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1898 One Hundred Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

The White Man’s Burden

When an armistice ended the Spanish-American War on August 12, the United States found itself with three major new territories obtained in three different ways. The first was Hawaii, annexed on July 7 with the President’s signature on a joint congressional resolution. The islands, controlled by a friendly American-installed government, had shown their value as a naval base, and in the exhilaration of impending victory over Spain, America took up a long-standing offer to absorb them. Next came Puerto Rico, which was invaded in late July and conquered over light resistance with the war winding down. (Theodore Roosevelt had written to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge: “Give my best love to Nannie and do not make peace until we get Porto Rico.”) Then there were the Philippines, which fell into America’s lap in a nineteenth-century example of mission creep: After Admiral Dewey’s sinking of the Spanish fleet there on May 1, it became necessary to secure Manila Harbor to protect and supply his ships, and security concerns eventually dictated occupation of the entire archipelago.

Nearby Puerto Rico aroused the least antagonism. The New York Times endorsed “keeping it for all time” while discouraging “doubtful experiments at self-government” by its residents. A fastidious Harper’s Weekly correspondent limited himself to mild criticism of the Puerto Ricans’ grooming habits (“Bad soap is found everywhere. . . . One seldom sees manicure sets. . .”), and the publication briefly tried calling the island’s capital St. John.

Faraway Hawaii and the Philippines elicited much more opposition, with racial considerations playing a large part. Harper’s was so fond of Europe and its people that when war broke out, it could barely admit that Spain was part of the continent: “The Spaniards are the last remnants of white barbarians, and, like their prototypes of the Middle Ages, whom they closely resemble, they have the savage instincts and methods that are found nowhere else in civilized Europe in this nineteenth century except in Turkey, and, with the exception of Spain and Turkey, are found only among the uncivilized red men of the remote regions of our own continent, and the brown and black and yellow men of Africa and Asia.”

When the Senate vote on Hawaii approached, though, Harper’s suddenly developed a sympathy for nonwhite peoples: “Say what we will against black and brown and yellow men, it has never before been contended that it is in accordance with the spirit of our institutions to seize their lands and to put them under the rule of our President or our Congress.” This time around, the color red was carefully omitted.

The New York Times was blunter: “We have opposed annexation [of Hawaii] … because we did not at all like this new brand of Americans, the least pleasant to sit with at table or in church of any human beings we could find on the habitable globe.” It stressed the need to send competent colonial officials since “there can be no voting there—in this case we must govern without the consent of the governed.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch agreed: “The majority of the Hawaiian people are hopeless barbarians, utterly incapable of self-government and unable even to understand the notion of ordered freedom.”

As for the Philippines, some Americans wondered why we had to subjugate 8 million Filipinos in order to liberate 1.6 million Cubans. But it was unthinkable to hand the islands back to Spain, and even more so to leave the locals in charge. After all, the New York Tribune pointed out: “Cannibals govern themselves. The half-ape creatures of the Australian bush govern themselves. The Eskimo governs himself and so do the wildest tribes of Darkest Africa. But what kind of government is it?” And Harper’s explained: “The Filipino is the true child of the east. His moral fibre is as flimsy as the web of the pineapple gauze of which the women make their dresses. He will cheat, steal, and lie beyond the orthodox limit of the Anglo-Saxon. His unreliability and the persistency with which he disobeys orders are irritating beyond description; besides this, his small stature and color invite abuse.” Thus did America, not without reluctance, take up “the white man’s burden.” The experiment would end in independence for the Philippines in 1946 and statehood for Hawaii in 1959, with Puerto Rico’s final status still to be determined.

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