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Verifying Genocide

In response to:

An American Sissy from the August 13, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

In his comments on David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback [NYR, August 13], Gore Vidal says, “TR presided over the tailend of the slaughter of some three million Filipinos….”

Vidal has used this figure before, notably in his Matters of Fact and of Fiction, but it is incorrect. The writer Art Hill (who, by coincidence, is twice quoted by James Wolcott in the same August 13 issue of NYR) took issue with Vidal on this three years ago. Hill, who grew up in Manila during the 1930s, wrote then:

Vidal refers to “the slaughter by the American army of three million Filipinos at the beginning of the century.” This is preposterous. The most exaggerated estimate of Filipino dead in that shabby chapter in our history would be less than a tenth of Vidal’s figure. I have no desire to exonerate the famous Americans who involved us in the shameful Philippine adventure, but truth is the historian’s principal tool, and when our leading “history critic” wanders us so far from easily verified fact, it makes us wonder where he gets the information on which he bases his strong opinions.

Robert W. Creamer

Tuckahoe, New York

Gore Vidal replies:

It was American policy at the turn of the century to kill as many Filipinos as possible. The rationale was straightforward: “With a very few exceptions, practically the entire population has been hostile to us at heart,” wrote Brigadier General J. Franklin Bell, a propos our seizure of the Philippines. “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.”

The comparison of this highly successful operation with our less successful adventure in Vietnam was made by, among others, Bernard Fall, who referred to 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.” (cf. E. Ahmed’s “The Theory and Fallacies of Counter-Insurgency,” The Nation, August 2, 1971.) General Bell himself, the old sweetheart, estimated that we killed one-sixth of the population of the main island of Luzon—some 600,000 people.

Now a Mr. Creamer quotes a Mr. Hill (“who grew up in Manila,” presumably counting skulls) who suggests that the bodycount for all the islands is 300,000 men, women, and children—or half what General Bell admitted to.

I am amused to learn that I have wandered “so far from easily verified fact.” There are no easily verified facts when it comes to this particular experiment in genocide. At the time when I first made reference to the 3,000,000 (NYR, October 18, 1973), a Filipino wrote me to say she was writing her master’s thesis on the subject. She was inclined to accept Fall’s figures but she said that since few records were kept and entire villages were totally destroyed, there was no way to discover, exactly, those “facts” historians like to “verify.” In any case, none of this is supposed to have happened and so, as far as those history books that we use to indoctrinate the young go, it did not happen.

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