In response to:
Death in the Philippines from the December 17, 1981 issue
To the Editors:
…I would like to know Vidal’s source for General Bell’s estimate that one-sixth of the population of Luzon was killed. I traced it back to Moorfield Storey’s Conquest of the Philippines, where Storey says it is in the May 3, 1901 New York Times. But it’s not there. Not knowing the exact quote or its content, it is hard to evaluate its evidence.
The war was imperialistic and there were many American atrocities. There were also many firebreathing statements by American officers. But when Vidal says it was American policy “to kill as many Filipinos as possible,” he is saying something that the facts just do not support.
However, Vidal is right about one thing. The subject has been avoided or papered over in American schoolbooks.
Los Angeles, California
Gore Vidal replies:
Professor Gates tells us that the late Bernard Fall’s estimate of those Filipinos killed by American troops was “300,000 not 3,000,000,” as I reported in these pages. Then he strikes a very ominous note indeed: “We may never know why Mr. Vidal made his error….” Come now, Professor, of course “we” may know. I have no secrets from “we,” ever. In 1973 I reviewed West Point: America’s Power Fraternity by K.B. Galloway and R.B. Johnson, Jr., published by Simon and Schuster. The authors quoted Bernard Fall’s description of our conquest of the Philippines as “the bloodiest colonial war (in proportion to population) ever fought by a white power in Asia; it cost the lives of 3,000,000 Filipinos.” I am grateful to Professor Gates and to all the other scholar-squirrels who checked out Fall’s original text and found that either the authors of West Point or their publishers had added an extra naught to Fall’s 300,000; now we know why Mr. Vidal made his error.
Professor Gates then suggests that in the course of our “misguided imperialist adventure” the “minimum” number of Filipinos killed by us “may well” be a mere (the mere is mine not his) 200,000. It should be noted that in 1972 Professor Gates wrote an article entitled “The Philippines and Vietnam: Another False Analogy” (Asian Studies X), and he is also the author of “The Pacification of the Philippines, 1898-1902,” a paper that he presented to a symposium last fall at the US Air Force Academy. It is possible that the martial provenance of this symposium (where the “misguided imperialist adventure” of his letter to the NYR has turned to mild “Pacification”) might make clear the Professor’s interest in a way that perhaps his letter does not.
I don’t understand Mr. Roth’s letter. He seems to be saying that General Bell was a sort of aberrant loose gun in the Philippines and that he did not represent American policy. Shall I quote yet again Theodore Roosevelt on the glories of war? No. General Bell may or may not have been “severely criticized in Senate hearings” (after being let down by Messrs. Galloway, Johnson, Simon and Schuster, I no longer believe a word that any of these people have to say—once burned, twice sly), but it does seem that Bell was in the Philippines because, as he said, “with a very few exceptions, practically the entire population has been hostile to us at best. In order to combat such a population it is necessary to make the state of war as insupportable as possible and there is no more efficacious way of accomplishing this than by keeping the minds of the people in such a state of anxiety and apprehension that living under such conditions will soon become intolerable.” Since Bell was (allegedly) severely criticized by the Senate for his activities, one would think that he would try to minimize the slaughter; instead he is (alleged) to have said that American troops were responsible for 600,000 dead men, women, and children on the island of Luzon alone. If this is not a policy of genocide (no dumb letters on the dictionary meaning of the word), it will do until the real thing comes along.
Mr. Nielsen would like to know just where Bell said that 600,000 Filipinos were killed. Two secondary sources are West Point by Galloway and Johnson and Moorfield Storey’s Conquest of the Philippines. Mr. Nielsen tells us that he tried—and failed—to trace Storey’s source, the New York Times of May 3, 1901.
I’m afraid that in my present skeptical mood I cannot take it on faith that Mr. Nielsen really checked out the edition of May 3. But if he did, he might have overlooked the quotation; or found himself with an incomplete issue; or an early or late edition. Then again, perhaps Mr. Storey wrote May 8 in the manuscript, only to have the publisher change the 8 to a 3, as so often happens even when the publisher is not Simon and Schuster. Alas, we may never know why these scholar-squirrels are so exercised by this particular numbers game.
But I will hazard a guess. Our policy in the Philippines was genocide. We were not, there to liberate or even defend a “liberty-loving” people; we were there to acquire those rich islands and if we had to kill the entire population we would have done so. Just as we had killed the Indians in the century before (some of our best troops in the Philippines were former Indian fighters) and as we would kill Southeast Asians later in this century. To deny that our policy was genocidal in these three instances is to make a fool of history on the order of that recent scholar who said that no holocaust took place because six million Jews were not killed. When pressed on this, he said that he had proof that only 5.2 million Jews had been killed; presumably, this is just under the holocaust level.
What I dislike in some of the other letters received is the tacit acceptance (after the ritual shaking of heads over a “misguided” policy) that we have every right to “pacify” a foreign land through the “efficacious” murder of as many of the people as deemed necessary—the famed Kissinger breaking point. It is now plain that there is a manifest destiny backlash building up in our universities, all set to justify whatever foreign excursions that the present administration may be planning for us.
P.S. One of my many researchers has just checked the New York Times for May 3, 1901, and there is no reference of any kind to General Bell. Anyway, keep those letters coming.