The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

March 27, 2001

Same Old Story: Film at Eleven


Over the last few weeks a realization has been trickling down into the dimmer reaches of the US media. It is a realization that a specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Greater Albania. There is much open shock and dismay – now – that our little pals, the Albanian guerrillas, are becoming a problem to the self-appointed outside forces of order; well, not "our" little pals so much as NATO’s, Tony Sheep Shooting, Cow-Punching Blair’s, and the US political-military elite’s willing, er, helpers.

I say this with little partisanship since I was among those who didn’t favor taking sides in this overseas sideshow to start with. Those who expect to lose land to Greater Albania will of course be opposed to the project. Sorting this out was never our job in principle but now Uncle has managed to create a situation for himself, let us call it a misunderstanding. "No, no, no. That’s not the secret map we agreed to! It’s this one over here – with not quite so much Albania in it."

Somehow it seems as if it’s already happened before: dejà vu, which is French for "been there, done that, didn’t like it." On the record, US policy makers are often shocked and surprised when their policies turn out badly. They are so good at it as to rate some kind of Nobel Prize. The press is even more shockable when disaster strikes after they’ve shilled for some scam for months or years.


The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus went around saying that you can’t step in the same river twice. With all that water and sand rushing by all the time, the key word is "same." The river looks the same, but it’s actually different water molecules, even if Heraclitus didn’t think in terms of molecules. Actually, he said panta rhei, "everything flows," even if this program won’t let me do the accents correctly.

I feel personally close to this problem on grounds of etymology. Greek rhei derives from reconstructed Indo-European *srew-/srow-/sru- (the different vowels are ablaut grades). Hence Sanskrit srávati, "it flows." In Proto-Germanic a "t" was inserted for ease of pronunciation, whence the noun form *straumaz: Gothic straums, German Strom, Swedish ström, English stream. In the midst of some state-strengthening wars, Swedish bureaucrats decided that for purposes of taxing and conscripting it would be better for people to have stable last names, instead of Sven Knutsson’s son being Einar Svensson and his son being Erik Einarsson, and so on.

I’m not sure this "reform" has caught on yet in Iceland. But last names became all the go in Sweden and elsewhere, and sundry words for land features, occupations, etc., were added into the relatively limited number of classical and Biblical names popular in the northland. So ström got to be a name element, combined with such fitting terms as lund, qvist, berg, and others. Then most of the Swedes of any real character took off for North America. The results are not in yet, although renting Fargo may be of some help.

It was an involved historical process. Strom Thurmond and I are very grateful. It would be terrible to be named Magnús. But that’s quite enough Ionian philosophy and comparative linguistics. The point was that some things change and that, despite Heraclitus, some things don’t change that much. US officials’ constant refrain of being surprised when their heroic allies turn out badly is one of the latter.


This brings us to the Quagmire Gap. Not too long ago, claims were made that US/NATO intervention and philanthropy might lead to some Good Nations getting bogged down beyond their intentions in the country of the Bad. Cynics suggested on this very website that intervening in other people’s wars is not an exact science. We were met with much scepticism.

This is much like the Old Right’s problem of appearing to cry Wolf by announcing that this or that New Deal policy would end poorly. When the disasters failed to appear for ten or twenty years, the Old Right was held to have been wrong. The disasters have of course appeared, but the timing was the tricky part. We might think of the last twenty or so years as the Era of Chickens Coming Home to Roost. It appears, however, that in foreign affairs the Piper comes around for early payment.


An interesting example concerns the relationship between US policy makers and Philippine revolutionaries in 1898, the very year in which the overseas US empire was born. It is not an exact parallel with any later situation, but it does illustrate the regular pitfalls. The shifting role of local "allies" is instructive.

To be very brief, as war loomed between the US and Spain in early 1898, US officials anticipated victory, naturally enough, but also foresaw themselves coming into some new territorial possessions in the Pacific, which Spain could be forced to cede. Given their interest in a neo-mercantilist push into Asian markets – the Open Door – they became quite keen on having Manila harbor in the Philippine Islands.

As in Cuba, an intermittent nationalist revolt was under way in the Philippines, led by revolutionaries from the ilustrado class (persons of education and property). A few years earlier, Spanish officials had tried to buy the rebel leaders off with a large payment of pesos, half of it up front. When these leaders used the money to buy firearms in Hong Kong, the Spaniards came to doubt their reliability and never made the second payment.

Well aware of the Philippine rebels’ potential usefulness in a war with Spain, US representatives at Hong Kong led Emiliano Aguinaldo and other revolutionary spokesmen to believe that the United States was sincerely interested in helping their cause. The rebels, who had already issued a Declaration of Independence the previous November, logically saw themselves as allies, once the Spanish-American War began.

Admiral Dewey’s fleet easily sunk the antiquated Spanish fleet off Manila on May 1. But with only 10,000 US soldiers available against 20,000 Spaniards, the 14,000 Filipino insurgents looked very useful indeed. As luck would have it, the land battle of Manila was brief, fought on August 31, just long enough to save the Spanish officers’ honor. Thereafter, US and Filipino forces occupied differing sectors surrounding Manila and eyed one another warily.

Secretary of State William R. Day was having misgivings: "To obtain the unconditional personal assistance of General Aguinaldo… was proper, if in so doing he was not induced to form hopes which it might not be practicable to gratify."1 A fallback position was being readied, or perhaps the consul at Hong Kong and Dewey in Manila had pragmatically offered more than Washington wanted them to. Deniability is a wonderful thing.

The Philippine rebels wished to believe that the great liberal Republic had providentially needed their help as allies in a war which otherwise had little to do with their country. The US authorities wanted some room in which to decide just how much of the island chain they needed to annex. The internationally salonfähig powers, Spain and the United States, would decide the fate of the Philippines. Under international law there was no point in consulting the Tagalog-speaking rabble.


Of course these two viewpoints could not be reconciled. On February 4, 1899, shots fired between Filipino and US forces led to a full-scale battle with casualties on both sides. Thus began the Philippine-American War, which the US in an inherited Indian-fighting jargon called the Philippine Insurrection.

I shall not burden the reader with the 200,000 Filipino deaths from all causes relating to the war – battlefield deaths, massacre, disease, disruption of food production – other than to mention them. The war became a classical colonialist counter-insurgency of the sort Spain had been waging in Cuba, when the US went to war with Spain. In due course, the US prevailed but at a cost in lives and treasure several times the costs of the war with that country.

As the fighting continued, Philippine representative Agoncillo sent six memos to the US Senate stating the legal position. In one of these he wrote: "Secretaries of State of your country (including Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Pinckney) have denied the right of an ally of America to acquire by conquest from Great Britain any American territory while America was struggling for independence…. We deny similarly the right of the United States to acquire Philippine territory by cession from Spain while the Filipinos were yet at war with that power."2

A pretty good argument, to be sure, but great powers hate it when their own precedents are quoted against them, and Agoncillo got no response. By 1902, Teddy Roosevelt, now President, ended the war by proclaiming it was "over." Having taken the islands by cession from Spain and payment to that power, the US regarded the whole thing as an internal matter on US territory. You don’t negotiate with rebels.


So the islands became America’s India. By the late 1930s, interest-group politics had paved the way for Philippine independence. Sugar and other interests resented Filipinos’ exemption from tariff restrictions. As an independent nation, the Philippines’ producers would be subject to them.

Then came the US-Japanese War (a subset of a larger catastrophe) and displacement for several years of US colonialists by Japanese colonialists. The old nationalist general Aguinaldo collaborated quite happily with the Japanese, as did many other Filipinos who had collaborated with the Americans and, before them, with Spain. Interestingly, wartime collaborators suffered little loss of prestige later. The Filipinos had learned that you collaborate with the occupying power, until the next one comes along.

I won’t rub it in. Picking sides in foreign quarrels is tricky. Allies are fickle and have their own agendas. Fighting for or against Greater Albania may be in some Americans’ interest. I doubt it’s in the interest of the American people, broadly conceived.


  1. Walter Millis, The Martial Spirit (Boston: Literary Guild of America, 1931), p. 252.
  2. Quoted in Leandro Fernández, The Philippine Republic (New York: AMS Press, 1968), p. 120.

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