I wrote this script for Frontier Media’s YouTube channel The Front in 2022. I did not write the title or thumbnail. As of November 2022, the video has gained over 270k views.


When you think of the Philippines in the context of World War II, you might see American General Douglas MacArthur marching onto that beach on Leyte with an avenging force of American and Filipino soldiers in tow.

If we fix our scope on this phase of the war, namely the 1944 to 1945 Philippines campaign, we might surmise that the Americans were fighting for the liberation of their Filipino brothers, whose islands had been subjected to a sadistic Japanese occupation since mid-1942. Sure, a great many Americans and Filipinos fought side by side against a common enemy during the Second World War, but that didn’t mean they were stalwart friends. In fact, the United States and the Philippines have, to say the least, a rather turbulent history.

In this video, we shed some light on Filipino–American relations in the early years of the 20th century, focusing on American and Filipino atrocities committed in the Philippine–American War.

The Philippine–American War

From 1565 to 1898, the Philippines were under the thumb of the Spanish Empire. From August 1896 to June 1898, Filipino revolutionaries fought against the Spanish in what was known as the Philippine Revolution or Tagalog War. Concurrently, the Spanish Empire and the Americans were at each other’s throats, so it was only natural that the Americans involved themselves in the conflict taking place in the Philippines, providing support to the revolutionaries.

After the Filipinos and Americans defeated the Spanish, the US and Spain signed a treaty in Paris, ending the Spanish–American War. This treaty stipulated that Spain had to give the Philippines to the US. To sweeten the deal, the US gave Spain 20 million bucks, essentially buying the Philippines from Spain.

If the Filipinos thought the Spanish sucked, they were in for a surprise.

After the Spanish defeat, Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo established the First Philippine Republic, with himself as president, but the Americans weren’t having a bar of it; they’d already mailed the cheque. This understandably caused a bit of tension, and by February 1899, a full-blown war had broken out between the Filipinos and, in quotation marks, “the new proprietors of the Philippine Islands.”

This was the Philippine–American War.

America’s game plan with the Filipinos was one of, quote, “benevolent assimilation” — because those two words clearly go hand in hand.

According to Andrew Clem’s article The Filipino Genocide, published in the journal Historical Perspectives {On-screen text: Santa Clara University Undergraduate Journal of History, Series II: Vol. 21}, the occupying Americans were prejudiced against the Filipinos, dehumanising them with racial slurs. In Clem’s words, “The ideas about racial differences were ideally suited for the goal of annexing the Philippines: the United States needed to either bring the Filipinos into the fold or remove them from the islands.”

One of the more “benevolent” ways the Americans “brought them into the fold” was through education, with white teachers, mostly women, coming to the Philippines to educate the next generation in American ways. When the fighting started, however, the US took off its gloves.

Funnily enough, it was General Douglas MacArthur’s daddy, Arthur MacArthur who first marched American troops against the forces of the Philippine Republic. This was in the 1899 Battle of Manila, waged on the 4th and 5th of February between 19,000 US troops and as many as 40,000 Filipino troops. The Americans won, and it was raw brutality from that point forward, with Filipino bolo knives, spears, and bows, going up against the fearsome US war machine.

American atrocities

The Philippine Republic learnt quite quickly, however, that a conventional approach wouldn’t work. Instead, they opted to fight a guerrilla war. This bogged the conflict right down, as it was now harder for the US to distinguish combatants from civilians. Soon, they stopped trying to distinguish them. American Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith’s instructions to one of his officers summarised America’s new war strategy:

“I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.”

And if you were wondering, the brigadier general deemed anyone over the age of 10 “capable of bearing arms.” More conservative estimates suggest that between 200,000 and 250,000 died from violence, famine, and disease, while some sources put that figure as high as a million {On-screen text: As for Filipino soldiers, it’s estimated that somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 lost their lives.}.

Many of these people died in American concentration camps encircled by free-fire zones, which were aptly nicknamed “suburbs of hell.” According to the aforementioned Clem, “The ‘dead line’ surrounding the camp kept all the natives in check and prevented them from leaving on the threat of death.” Outside of these disease-ridden camps, American troops forced Filipinos to evacuate their homes or watch them burn. In the words of one E. D. Furnam, of the Washington Regiment, “We burned hundreds of houses and looted hundreds more.” This was, apparently, an initiative to counter guerrilla warfare, as was torturing captured men for intel.

One method of torture was unsurpassed in its infamy during the Philippine–American War. This was the dreaded water cure. A. F. Miller, of the 32nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment, explained this method of torture in a letter later published in the Omaha World-Herald:

“Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of [salt] water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up [the information] pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.”

Filipino atrocities

Some American troops believed their actions were justified, however—brutality in answer to brutality. According to a letter written by an anonymous soldier from New York:

“Last night one of our boys was found shot and his stomach cut open. Immediately orders were received to burn the town and kill every native in sight. About 1,000 men, women and children were reported killed. I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.”

The aforementioned Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith supposedly gave his “I want no prisoners” order in retaliation to a Filipino atrocity, as well. On the 28th of September 1901, in the town of Balangiga on Samar Island, a force of Filipino civilians attacked and massacred 48 American troops who had been stationed there, relatively peacefully, for over a month. According to Joseph L. Schott, author of The Ordeal of Samar, “The native laborers suddenly turned on the soldiers and began chopping at them with bolos, picks and shovels. The mess tents, filled with soldiers peacefully at breakfast, had been one of the prime targets.”

Dean C. Worcester, the Secretary of the Interior of the Philippine Islands, depicted one especially gruesome atrocity committed by the Filipinos in his book The Philippines Past and Present:

“[One] American prisoner had been buried in the ground with only his head projecting. His mouth had been propped open with a stick, a trail of sugar laid to it through the forest, and a handful thrown into it. Millions of ants had done the rest.”


With both sides committing atrocities such as those few we discussed, among countless more, we can safely say that the Philippine–American War, won by the US in July 1902, left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. It would ultimately take a world war to push the Philippines’ struggle for independence over the line, but that war, namely World War II, was still some 37 years away. Those in-between years weren’t a walk in the park, and there’s plenty of history in there to bring to light, such as the bloody Moro Rebellion, which we may just cover in a future video. For now, a quote from one F.A. Blake, a Californian Red Cross worker who found himself in the Philippines during the Philippine–American War:

“I never saw such execution in my life. The Filipinos did stand their ground heroically, contesting every inch, but proved themselves unable to stand the deadly fire of our well-trained and eager boys in blue.”

So, did you know the Philippine–American War—which the aforementioned Clem deemed a “twentieth-century genocide”—was that bloody? How do you think Filipino–American relations were between the end of the conflict and Philippine independence in 1946? Can you think of any other atrocities committed by either side? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.