The Philippines as Strategic Blunder

Historian David Silbey, author of A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902 has a very enlightening post bolstering the argument I made yesterday that “victory” in the Philippines wasn’t really worth anything. He observes that “the Philippines, in addition to being seen as a new frontier for Americans, was also to be the first great acquisition for an American Empire” but nothing really ever came of it. As early as 1915, observers like Robert Johnson could see that the Philippines was not actually useful as a military asset:

The taking of the Philippines may be ranked among the worst military blunders committed by any American government — it is difficult to put the matter more strongly. It is a weak, ex-centric military position, fundamentally indefensible against any strong transpacific power, but inevitably a magnet to draw troops and ships away from our shores.

And of course this proved to be the case when the United States went to war with Japan. Far from providing a U.S. military asset in the region, it was simply a hard-to-defend position that got overrun. Silbey argues, however, that U.S. occupation of the Philippines did contribute to the deterioration in U.S.-Japanese relations and thus ultimately to our need to fight a costly war in the Pacific.

The specifics of the Philippines aside, I would just emphasize that it’s usually the case that these imperial adventures don’t wind up paying the freight. Nationalists and militarists are perpetually imagining that control of some patch of foreign land (and perhaps the natural resources beneath it) will pay some vast dividends but there’s little practical or theoretical reason to think this will be the case.