McKinley Defends U.S. Expansionism
In 1899 Americans divided sharply over whether to annex the Philippines. Annexationists and anti-annexationists, despite their differences, generally agreed that the U.S. needed opportunities for commercial expansion but disagreed over how to achieve that goal. Few believed that the Philippines themselves offered a crucial commercial advantage to the U.S., but many saw them as a crucial way station to Asia. “Had we no interests in China,” noted one advocate of annexation, “the possession of the Philippines would be meaningless.” In the Paris Peace negotiations, President William McKinley demanded the Philippines to avoid giving them back to Spain or allowing a third power to take them. One explanation of his reasoning came from this report of a delegation of Methodist church leaders. The emphasis on McKinley’s religious inspiration for his imperialist commitments may have been colored by the religious beliefs of General James Rusling. But Rusling’s account of the islands, falling unbidden on the U.S., and the arguments for taking the islands reflect McKinley’s official correspondence on the topic. McKinley disingenuously disavowed the U.S. military action that brought the Philippines under U.S. control, and acknowledged, directly and indirectly, the equally powerful forces of racism, nationalism, and especially commercialism, that shaped American actions.
Hold a moment longer! Not quite yet, gentlemen! Before you go I would like to say just a word about the Philippine business. I have been criticized a good deal about the Philippines, but don’t deserve it. The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them. When the Spanish War broke out Dewey was at Hongkong, and I ordered him to go to Manila and to capture or destroy the Spanish fleet, and he had to; because, if defeated, he had no place to refit on that side of the globe, and if the Dons were victorious they would likely cross the Pacific and ravage our Oregon and California coasts. And so he had to destroy the Spanish fleet, and did it! But that was as far as I thought then.
When I next realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands perhaps also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!
Source: General James Rusling, “Interview with President William McKinley,” The Christian Advocate 22 January 1903, 17. Reprinted in Daniel Schirmer and Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, eds., The Philippines Reader (Boston: South End Press, 1987), 22–23.