America's forgotten empire.

The history behind current events.
May 2 2003 10:34 AM

America's Forgotten Empire

How 50 years of imperialism in the Philippines changed the United States—and my family.

In these heady days of incipient empire, Rudyard Kipling's 1899 poem "The White Man's Burden"—written as advice to Americans following our seizure of the Philippines—is enjoying an unlikely revival. In Empire,Niall Ferguson quotes from it at length while urging Americans to accept their long-prophesied destiny in Iraq and elsewhere. But in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Ferguson notes a problem with American empire: Too few Americans are willing to make imperialism a full-time career. "Send forth the best ye breed," wrote Kipling, "in patience to abide." That's how the Brits managed to run much of the world for more than a century. The Yanks? No staying power, says Ferguson.

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It's true: Americans today have little interest in running the world, except by remote control. But that may be because we've already learned our lesson. Speaking as the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Americans who answered Kipling's original call, I'm obliged to point out that we've already tried the British Empire approach at least once before, in the Philippines—not for days or weeks but for half a century. Thousands of Yanks eagerly donned pith helmets and ventured east of Suez, hoping to remake the world and perhaps to make a buck or two in the process. Recalling the results of this grand experiment might give pause to some of today's empire enthusiasts.

On May 1, 1898, my great-grandfather Charles "Bud" Tomlinson signed up with the 1st Montana Volunteer Infantry, eager to avenge the USS Maine and fight for Cuba libre. On the same day, Commodore George Dewey steamed into Manila Bay, annihilated a Spanish squadron, and established the United States as a world power, to the astonished delight of the folks back home. As a result, Bud never made it to Cuba; he was shipped off to Manila to help plant the Stars and Stripes in Asia. A brief but intense vogue for empire swept the nation: Congress annexed the Philippines, and Bud helped subjugate the Filipinos in a nasty but successful war.

Bud soon went home to Montana. But many ex-soldiers remained in the islands, hoping to strike it rich. They were joined by thousands of idealistic nation-builders from America who came out by the boatload to teach school, build roads, and preach the democracy-and-capitalism gospel. For the Filipinos the results were mixed, but the impact on both nations was considerable.

MacArthur during landing on Leyte Island on Oct. 20, 1944
MacArthur during landing on Leyte Island on Oct. 20, 1944

The first U.S. governor-general was William Howard Taft, whose success in Manila diverted him from a judicial career and put him on the fast track to the White House. The governor-generalship was a high-profile job: Among Taft's successors were such political heavyweights as Leonard Wood and Henry Stimson. For the U.S. military, the Philippines functioned as a proving ground for the future commanders of World Wars I (John J. Pershing, Peyton March) and II (George Marshall, Chester Nimitz, and Douglas MacArthur, among many others).

Our Philippines colony consciously emulated the British Empire, complete with sepoys (the Philippine Scouts), a Hill Station (at Baguio, laid out by no less than Daniel Burnham), and a tame maharajah (the Sultan of Sulu). For awhile, the American Raj stuff played well back home. Bud Tomlinson's daughter Thelma (my grandmother) was reared on stirring tales of his "Road to Mandalay" adventures. Decades later, she (along with her husband, Bryan Kerns, and their young daughter Karen) fled Depression-era America for the Philippines. Bryan found work as a mining company accountant, while Thelma happily took up the life of a pukka memsahib.

Alas, by then America's enthusiasm for empire had faded. As it turned out, there was relatively little money to be made in the Philippines, and the Filipinos seemed less than entirely grateful for the decades of tutelage. So Congress voted to cut the islands loose, after a suitable period of transition. Full independence was scheduled for 1946. Still, my grandparents loved their life in the islands—so much so that they ignored the war clouds and were still there on Dec. 7, 1941. As a result, they and my mother spent the war in a very unpleasant internment camp, just like the one in Empire of the Sun.

That was the biggest problem with America's Philippines empire: Its acquisition put us on a collision course with Japan that led directly to Pearl Harbor. Hawaii was merely raided; the Philippines were invaded and conquered, the worst defeat ever suffered by an American Army. The surrender of Bataan and Corregidor was a searing national humiliation. Then came the infamous Death March, and MacArthur's "I shall return" vow. In due course he waded ashore at Leyte, as pictured in the famous photograph. What followed was the biggest U.S. land campaign of the Pacific war. Thousands of GIs died to recapture an empire Congress already had decided to abandon.

Click to enlarge photo

The surviving Bataan POWs were rescued in the commando raid celebrated by Hampton Sides in Ghost Soldiers. Less well-remembered are the thousands of U.S. civilian captives who were on the verge of starvation when they, too, were rescued by GIs, in a daring mission into the heart of occupied Manila. A photograph in the Time-Life book Return to the Philippines shows my grandfather among a crowd of liberated internees, all gazing adoringly at MacArthur.

That was pretty much the end of America's grand colonial experiment. Manila was destroyed in the battle to retake it from the Japanese. There was little to stay for, so the Kernses and their fellow internees were shipped home to San Francisco on troop transports. They got a nice welcome but nothing spectacular. Ex-colonials were old news in 1945—especially in San Francisco, then getting ready to host the conference that would establish the United Nations, set up by the United States to lead the world into a post-colonial future. (Unilateralists in those days were almost as scarce as imperialists.) The Philippines got their independence right on schedule in 1946. We kept some military bases, but the notion of formal empire was abandoned, and the American Raj in the Philippines was dismantled. Then it was forgotten.