United States occupation of Philippines


Following their defeat in the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. William Howard Taft was tasked overseeing the new colony’s “Benevolent Assimilation,” as termed by President McKinley. Taft ruled through a regime of manipulation and fear. He controlled the Philippines not through physical coercion but control of information. In 1901, Taft passed draconian libel and sedition laws that one US senator called “the harshest known to human statute books” (McCoy, 2010). He then established the Philippines Constabulatory, a new kind of centralized security force that simultaneously monitored public discourse and penetrated private space. Limitations on Filipino civil liberties at the edge of empire facilitated Taft’s development of the first full scale “surveillance state.” The Constabulatory’s secret Information Division established an economy of scandal, in which Americans and Fiipinos competed to acquire damning information on their political rivals for leverage. This information was then used to prosecute editors for criminal libel, exile radicals, and jail dissidents. This dossier culture fostered a chaotic atmosphere of suspicion and betrayal.

Taft’s total information regime backed by a paramilitary secret service effectively silenced advocates of Philippine independence. Taft and the Constabulatory used human assets to effect the equivalent of audio and visual surveillance, stealing letters, eavesdropping, and tailing for hours on end. A good portion of information gathered on Filipinos was obtained through torture, with the precursor to waterboarding, the "water cure." The constant threat of exposure through anonymous letter imposed discretion in the daily lives of Americans and Filipinos in politics. These men were held to high moral standards as superior exemplars of their race, a myth essential to colonial dominion. Thus, the damning evidence often revolved around moral crimes and sexual indiscretion. The commander of the Division of Military Information, Ralph Van Deman, created a sweeping apparatus of data collection which reduced all data to a single, Bertillon-style descriptive card for each subject. Years after the Philippine-American War, Van Deman returned to Washington and singlehandedly pioneered the widespread application of military intelligence.

American colonial politics had a direct impact on domestic policies. The process of imperial memesis leads to the metropole’s internal security apparatus showing many of the same coercive features as the colonies. Tactics formed at the periphery of empire made their way back home in the form of immigration controls, arbitrary arrests, rigid censorship, mass surveillance, covert penetration, black operations, and internal security. Most important was the use of an ethnic or racial template for the perception of threat and a need for omnipotence over people labeled as alien. Returning veterans and politicians, particularly President Taft, began to understand non-white populations in the United States as internal colonies, requiring the same displays of force as alien populations at the edges of empire.

McCoy, Alfred W. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.