Gregg Jones opens “Honor in the Dust’’ with a prologue describing the harsh treatment of Philippine rebel Joveniano Ealdama at the hands of American interrogators. He was subjected to what is now called waterboarding but was in November of 1900 known as the “water cure’’ or the “water torture,’’ and Jones leaves no doubt that it was widely considered to be torture.
Then as now, there were those who did not agree and, then as now, they were usually the ones who administered, or approved the administering of, the treatment. The water cure is a continuous thread in the central theme of “Honor in the Dust,’’ which is the national debate at the time over whether the United States was right to seek an empire and whether it was doing so in an honorable manner.
Jones, a journalist, has produced a deeply researched, well-written addition to the crowded shelves of histories about the Spanish-American War and the William McKinley-Theodore Roosevelt era in international affairs. “Honor in the Dust’’ combines a fast-moving narrative of the military campaigns in Cuba and the Philippines with an examination of the political disputes behind US actions.
Roosevelt, of course, is front and center. Upon President McKinley’s assassination in 1901, he took over with relish the management of imperial aspirations that, as assistant secretary of the Navy and then vice president, he had done so much to encourage in the face of McKinley’s initial doubts.
Roosevelt liked nothing better than biffing those he thought did not measure up to his and America’s high moral tone, especially if he could do it personally, which he did by stepping out of his civilian Navy role to don an Army uniform and lead his Rough Riders at San Juan Hill in Cuba.
In an atmosphere of white-hot jingoism, the grand justification of Roosevelt and imperialists like Albert J. Beveridge and Henry Cabot Lodge was that America, taking up the “white man’s burden,’’ would relieve the poor dark-skinned peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines of their oppression under decadent and tyrannical Spain and lead them by example into democracy and freedom. If thereby the nation’s merchants gained access to new markets and sources of raw materials, so much the better.
Others, including most Democrats, were not so eager nor so certain it would be as easy as the imperialists maintained. To a large extent the naysayers were proved right, as Jones shows US troops in the Philippines quickly becoming bogged down in something like what would in another war six decades later be called a “quagmire.’’
Filipinos, perversely, were not universally happy to be liberated. The viciousness of resistance fighters was reciprocated by the Americans.
Atrocities mounted on both sides. Those by American troops, of which the water cure was the most frequent but hardly the most horrible, were widely condemned by imperialism’s opponents at home and alternately denied and defended by Roosevelt and the Republicans.
Mark Twain was a vocal opponent. Jones quotes his criticism, though not Twain’s famous, fiery reference to American soldiers as “our uniformed assassins’’ and his description of killing “six hundred helpless and weaponless’’ natives as “a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there.’’
The author writes that McKinley’s promise to the Filipinos of liberty and “benevolent assimilation’’ had, in two years, turned into its exact opposite. Though Filipino resistance eventually was broken, it was done, as newspapers of the time reported, by committing the same practices that Roosevelt and his supporters had condemned as “iniquities’’ when committed by Spain.
The American public, Jones writes, remained largely indifferent to abuses of a people 8,000 miles away. Accusations of war crimes rose to the level of scandal, but trials by court-martial acquitted officers of all but the most minor charges. Republicans suffered some losses in the 1902 congressional elections but retained their majorities.
Roosevelt went on to leave enduring marks in the field of foreign affairs, but abandoned any extension of American empire. In his 600-page autobiography he mentions the Philippines only six times and the war-crimes issue not at all.Roger K. Miller’s third book, “The Chenango Kid: A Memoir of the Fifties,’’ will be published later this year. He can be reached at email@example.com.