Special Contributor

Published: 06 February 2012 10:08 AM

The Spanish-American War helped make Theodore Roosevelt a national icon. The hero of San Juan Hill was placed on the Republican Party ticket as the vice presidential candidate in 1900. And when President William McKinley was assassinated, TR emerged as the youngest president in U.S. history. Ironically, much of his early days as president was spent dealing with the ugly aftermath of America’s imperial foray.

In Honor in the Dust, former Dallas Morning News reporter Gregg Jones tells the unhappy story of Roosevelt’s handling of the insurrection in the Philippines. In the late 19th century while European empires competed in the “scramble for Africa,” America found itself fighting Spain for control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

After America’s triumph in the war, McKinley agonized over what to do with the Philippines. In the end, he decided to annex the islands and “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them …” Still, he did so with great caution.

Not so his successor. Roosevelt viewed imperial responsibility as an honor to uphold, not a burden to carry. But occupations seldom end well. In the Philippines, a spirited resistance was waged by Filipinos who failed to see the benefit of trading Spanish occupiers for American ones.

The guerrilla attacks sparked a fierce response from the American military. Soon, reports of atrocities committed by American troops began making news. And Roosevelt found himself performing damage control.

The war crimes story dominated the news cycle and galvanized a national debate. No less a source than Mark Twain sarcastically tried to defend the president’s position by writing: “There have been lies, yes, but they were told in a good cause.”

Initially, Roosevelt defended the acts as part of America’s colonial duty. Yes, the perpetrators should be punished, but “to withdraw from the contest for civilization because of the fact that there are attendant cruelties, is, in my opinion, utterly unworthy of a great people.”

But Roosevelt soon learned the limits of damage control. The media soon reported on an order given by Gen. Jake Smith to “kill and burn” and make a particular Filipino city a “howling wilderness!” The public was outraged. TR began to shift slightly and condemned “the use of unnecessary harsh measures by Army officers in dealing with Filipinos.” Finally, as news reports of atrocities continued to mount, the president called for an investigation to “know in the fullest and most circumstantial manner all the facts.”

Eventually, TR even fired Smith. The man who led the charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill now found himself leading a retreat on the occupation of the Philippines.

Though American rule would continue in the Philippines for another 40 years, the congressional investigations and media coverage of war crimes helped bring an end to America’s imperial thirst. The American people were made aware that expansion often brings abuse. And for most Americans, that was a price too high to pay. For the most part, American imperialism began and ended with the Spanish-American War and its aftermath.

Honor in the Dust is a lively, documented narrative about an important but often neglected story in American history. Though it was not Roosevelt’s finest hour, it was an important one that should not be forgotten.

Kasey S. Pipes serves as the Norris Senior Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College and wrote “Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality.”


Plan your life

Gregg Jones will speak Tuesday at the Rosewood Crescent Hotel, 400 Crescent Court, Dallas. Reception is 6:30 p.m.; program begins at 7 p.m.

Tickets, $20-$35, are available from World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth, www.dfwworld.org.

Honor in the Dust

Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream

Gregg Jones

(New American Library, $26.95)