Philippines Table of Contents

Outbreak of War, 1898

Spain's rule in the Philippines came to an end as a result of United States involvement with Spain's other major colony, Cuba. American business interests were anxious for a resolution--with or without Spain--of the insurrection that had broken out in Cuba in February 1895. Moreover, public opinion in the United States had been aroused by newspaper accounts of the brutalities of Spanish rule. When the United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898, acting Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt ordered Commodore George Dewey, commander of the Asiatic Squadron, to sail to the Philippines and destroy the Spanish fleet anchored in Manila Bay. The Spanish navy, which had seen its apogee in the support of a global empire in the sixteenth century, suffered an inglorious defeat on May 1, 1898, as Spain's antiquated fleet, including ships with wooden hulls, was sunk by the guns of Dewey's flagship, the Olympia, and other United States warships. More than 380 Spanish sailors died, but there was only one American fatality.

As Spain and the United States had moved toward war over Cuba in the last months of 1897, negotiations of a highly tentative nature began between United States officials and Aguinaldo in both Hong Kong and Singapore. When war was declared, Aguinaldo, a partner, if not an ally, of the United States, was urged by Dewey to return to the islands as quickly as possible. Arriving in Manila on May 19, Aguinaldo reassumed command of rebel forces. Insurrectionists overwhelmed demoralized Spanish garrisons around the capital, and links were established with other movements throughout the islands.

In the eyes of the Filipinos, their relationship with the United States was that of two nations joined in a common struggle against Spain. As allies, the Filipinos provided American forces with valuable intelligence (e.g., that the Spanish had no mines or torpedoes with which to sink warships entering Manila Bay), and Aguinaldo's 12,000 troops kept a slightly larger Spanish force bottled up inside Manila until American troop reinforcements could arrive from San Francisco in late June. Aguinaldo was unhappy, however, that the United States would not commit to paper a statement of support for Philippine independence.

By late May, the United States Department of the Navy had ordered Dewey, newly promoted to Admiral, to distance himself from Aguinaldo lest he make untoward commitments to the Philippine forces. The war with Spain still was going on, and the future of the Philippines remained uncertain. The immediate objective was to capture Manila, and it was thought best to do that without the assistance of the insurgents. By late July, there were some 12,000 United States troops in the area, and relations between them and rebel forces deteriorated rapidly.

By the summer of 1898, Manila had become the focus not only of the Spanish-American conflict and the growing suspicions between the Americans and Filipino rebels but also of a rivalry that encompassed the European powers. Following Dewey's victory, Manila Bay was filled with the warships of Britain, Germany, France, and Japan. The German fleet of eight ships, ostensibly in Philippine waters to protect German interests (a single import firm), acted provocatively--cutting in front of United States ships, refusing to salute the United States flag (according to naval courtesy), taking soundings of the harbor, and landing supplies for the besieged Spanish. Germany, hungry for the ultimate status symbol, a colonial empire, was eager to take advantage of whatever opportunities the conflict in the islands might afford. Dewey called the bluff of the German admiral, threatening a fight if his aggressive activities continued, and the Germans backed down.

The Spanish cause was doomed, but Fermín Jaudenes, Spain's last governor in the islands, had to devise a way to salvage the honor of his country. Negotiations were carried out through British and Belgian diplomatic intermediaries. A secret agreement was made between the governor and United States military commanders in early August 1898 concerning the capture of Manila. In their assault, American forces would neither bombard the city nor allow the insurgents to take part (the Spanish feared that the Filipinos were plotting to massacre them all). The Spanish, in turn, would put up only a show of resistance and, on a prearranged signal, would surrender. In this way, the governor would be spared the ignominy of giving up without a fight, and both sides would be spared casualties. The mock battle was staged on August 13. The attackers rushed in, and by afternoon the United States flag was flying over Intramuros, the ancient walled city that had been the seat of Spanish power for over 300 years.

The agreement between Jaudenes and Dewey marked a curious reversal of roles. At the beginning of the war, Americans and Filipinos had been allies against Spain in all but name; now Spanish and Americans were in a partnership that excluded the insurgents. Fighting between American and Filipino troops almost broke out as the former moved in to dislodge the latter from strategic positions around Manila on the eve of the attack. Aguinaldo was told bluntly by the Americans that his army could not participate and would be fired upon if it crossed into the city. The insurgents were infuriated at being denied triumphant entry into their own capital, but Aguinaldo bided his time. Relations continued to deteriorate, however, as it became clear to Filipinos that the Americans were in the islands to stay.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress