Race-Making and Colonial Violence in the U.S. Empire: The Philippine-American War as Race War

TitleRace-Making and Colonial Violence in the U.S. Empire: The Philippine-American War as Race War
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2006
AuthorsKramer, Paul A.
JournalDiplomatic History
Date Published04/2006

Speaking on May 4, 1902 at the newly-opened Arlington Cemetery, in the first Memorial Day address there by a U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt placed colonial violence at the heart of American nation-building. In a speech before an estimated thirty thousand people, brimming with “indignation in every word and every gesture,” Roosevelt inaugurated the Cemetery as a landscape of national sacrifice by justifying an ongoing colonial war in the Philippines, where brutalities by U.S. troops had led to widespread debate in the United States. He did so by casting the conflict as a race war. Upon this “small but peculiarly trying and difficult war” turned “not only the honor of the flag” but “the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism." Roosevelt acknowledged and expressed regret for U.S. abuses but claimed that for every American atrocity, "a very cruel and very treacherous enemy" had committed "a hundred acts of far greater atrocity." Furthermore, while such means had been the Filipinos' "only method of carrying on the war," they had been "wholly exceptional on our part." The noble, universal ends of a war for civilization justified its often unsavory means. "The warfare that has extended the boundaries of civilization at the expense of barbarism and savagery has been for centuries one of the most potent factors in the progress of humanity," he asserted, but “from its very nature it has always and everywhere been liable to dark abuses. As did Roosevelt, this essay explores the Philippine-American War as race war: a war rationalized in racial terms before U.S. publics, one in which U.S. soldiers came to understand Filipino combatants and noncombatants in racial terms, and one in which race played a key role in bounding and unbounding American violence against Filipinos.

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