Selling Empire: American Propaganda and War in the Philippines [The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus]

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 40, No. 1, October 7, 2013.

Selling Empire: American Propaganda and War in the Philippines

Susan Brewer

At the turn of the twentieth century, Americans and Filipinos fought bitterly for control of the Philippine Islands. The United States viewed the Pacific islands as a stepping-stone to the markets and natural resources of Asia. The Philippines, which had belonged to Spain for three hundred years, wanted independence, not another imperial ruler. For the Americans, the acquisition of a colony thousands of miles from its shores required a break with their anti-imperial traditions. To justify such a break, the administration of William McKinley proclaimed that its policies benefited both Americans and Filipinos by advancing freedom, Christian benevolence, and prosperity. Most of the Congress, the press, and the public rallied to the flag, embracing the war as a patriotic adventure and civilizing mission. Dissent, however, flourished among a minority called anti-imperialists. Setting precedents for all wartime presidents who would follow, McKinley enhanced the power of the chief executive to build a public consensus in support of an expansionist foreign policy.1

This article explores McKinley’s use of wartime propaganda extolling national progress and unity to aid his successful navigation of the transition of the United States to great power status. The president and his supporters did not portray the United States as an imperial power in the European manner. To win support for far-reaching changes in foreign policy, McKinley explained overseas expansion in terms of American traditions and drew on familiar themes from the past. The last Civil War veteran to serve as president, he celebrated the coming together of the North and South to fight a common enemy. He portrayed American expansion in the Pacific as a continuation of manifest destiny. He compared the Filipinos to Native Americans, calling them savage warriors or “little brown brothers.” Appealing to popular attitudes of the times, he encouraged Americans to fulfill their manly duty to spread Christian civilization. The United States, he asserted, was a liberator, not a conqueror.2

To rally support for his policy, the McKinley administration mastered the latest communication technology to shape the portrayal of the war by the media of the day. McKinley was the first to have his inauguration filmed and to have a secretary who met daily with the press, “for a kind of family talk,” as journalist Ida Tarbell put it. Reporters were provided with a table and chairs in the outer-reception room of the Executive Mansion where they could chat with important visitors and even the president if he approached them first. McKinley paid special attention to the representatives of the wire services, the news agencies that sent syndicated stories by telegraph to subscribing newspapers across the country. The president’s staff, which grew from six to eighty, monitored public opinion by studying daily hundreds of newspapers from around the country. To make sure that reporters accurately conveyed the president’s views, his staff issued press releases, timing the distribution so that reporters on deadline filed only the administration’s version of the story. Through news management, the McKinley administration disseminated war propaganda based on facts, lies, ideas, patriotic symbols, and emotional appeals.3

In contrast to the more rambunctious expansionists of the day, the genial McKinley exuded calm and dignity. As noted by his contemporary, the British historian and diplomat James Bryce, American leaders put considerable effort into leading opinion while appearing to follow it. The president spoke publicly of America’s expanded influence in the Caribbean and the Pacific as though it had happened by chance or been willed by God. His actions, however, made the acquisition of an empire no accident. In addition, his public position of passivity made it difficult for critics to challenge his policies until they were well under way. McKinley, observed the astute Henry Adams, a grandson and great-grandson of presidents, was “a marvelous manager of men.” While politicians, members of the press, and military men freely expressed their criticisms of U.S. policy, the president and his fellow expansionists took the country to war with Spain, built a consensus for keeping the Philippines, and maintained support for waging war against Filipinos who fought for their independence. In doing so, they constructed a persuasive version of U.S. policy in the Philippines as a “divine mission” that not only disguised the realities of war and conquest, but also would serve in years to come as an example of America’s commitment to spreading freedom [sic]…4

[The result in the Philippines was the first of many US-perpetrated genocides abroad – Zuo Shou]

Full article link:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: