The Concentration Camps of America’s Forgotten War

Kurz and Allison print of the Battle of Quingua, April 23, 1899.

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

Why you should care

Because the best-laid counterinsurgency plans of mice and men can often go awry.

Democracy or hypocrisy? In this series, “American Hypo-cracy,” OZY looks at America’s lengthy struggle to live up to its lofty ideals by exploring some of the uglier episodes in its past that are often overlooked by the history books. Read more.

On Nov. 19, 1900, the Philadelphia Ledger ran a story on the front page that contained a damning account of American military conduct in the then ongoing fight to subdue a growing insurgency in the Philippines.  

Life 05 22 1902

Cartoon depicting the application of the water curing by U.S. Army troops in the Philippines.

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

“Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to ‘make them talk,’ have taken prisoner people who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered,” the article reported, “and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show that they were even insurrectos [rebels], stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop into the water below.”

But this was no indictment of U.S. brutality or overreach. The story went on to defend such tactics. “It is not civilized warfare, but we are not dealing with a civilized people,” the article read.

America’s war with the Philippines at the end of the 19th century receives little attention in most history books, even if it remains a favorite topic of current Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte. What U.S. forces did to subdue the nation’s rebel insurgents and end the conflict — including acts of torture and civilian concentration camps — remains a fairly misunderstood, not to mention contentious, issue.

One camp commandant referred to them as the “suburbs of hell.”

When the Spanish island colony of the Philippines fell into America’s lap after the Spanish-American War in 1898, U.S. leaders, including President William McKinley, were uncertain what to do with it. “Widespread racist assumptions led many American leaders to believe the Filipinos could not govern themselves,” says historian John M. Gates, an emeritus professor at the College of Wooster, and the U.S. could also not risk “letting the Philippines fall into the hands of another power such as Japan or Germany.”

Editorial cartoon about jacob smith's retaliation for balangiga

Enraged by a guerrilla massacre of U.S. troops on the island of Samar, Gen. Jacob H. Smith retaliated by carrying out an indiscriminate attack upon its inhabitants.

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

And so the U.S. began the formidable process of what McKinley called the “benevolent assimilation” of the islands into U.S. dominion. Having thrown off the yoke of one colonial power, Spain, many Filipinos were not ready to wear another. A Filipino rebel army of close to 100,000 led by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo attempted to challenge the occupying Americans in conventional battle, but soon found their bolo knives, spears and other primitive weapons were no match for the U.S. war machine. And so in 1900, the rebels changed strategy, embarking on a massive guerrilla campaign.


In response, American military leaders — in coordination with the future president, William Howard Taft, then the U.S. civil administrator of the islands — changed course as well, instituting a pacification campaign that combined several counterinsurgency tactics. Insurgent fighters captured by U.S. forces were dealt with swiftly through deportation, imprisonment or execution, while tens of thousands of civilians were herded into “zones of protection” to protect them and prevent them from joining guerrilla bands. These “reconcentrados,” or concentration camps, were crowded and filled with disease; as the frustrations of guerrilla warfare grew, many U.S. fighters resorted to some of the brutal retaliatory measures reported in the Ledger. One camp commandant referred to them as the “suburbs of hell.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that around 20,000 Filipino and 4,000 U.S. combatants died in the fighting in the Philippines, and as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died as a result of violence, famine and disease, with most losses attributable to a cholera epidemic near the end of the war. “The U.S. conquest of the Philippines,” Stanley Karnow claims in In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, reflecting a common view of historians, “had been as cruel as any conflict in the annals of imperialism.”  


A late-19th-century photograph of Filipino Katipuneros.

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

Gates says such a view is exaggerated, and that focusing on the deplorable acts of brutality committed by some Americans during parts of the war misses the bigger picture of how U.S. military operations helped Filipinos improve sanitary conditions as well as schools and local governments. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in the Philippines, unlike those in later wars, largely worked. “Kept off balance, short of supplies and in continuous flight from the army,” Gates writes of the pacification efforts, “many guerrilla bands, suffering from sickness, hunger and decreasing popular support, lost their will to fight.”

The war in the Philippines officially ended in July 1902, but the nation would not be granted independence until 1946. Whatever you think of the motivation or effectiveness of the U.S. counterinsurgency tactics, the dark episode, along with future efforts in places like Vietnam and Iraq, provides another stark example of how America has struggled to translate its lofty rhetoric — for nation building, or “benevolent assimilation” — into reality when it comes to the messiness of armed conflict.  

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