destroy the Spanish fleet that had been deployed there.

... Six weeks later, American soldiers landed near Santiago on Cuba's southeastern coast. They fought three one-day battles, the most famous being the one in which Roosevelt, dressed in a uniform he had ordered from Brooks Brothers, led a charge up Kettle Hill, later called San Juan Hill. On July 3, American cruisers destroyed the few decrepit Spanish naval vessels anchored at Santiago. Spanish forces soon ended their resistance, and the Cuban and American commanders, Generals Calixto Garcia and William Shafter, prepared to accept their formal surrender. Before the ceremony, though, Shafter astonished Garcia by sending him a message saying he could not participate in the ceremony or even enter Santiago. That was the first hint that the United States would not keep the promise Congress had made when it passed the Teller Amendment.

... With victory won, the time had come for the United States to begin its withdrawal and, in the words of the Teller Amendment, "leave the government and control of the island to its people." Instead it did the opposite.

In the United States, enthusiasm for Cuban independence faded quickly. Whitelaw Reid, the publisher of the New York Tribune and the journalist closest to President McKinley, proclaimed the "absolute necessity of controlling Cuba for our own defense," and rejected the Teller Amendment as "a self-denying ordinance possible only in a moment of national hysteria." Senator Beveridge said it was not binding because Congress had approved it "in a moment of impulsive but mistaken generosity." The New York Times asserted that Americans had a "higher obligation" than strict fidelity to ill-advised promises, and must become "permanent possessors of Cuba if the Cubans prove to be altogether incapable of self-government."

These pillars of American democracy were arguing quite explicitly that the United States was not obligated to keep promises embodied in law if those promises were later deemed to have been unwisely made. Over the next year, they and others justified this remarkable argument through a series of propositions. All were calculated to soothe the public conscience, and all were largely or completely false.

... Few American correspondents had been in Cuba to watch as rebels built their power over a period of years, won broad popular support, and waged a highly successful guerrilla war. To most of these journalists, the war began only when American forces landed in the spring of 1898. None understood that Cuban units had secured the beaches where American soldiers landed near Santiago; even the American naval commander there, Admiral William Sampson, said afterward that the absence of Spanish troops on the beaches "remains a mystery." Other Cubans served as scouts and intelligence agents for the Americans, although they indignantly refused repeated demands that they work as porters and laborers.

To most Americans, war consisted of set-piece battles in which armies faced off. They loved reading about charges like the one at San Juan Hill, in which few Cubans participated. The long war of attrition that Cubans had waged unfolded far from the view of American officers and correspondents. Most of them did not realize that this campaign played a decisive role in the victory of 1898.

"None of us thought that [American intervention] would be followed by a military occupation of the country by our allies, who treat us as a people incapable of acting for ourselves, and who have reduced us to obedience, to submission, and to a tutelage imposed by force of circumstances," General Máximo Gomez wrote. "This cannot be our fate after years of struggle."

Most Americans had little regard for Cubans, so it was natural that they would reject such protests. Many went even further. They were angry that Cubans had not fallen on their knees to thank the United States for liberating them.

... Cuban patriots had for years promised that after independence, they would stabilize their country by promoting social justice. Americans wanted something quite different. "The people ask me what we mean by stable government in Cuba," the new military governor, General Leonard Wood, wrote in a report to Washington soon after he assumed office in 1900. "I tell them that when money can be borrowed at a reasonable rate of interest and when capital is willing to invest in the land, a condition of stability will have been reached." In a note to President McKinley, he was even more succinct: "When people ask me what I mean by stable government, I tell them, 'Money at six percent."

... Secretary of War Elihu Root, who had been a leading corporate attorney in New York, and Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Committee on Relations with Cuba, wrote the law that would shape Cuba's future. The Platt Amendment, as it came to be known, is a crucial document in the history of American foreign policy. It gave the United States a way to control Cuba without running it directly, by maintaining a submissive local regime. Washington would go on to apply this system in many parts of the Caribbean and Central America, where to this day it is known as plattismo.

Under the Platt Amendment, the United States agreed to end its occupation of Cuba as soon as the Cubans accepted a constitution with provisions giving the United States the right to maintain military bases in Cuba; the right to veto any treaty between Cuba and any other country; the right to supervise the Cuban treasury; and "the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence or] the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty." In essence, the Platt Amendment gave Cubans permission to rule themselves as long as they allowed the United States to veto any decision they made.

McKinley was a devout Christian living in an era of religious revivalism. He would later tell a group of Methodist missionaries that while he was wrestling with the Philippines question, he fell to his knees in the White House on several evenings "and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance."

"One night late, it came to me this way," he said. "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift them and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could for them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died."

... "The episode marked a pivotal point in the American experience," Stanley Karnow wrote in his history of the Philippines. "For the first time, U.S. soldiers fought overseas. And, for the first time, America was to acquire territory beyond its shores-the former colony itself becoming colonialist."

On May 1, 1898, three weeks after destroying the Spanish fleet, Dewey welcomed the Filipino guerrilla leader Emilio Aguinaldo aboard his flagship the Olympia.

President McKinley, obeying what he took to be the word of God, had decided that the United States should assume ownership not simply of an enclave at Manila but of the entire Philippine archipelago. He directed his negotiators in Paris to offer the Spanish $20 million for it. Spain was in no position to refuse, and on December 10, American and Spanish diplomats signed what became known as the Treaty of Paris. It gave the United States possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the distant Philippine archipelago, which had more than seven thousand islands and a population of seven million.

On December 21, McKinley issued an "executive letter" proclaiming American sovereignty over the Philippines. Rebels there were already proceeding along their own path. They had elected a constituent assembly that produced a constitution, and under its provisions the Republic of the Philippines was proclaimed on January 23, 1899, with Aguinaldo as its first president. Twelve days later, this new nation declared war against United States forces on the islands. McKinley took no notice. To him the Filipinos were what the historian Richard Welch called "a disorganized and helpless people."

President McKinley may well have believed that God wished the United States to "uplift" and "Christianize" the Filipino people. Speeches by senators during the treaty debate, along with many articles in the press, however, offered a more tangible rationale for taking the Philippines. businessmen had become fascinated with the prospect of selling goods in China, which, after losing a war with Japan in 1895, had become weak and incapable of resisting intervention. They saw a magnificent confluence of circumstances, as this vast land became available for exploitation at the same time they were casting desperately about for new markets.

It began in February 1899, with a pitched battle for Manila. From the beginning, there was little doubt about how it would end. The insurgents had the advantage of numbers, but by every other standard the Americans were clearly superior. Aguinaldo and his troops were crippled by a lack of weaponry, enforced by an effective American naval blockade. American soldiers landed in waves, by the tens of thousands, eager to fight against an enemy of whose motivations they were blissfully unaware. In letters home, they told friends and relatives that they had come "to blow every nigger to nigger heaven" and vowed to fight "until the niggers are killed off like Indians."

Faced with these handicaps, the guerrillas turned to tactics unlike any the Americans had ever seen. They laid snares and booby traps, slit throats, set fires, administered poisons, and mutilated prisoners. The Americans, some of whose officers were veteran Indian fighters, responded in kind. When two companies under the command of General Lloyd Wheaton were ambushed southeast of Manila, Wheaton ordered every town and village within twelve miles to be destroyed and their inhabitants killed.

During the first half of the Philippine War, American commanders imposed censorship on foreign correspondents to assure that news of episodes like this did not reach the home audience. Only after censorship was lifted in 1901 were Americans able to learn how the war was being waged. Newspapers began carrying reports like one filed early in 1901 by a correspondent from the Philadelphia Ledger.

Our present war is no bloodless, fake, opera bouffe engagement. Our men have been relentless; have killed to exterminate men, women, children, / prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten and up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino, as such, was little better than a dog, noisome reptile in some instances, whose best disposition was the rubbish heap. Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to "make them talk," have taken prisoner people who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show that they were even insurrections, stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop into the water below and float down as an example to those who found their bullet-riddled corpses.

Colonel Jacob Smith, American officer in the Philippines, 1901
"I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and the more you burn, the better you will please me."

During one long and amazingly ill-conceived march through the Samar jungle, eleven marines perished from a combination of starvation and exposure. Their captain, delirious and only intermittently conscious, became convinced that their Filipino porters had contributed to their deaths by withholding potatoes, salt, and other supplies. He singled out eleven of them, one for each dead marine, and had them shot.

Americans had used harsh tactics since the beginning of the Philippine War, but the summary execution of eleven Filipinos who were working for them, and who had committed no apparent crime, was too much for commanders to ignore. They ordered the offending officer court-martialed on charges of murder. He was eventually acquitted, but the case set off an explosion of outrage in the United States.

Until this episode, many Americans had believed that their soldiers were different from others, operating on a higher moral plane because their cause was good. After Balangiga, however, a flood of revelations forced them out of their innocence. Newspaper reporters sought out returned veterans and from their accounts learned that American soldiers in the Philippines had resorted to all manner of torture. The most notorious was the "water cure," in which sections of bamboo were forced down the throats of prisoners and then used to fill the prisoners' stomachs with dirty water until they swelled in torment. Soldiers would jump on the prisoner's stomach to force the water out, often repeating the process until the victim either informed or died. This technique was ... widely reported in the United States ...

"We have actually come to do the thing we went to war to banish," the Baltimore American lamented. The Indianapolis News concluded that the United States had adopted "the methods of barbarism," and the New York Post declared that American troops "have been pursuing a policy of wholesale and deliberate murder." David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University, declared that Filipinos had done no more than rebel against "alien control" and that therefore "it was our fault and ours alone that this war began." The revered Harvard professor William James said that Americans were guilty of "murdering another culture" and concluded one of his speeches by declaring, "God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippines!" Mark Twain suggested that the time had come to redesign the American flag with "the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by skull and crossbones."

This spasm of recrimination continued for several months, but soon a counter campaign began. Defenders of American policy, who at first were too overwhelmed by the onslaught of horrific revelations to respond, finally found their voice. Extreme conditions, they insisted, had forced soldiers to act as they did. The New York Times argued that "brave and loyal officers" had reacted understandably to the "cruel, treacherous, murderous" Filipinos. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said that American soldiers had done nothing in the Philippines that they had not done during the Civil War and that "in view of the provocation received and the peculiar nature of the task to be performed, the transgressions have been extremely slight." The Providence Journal urged its readers to accept "the wisdom of fighting fire with fire."

A second theme that echoed through the press was that any atrocities committed to the Philippines had been aberrations. They were "deplorable," the St. Paul Pioneer Press conceded, but had "no bearing on fundamental questions of national policy." The New York Tribune said only a few soldiers were guilty and "the penalty must fall not upon the policy, but upon those men."

By the time this debate reached its crescendo, in the early months of 1902, President McKinley had been assassinated and replaced in office by Theodore Roosevelt. To Roosevelt fell the task of defending the honor of the troops he loved, and he embraced it even though he had never been enthusiastic about the Philippine operation. He enlisted his close friend and ally Henry Cabot Lodge to lead the defense. In a long and eloquent speech on the Senate floor, Lodge conceded that there had been cases "of water cure, of menaces of shooting unless information was given up, of rough and cruel treatment applied to secure information." But Americans who lived "in sheltered homes far from the sound and trials of war," he warned, could not understand the challenges of bringing law to a "semi-civilized people with all the tendencies and characteristics of Asiatics."

"Let us, oh, let us be just, at least to our own," Lodge begged the Senate.

At Roosevelt's suggestion, Lodge arranged for the Senate to hold hearings into charges of American misconduct in the Philippines. It was a clever move. Lodge himself ran the hearings, and he carefully limited their scope. There was much testimony about operational tactics, but no exploration of the broader policy that lay behind them. The committee did not even issue a final report. One historian described its work as "less a whitewash than an exercise in sleight-of-hand."

On July 4, 1902, soon after the investigating committee ended its work, President Roosevelt declared the Philippines pacified. He was justified in doing so. The important guerrilla leaders had been killed or captured and resistance had all but ceased. It had been a far more costly operation than anyone had predicted at the outset. In three and a half torturous years of war, 4,374 American soldiers were killed, more than ten times the toll in Cuba. About sixteen thousand guerrillas and at least twenty thousand civilians were also killed. Filipinos remember those years as some of the bloodiest in their history. Americans quickly forgot that the war ever happened.


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