Philippine-American War: Causes and Consequences

Rebel soldiers who fought in the Philippine-American War
Rebel soldiers who fought in the Philippine-American War. Fotosearch/Getty Images

The Philippine-American War was an armed conflict fought from February 4, 1899 to July 2, 1902 between forces of the United States and Filipino revolutionaries led by President Emilio Aguinaldo. While the United States viewed the conflict as an insurrection standing in the way of extending its “manifest destiny” influence across the Pacific Ocean, Filipinos saw it as a continuation of their decades-long fight for independence from foreign rule. More than 4,200 American and 20,000 Filipino soldiers died in the bloody, atrocity-plagued war, while as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence, famine, and disease.

Fast Facts: Philippine-American War

  • Short Description: While the Philippine-American War temporarily gave the United States colonial control of the Philippines, it ultimately brought about the final independence of the Philippines from foreign rule.
  • Key Participants: United States Army, Philippines Insurgency forces, Philippine President Emilio Aguinaldo, U.S. President William McKinley, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt
  • Event Start Date: February 4, 1899
  • Event End Date: July 2, 1902
  • Other Significant Dates: February 5, 1902, U.S. victory in the Battle of Manilla proves the turning point of the war; spring 1902, most hostilities end; July 4, 1946, Philippines independence declared
  • Location: The Philippine Islands
  • Casualties (Estimated): 20,000 Filipino revolutionaries and 4,200 American soldiers were killed in combat. 200,000 Filipino civilians died from disease, starvation, or violence.

Causes of the War

Since 1896, the Philippines had been struggling to gain its independence from Spain in the Philippine Revolution. In 1898, the United States intervened by defeating Spain in the Philippines and Cuba in the Spanish-American War. Signed on December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War and allowed the United States to purchase the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.

Going into the Spanish-American War, U.S. President William McKinley had planned to seize most if not all of the Philippines during the fighting, then “keep what we want” in the peace settlement. Like many others in his administration, McKinley believed the Filipino people would be unable to govern themselves and would be better off as an American-controlled protectorate or colony.

However, capturing the Philippines proved far easier than governing it. Made up of some 7,100 islands located more than 8,500 miles from Washington, D.C., the Philippine archipelago had an estimated population of 8 million by 1898. With victory in the Spanish-American War having come so quickly, the McKinley administration had failed to adequately plan for the reaction of the Filipino people to yet another foreign ruler.

Filipino Officers by Hut During Philippine Insurrection
Filipino officers by hut during Philippine insurrection. Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

In defiance of the Treaty of Paris, Filipino nationalist troops continued to control all of the Philippines except the capital city of Manila. Having just fought their bloody revolution against Spain, they had no intention of allowing the Philippines to become a colony of what they considered to be another imperialistic power—the United States.

In the United States, the decision to annex the Philippines was far from universally accepted. Americans who favored the move cited a variety of reasons for doing so: an opportunity to establish a greater U.S. commercial presence in Asia, concerns that Filipinos were incapable of governing themselves, and fears that Germany or Japan might otherwise take control of the Philippines, thus gaining a strategic advantage in the Pacific. Opposition to U.S. colonial rule of the Philippines came from those who felt colonialism itself was morally wrong, while some feared that annexation might eventually enable nonwhite Filipinos to play a role in the U.S. government. Others simply opposed the policies and actions of President McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901 and replaced by President Theodore Roosevelt.

How the War Was Waged

On February 4-5, 1899, the first and largest battle of the Philippine-American War, the Battle of Manila, was fought between 15,000 armed Filipino militiamen commanded by Philippine President Emilio Aguinaldo and 19,000 U.S. soldiers under Army General Elwell Stephen Otis.

Nighttime view of the burning of Manila, with Filipino houses going up in flames
Nighttime view of the burning of Manila, with Filipino houses going up in flames. Interim Archives/Getty Images

The battle began on the evening of February 4, when U.S. troops, though ordered only to passively patrol and protect their camp, opened fire on a nearby group of Filipinos. Two Filipino soldiers, who some Filipino historians claim had been unarmed, were killed. Hours later, Filipino General Isidoro Torres informed U.S. General Otis that Philippine President Aguinaldo was offering to declare a ceasefire. General Otis, however, rejected the offer, telling Torres, “The fighting, having begun, must go on to the grim end.” A full-scale armed battle ensued on the morning of February 5, after U.S. Brigadier General Arthur MacArthur ordered U.S. troops to attack Filipino troops.

What turned out to be the bloodiest battle of the war ended late on February 5 with a decisive American victory. According to the U.S. Army’s report, 44 Americans were killed, with another 194 wounded. Filipino casualties were estimated at 700 killed and 3,300 wounded.

The balance of the Philippine-American War was waged in two phases during which Filipino commanders applied different strategies. From February to November of 1899, Aguinaldo’s forces, though greatly outnumbered, tried unsuccessfully to wage a conventional battlefield war against more heavily armed and better trained U.S. troops. During the war’s second tactical phase, Filipino troops employed a hit-and-run style of guerrilla warfare. Highlighted by the U.S. capture of President Aguinaldo in 1901, the guerrilla phase of the war extended into the spring of 1902, when most armed Filipino resistance ended.

Aguinaldo [seated 3rd from right] and other Philippines Insurgent leaders
Aguinaldo [seated 3rd from right] and other Philippines Insurgent leaders. Corbis/Getty Images

Throughout the war, the better trained and equipped United States military held an almost insurmountable military advantage. With a constant supply of equipment and manpower, the U.S. Army controlled the Philippine archipelago’s waterways, which served as the Filipino insurgents’ main supply routes. At the same time, the inability of the Filipino insurgency to gain any international support for their cause resulted in constant shortages of arms and ammunition. In the final analysis, Aguinaldo’s instance on fighting a conventional war against the U.S. during the first months of the conflict proved to have been a fatal mistake. By the time it switched to potentially more effective guerrilla tactics, the Filipino Army had suffered losses from which it could never recover.

In an action symbolically taken on Independence Day, July 4, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Philippine-American War over and granted a general amnesty to all Filipino insurgency leaders, combatants, and civilian participants. 

Casualties and Atrocities

While relatively short compared to past and future wars, the Philippine-American War was especially bloody and brutal. An estimated 20,000 Filipino revolutionaries and 4,200 American soldiers died in combat. Also, as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from starvation or disease or were killed as “collateral damage” during battles. Other estimates placed total deaths as high as 6,000 Americans and 300,000 Filipinos.

American troops find three dead comrades at the side of a road during the Philippine-American War, circa 1900
American troops find three dead comrades at the side of a road during the Philippine-American War, circa 1900. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Especially during the latter stages of the fighting, the war was marked by reports of torture and other atrocities committed by both sides. While Filipino guerillas tortured captured American soldiers and terrorized Filipino civilians who sided with the Americans, U.S. forces tortured suspected guerrillas, torched villages, and forced villagers into concentration camps originally built by Spain.

Philippine Independence

As the first war of America’s “imperialistic period,” the Philippine-American War marked the beginning of a nearly 50-year period of U.S. involvement in the Philippines. Through its victory, the United States gained a strategically located colonial base for its commercial and military interests in the Asian-Pacific region.

From the beginning, U.S. presidential administrations had assumed that the Philippines would eventually be granted full independence. In this sense, they considered the role of the U.S. occupation there to be one of preparing—or teaching—the Filipino people how to govern themselves through an American-style democracy.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. Congress promised the residents of the Philippine Islands independence and began turning over some authority to Filipino leaders by establishing a democratically elected Philippine Senate. In March 1934, the U.S. Congress, at the recommendation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, enacted the Tydings-McDuffie Act (the Philippine Independence Act) that created a self-governing Philippine Commonwealth, with Manuel L. Quezon as its first elected president. While the actions of the Commonwealth’s legislature still required the approval of the President of the United States, the Philippines was now well on its way to full autonomy.

Independence was put on hold during World War II, as Japan occupied the Philippines from 1941 to 1945. On July 4, 1946, the governments of the United States and the Philippines signed the Treaty of Manila, which relinquished U.S. control of the Philippines and officially recognized the independence of the Republic of the Philippines. The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate on July 31, 1946, signed by President Harry Truman on August 14 and ratified by the Philippines on September 30, 1946.

From their long and often bloody struggle for independence from Spain and then the United States, the Filipino people came to embrace a devoted sense of national identity. Through their shared experiences and beliefs, the people came to consider themselves Filipinos first and only. As historian David J. Silbey suggested of the Philippine-American War, “Though there was no Filipino nation in the conflict, the Filipino nation could not have existed without the war.”

Sources and Further Reference

  • Silbey, David J. “A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902.” Hill and Wang (2008), ISBN-10: 0809096617.
  • “The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902.” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1899-1913/war.
  • Tucker, Spencer. “The Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars: A Political, Social, and Military History.” ABC-CLIO. 2009. ISBN 9781851099511.
  • “The Philippines, 1898–1946.” United States House of Representatives, https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/APA/Historical-Essays/Exclusion-and-Empire/The-Philippines/.
  • “General amnesty for the Filipinos; proclamation issued by the President.” The New York Times, July 4, 1902, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1902/07/04/101957581.pdf.
  • “Historian Paul Kramer revisits the Philippine-American War.” The JHU Gazette, Johns Hopkins University, April 10, 2006, https://pages.jh.edu/~gazette/2006/10apr06/10paul.html.