Why the Monument in Union Square Should be Taken Down
Guest post by Max Silver
Disclaimer: The author of this article is not Filipino. He is a white man from San Francisco. While this story focuses on the acts of Admiral George Dewey of the U.S. Navy, figures such as Emilio Aguinaldo and Apolinario Mabini are also mentioned. Their perspectives are unique to the ancestral history of the native peoples of the Philippines. The author mentions this to let readers know that this article was written in third person, and that there are more indigenous resources available online, like this one here.
In times like these, where there is talk of tearing down old monuments glorifying military leaders who participated in this country’s dark, turbulent, and bloodthirsty past, one statue remains largely overlooked, and it stands right in the heart of one of the most liberal cities in the United States of America.
In San Francisco, at the center of Union Square plaza looms a tall granite pillar. Atop this pillar is a nine-foot statue of the antiquated goddess of victory. She wields a trident in one hand and a wreath in the other. Both are symbols that represent two powerful figures in U.S. history. The trident is for George Dewey, Admiral of the Navy, while the wreath is for William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States.
According to words marked with the date in Roman numerals on one side of the square basin of the pillar, the Dewey Monument was “Erected by the citizens of San Francisco to commemorate the victory of the American Navy under Commodore George Dewey at Manila Bay on May 1, 1898.” Under that paragraph, it further reads, “On May 23, 1901 the ground for this monument was broken by President William McKinley.”
In most U.S. history textbooks, Dewey is celebrated as the American war-hero who thwarted the Spanish Navy in the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, marking the end of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines. However, if we look closer at the events leading up to that pivotal conflict in history, as well as the events afterwards that erupted into the Filipino-American War, we get different picture. We see that General Dewey, acting in the interests of the McKinley administration, played a key role in ushering in a new age of American imperialism, which resulted in bloodshed, betrayal, and the deaths of more than 200,000 Filipino civilians.
Dewey was no liberator of the Philippines from Spanish colonizers. If anything, he was a con-artist who deliberately lied to the Filipino revolutionaries with false promises of friendship, liberty, and freedom, when really the only interests Dewey had in mind were the interests of an American overseas empire.
Spanish colonial rule over the Philippines lasted for more than three hundred years. The U.S. entered war with Spain over the sinking of a battleship, the U.S.S. Maine. An explosion occurred onboard the vessel at 9:40 pm, February 15 1898 in the harbor of Havana during a time when the Spanish Empire still controlled Cuba as a New World colony, and they were in the midst of quelling an armed uprising by the inhabitants. While it still remains a mystery as to the cause of the cruiser’s destruction, the slogan “Remember the Maine” was all the yellow press needed to outrage the population of Americans who were already in support of Cuban independence, seeing as there was international concern for Cuba becoming a humanitarian-crisis, and among those who were ready for war, Roosevelt was one of them.
As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, having been appointed to this position shortly after losing the Republican nominee to William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt was hawkish in his stance towards going to war with the Spanish Empire. Whereas President McKinley had spoken to the public about how “War should never be entered upon until the agency of peace has failed,” T.R. openly criticized the President for his reluctance to engage in warfare.
According to legend, on February 25, 1898, T.R. cabled Commodore George Dewey, who was then docked at Hong Kong as the officer in command of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, scattered loosely throughout the Pacific, with orders that if war broke out between Spain and the U.S.A., Dewey should immediately attack the Spanish fleet anchored at Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Dewey suspected something strange about these orders coming from T.R., so he contacted McKinley, who then approved the surprise-attack on the Philippines. However, other historical references, such as Power and Policy: America’s First Steps to Superpower, 1889-1922, indicate little evidence to support the claim that Roosevelt was directly involved in issuing these orders to Dewey without the President’s knowledge, and that the orders to attack reached Dewey’s ear on April 24, 1898, three days after war was officially declared between Spain and the United States.
Here in lies a point in history where myth and fact become obscured. Similar accuracies are distorted concerning the Battle of Manila Bay, such as whether or not Dewey’s squadron, anchored thirty miles up the coast from Hong Kong at Mirs Bay, painted over the white and buff colors of their ‘peacetime fleet’ with a dull, gray-green ‘war-color,’ before leaving China and heading for the Philippines to completely destroy the Spanish Pacific fleet. There are also varying descriptions of what occurred during the battle. However, the end result was a clear U.S. victory in which the Spanish crews were slaughtered and all their ships lost, whereas none of the U.S. warships sank, and Dewey suffered nine wounded sailors and only one casualty (due to heatstroke) in total. The Spanish flotilla never stood a chance. What is also undeniable is proof of Dewey’s promises made with Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino exile in Hong Kong who would later become the First President of the Philippines.
Following the devastation of the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay, Dewey had to figure out what to do about the remaining Spanish forces that still occupied the city of Manila and other provinces in the Philippines. He sent a request to the McKinley administration for a U.S. invasion-force that would eventually arrive with the first “Philippine Expeditionary Force” led by Brigadier General Thomas M. Anderson, and the last by Major General Wesley Merritt, who would command the Eighth Army Corps during the Spanish-American War. Dewey also sent one of his cruisers, McCullough, to Hong Kong for Emilio Aguinaldo, who had led a rebellion against the Spanish colonizers in the Philippines in 1896.
Since his exile to Hong Kong (then a British colony) in 1897, Aguinaldo used the 400,000 pesos the Spanish government had paid to get rid of him to organize a revolutionary government with other expatriates known as the Hong Kong Junta. They smuggled contraband such as food and weapons to aid the rebels in the Philippines, while also establishing diplomatic relations with Australia, Japan, and the U.S.
Aguinaldo spoke Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines, and poor Spanish. An interpreter was needed, and the position was filled by a British businessman named Howard W. Bray, with whom Aguinaldo confided his plan for independence with the help of the United States, which was then translated over for Dewey and other dignitaries to comprehend. While few know the precise words exchanged between Dewey and Aguinaldo, it is evident that a promise was made by the Admiral that, according to Emilio Aguinaldo, as he recalled these conversations with Dewey later on in life, “The United States had come to the Philippines to protect the natives and free them from the yoke of Spain.”
In A Filipino Appeal to the People of the United States, Apolinario Mabini, formerly Prime Minister in Aguinaldo’s Cabinet, wrote how “Before Admiral Dewey came to the Philippines with his fleet, he had a conference with General Aguinaldo; and…assured the latter that the feelings of the American people were of the most friendly character, since the purpose of his Government was to aid the Filipinos…” On both accounts, George Dewey, as a representative of the United States, promised the leader of the Filipino nationalists that if he helped the Americans defeat the Spanish, the Philippines would be liberated.
Believing that the Americans would be true to their word, Aguinaldo returned to his homeland on the U.S. navy warship McCullough, where he wrote a manifesto for his people, and inspired them to fight for the cause of independence. If only he had known that, in late May of 1898, Dewey had made a separate promise to Washington, D.C., where he referred to Filipinos as “the Indians,” and that once he had entered the city of Manila, he intended to “keep the Indians out.”
According to Apolinario Mabini, “The Filipinos, who had been undecided, because they did not know whether the Americans were friends or enemies,” rallied to Aguinaldo’s call for resistance, and by the end of June the Filipino forces had reclaimed the provinces of Batangas, Tayabas, Laguna, Morong, Bulacan, Pamanga and Tarlac. All that remained was the Spanish garrison stationed at Manila, the besieged capital. It is then that Anderson’s brigade arrived in the Philippines. Upon arrival, he “made in the name of his Government new protestations of friendship and aid in favor of the liberty of the Filipinos.” He then took charge of the government of the port of Cavite, where Aguinaldo had first landed and organized the streets with his own government, and “prohibited the Filipinos from going armed about the streets, while drunken Americans committed all sorts of assaults on the citizens.”
This was to be the first of many injustices made at Aguinaldo’s expense. Had he not ordered his troops to avoid conflict with the Americans, whom he perceived as his friends, things might have worked out differently, but because his troops respected him, and because Aguinaldo was determined to maintain peace with his new, and formidable allies, the Americans felt comfortable to do as they pleased.
Soon after Anderson, General Merritt arrived. He informed Aguinaldo that he was the General-Governor of the Philippines and Commander and Chief of the American Army, also known as the Eighth Army Corps. Having issued a proclamation in which Merritt reiterated promises of freedom and friendship, he landed forces in Parañaque, a town held by the Filipinos, without informing Aguinaldo, and seized trenches and other fortifications constructed by the native forces. It was then that a staged battle was fought for Manila. General Merritt (and Dewey) conspired with the Spanish General to transfer control of Intramuros, the innermost walled city-center within the capital, over to the Americans.
The battle was staged on August 13, although a peace-protocol had been signed in Washington D.C. between Spain and the United States a few hours earlier, neither generals were made aware of this protocol because Admiral Dewey had cut off all communications with the Philippines and the outside world on May 2. Ground troops were not aware that the battle was to be staged either, least of all the Filipino rebels, so when they saw Spanish troops firing at the Americans, they thought the fight was real and subsequently started killing off the Spaniards. The Americans saw this and held back, allowing the rebels to do their dirty work for them. According to Apolinario Mabini, “the Americans advanced, seized the positions taken by the Filipinos and hoisted the American flag in… place of the Filipino banner. These maneuvers were repeated…” When the skirmishes were over, the American soldiers had taken most of the credit for deeds committed by the Filipino troops, some of whom had died fighting in the process, Intramuros was under American control, and Spain had sold the Philippines to the United States as a territory for $20 million in the Treaty of Paris. The Spanish colonizers had given the Philippines up to American imperialists, substituting one oppressive overseas empire for a new one.
Nonetheless, Aguinaldo still believed that the Americans could be trusted, although he had sacrificed almost everything in order to preserve the peace. When he tried to send an envoy to Washington D.C. to “lay before President McKinley the grievances of the Filipinos and to ask for the recognition of the independence of the Philippines…” the President would not receive him. General Merritt proved to be as stubborn in acknowledging the promise made to the Filipinos for their independence, and after he left the new General Otis was even less tolerable.
The Admiral, meanwhile, must have been enjoying himself. After all, he had fulfilled his commitment to Washington, D.C., the Americans now owned the Philippines, and he personally had been awarded the title of “Admiral of the Navy,” the highest possible rank in the U.S. Navy. To this day, Dewey is the only person to have attained this rank in U.S. history. According to Mabini, when Aguinaldo sent a commissioner to ask for the Admiral’s help, “the Admiral became very angry, refused to give any explanation whatever, and dismissed the Filipino commissioner like a servant who had committed great faults.” In doing so, Dewey displayed his true colors, not as an honorable hero, but as a backstabbing liar who had attained the highest rank in U.S. naval history, an honor Dewey did not deserve.
Despite Aguinaldo’s attempts at maintaining peace, for in no way did he or his compatriots desire war with a nation that had attained the global power of hegemony, conflict was inevitable. The U.S. had the innermost center of the capital of the Philippines, which was literally surrounded by Filipino rebel forces. It should have come as no surprise on August 25, 1898 when tensions erupted into a clash at Cavite in which U.S. soldiers, who had reportedly been drinking at the time, were harmed and at least one of them killed. On June 2, 1899, having no other choice, the First Philippine Republic declared war on the United States. For several years, bitter fighting ensued between the Filipinos and their new colonizers. The war officially ended on July 2, 1902, the same year that Aguinaldo was finally captured, with a victory for the United States, but other revolutionary groups would continue fighting the American imperialists for decades. Some of the atrocities witnessed during this era include the creation of concentration-camps for Filipino citizens in the Philippines by the U.S.A.
History is still being told by the victors, the conquerors, the killers. Those who have committed heinous bloodshed are far more celebrated than the victims of their suffering. Monuments like Dewey’s glorify the villains, and the more we honor them, the more we perpetuate the evil of humanity and guarantee its return. The monument in Union Square stands in plain sight, but there are other statues in San Francisco as well, like this one on Dolores and Market, dedicated to the “California Volunteers” who went around massacring villages in the Philippines, raping, torturing, and butchering as they pleased.
Fort Funston is named after the general who captured Aguinaldo. Dewey was not the cause, he was a symptom. San Francisco is known to have one of the larger Filipino communities in the country. Rather than trying to rewrite history to favor those who have sown the seeds of destruction against humanity, it is time we tear down these monuments of war, glory and bloodshed, and replace them with memorials in remembrance of those who suffered at the hands of evil men.
Max Silver, born in Los Angeles and raised in San Francisco, is a Bay Area writer and illustrator. He writes journalism, fiction, sci-fi, historical fantasy, and he also draws comics and cartoon-animations. After college at Santa Cruz, Max moved to Chicago where he performed stand-up comedy. He then moved down to New Orleans, where he played clawhammer banjo and improvised lyrics for a living, before he moved back up to Chicago and eventually returned to the West Coast. Nowadays, Max is happily married and lives in the East Bay.