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War in the Philippines

After claims that the Spanish sunk the USS Maine off the coast of Cuba in 1898, no North Dakota newspaper called for a retaliatory strike. But once the Spanish American War actually started, the papers responded with patriotic zeal. The First North Dakota Infantry quickly assembled in May that year, and by August 12th, they were in water-logged trenches south of Manila. The following day, Spain surrendered their hold on the Philippines.

The troops of the 1st North Dakota felt they’d fulfilled their duties and they expected to be sent home. That turned out to be a naive, as opportunists saw the victory as a chance to annex the Philippines for American interests.

When the Filipinos realized their liberators had become dominators, their fight for independence shifted, and a tenacious insurgency took root. The 1st North Dakota Infantry was now fighting the people they’d liberated. They weren’t happy about it. In fact, the subsequent quagmire would lead many North Dakotans to become isolationists years later during World War I.

North Dakota Governor Joseph Devine pressured the War Department to send North Dakota’s boys back to their families, but politics kept that from happening. The volunteers were far beyond mere disenchantment. In his diary entry of February 7th, 1899, soldier John Russater wrote they’d been given orders to burn every house where there was evidence of occupation by insurgents, as well as permission to shoot any insurgent who resisted being searched. Looting, burning and intimidation of Filipinos – insurgents or civilian – escalated. By April 1899, both sides were engaged in brutal guerilla warfare.

Two years earlier, in his inaugural address, President McKinley had said, “We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression.” As McKinley now back-pedaled on those statements, pro-expansionists rallied and helped reelect him in 1900.

As the fighting extended to months and then years, it became a confusing issue in North Dakota. Many initially supported taking over the Philippines, because they thought new grain markets would open. But, that didn’t happen, and slowly public sentiment turned against the war.

By the time the war finally ended in 1902, 4,234 Americans were dead, and an estimated 20,000 Filipino soldiers. But, as in so many wars, the true casualties were the civilians; estimates of Filipino civilian deaths ranging from 200,000 to 500,000.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Richard Shafer, Ph. D., The Decline of Imperialist Fervor in the American Periphery: North Dakota and Philippine Annexation Issues in the Press, 1898-1902, 1997; http://www.spanishamericanwar.com/http://www.historyguy.com/PhilipineAmericanwar.html

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