How Long has the United States Fought Undeclared Wars? The Philippine Example

Americans fighting in the Philippines Americans fighting in the Philippines (click for source)

The Constitution of the United States has two provisions relating to war. Article I, Section 8 grants power to Congress to declare war, while Article II, Section 2 makes the President the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. However, the United States has not made a formal declaration of war since World War II. To many people this represents a drift of government away from the Constitution. It has been said that in the past, the U.S. declared war when it fought, whereas now it does not. But is this an accurate assessment?

There are many examples of military actions undertaken by the United States without a declaration of war. Not once did the United States declare war on any of the American Indian tribes. When Thomas Jefferson sent the Marines to North Africa, in 1801, he did so with Congressional authorization but without a formal declaration of war. U.S. troops occupied various parts of Latin America on numerous occasions without a war declaration. The U.S. even sent troops to play limited roles in the Mexican and Russian Revolutions of the early 1900s. Yet one example shows in stark detail how long the United States has played the game of undeclared war -- the Philippine-American War (or more accurately, "War") of 1899-1913. This episode saw the deaths of around 5,000 U.S. soldiers while the formally declared Spanish-American War claimed fewer. 15-20,000 Filipino combatants died, along with an unknown number of civilians (perhaps 250,000). The Philippines foreshadowed many of the Americans' numerous engagements of the modern era.

After the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States. An independence leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, quickly declared a Philippine Republic. He had been assured (informally and incorrectly) of cooperation from the United States in the fight against Spain, and that the U.S. did not have imperialist ambitions in his country. Yet the message changed in the wake of victory. It was thought that immediate independence was imprudent, and two commissions of President McKinley recommended a more gradual process. In the meantime, the Philippines would remain a territory of the United States. Aguinaldo denounced this change of course and declared war on behalf of the Philippine Republic.

For most of 1899, Aguinaldo attempted to fight a conventional war against the United States. The American forces opposing Aguinaldo were led by General Elwell Otis, who took a very low opinion of his opponents' humanity. Like many Americans of his day, Otis had racist notions about the people of Asia and certainly did not consider them to be equals to the whites. He shut down attempts at negotiation and demanded the unconditional surrender of Aguinaldo. In several battles through 1899, the Americans defeated the Filipinos on the open field and secured the area around Manila.

The Filipinos changed their tactics after these defeats. Aguinaldo announced a new strategy of guerilla war on November 13, 1899. Small groups began to ambush U.S. soldiers and then to disappear into the countryside. The U.S. quickly adopted to the counter-insurgency campaign. Without the cameras of CNN, the attacks were ruthless. Many thousands of Filipinos were interned in camps, where conditions were poor and disease rampant. Others were summarily executed. Villages were burned to the ground. Water cure torture was used on some insurgents. Conversely, U.S. soldiers who fell into the hands of Filipinos were sometimes cut to pieces, crucified, or buried alive. In other cases, on both sides, treatment was more humane, depending upon the mood of the day and the whimsies of fortune.

One soldier, Charles Brenner, refused to retract a letter in which he described the shooting of some prisoners. General Otis demanded that the solider "correct" the letter. Otis also had to be talked out of pursuing a court-martial. Such letters found their way to the U.S. and were quickly reprinted by anti-imperialist figures and newspapers. Otis was replaced with Arthur MacArthur in 1900, in part from public and government opposition to his tactics. This did not end all atrocities. And in November of 1900, William McKinley (with his imperialist platform) was reelected by the American people.

Aguinaldo was captured in 1901. Most of the remaining Filipino troops surrendered in 1902, and Teddy Roosevelt put forward a general pardon and amnesty. The United States never recognized the Philippine Republic as a formal government or put forward a declaration of war. There was never even a Congressional authorization for the struggle. Since the Philippines were officially a U.S. territory, wrested from Spain, it fell to the U.S. to maintain order in that colony, or so the logic went. However, limited autonomy was granted, and in 1916 with the Jones Act, the United States placed the Philippines on a scheduled course to independence. The Philippines became an independent nation in 1946.

Since the war was never declared, and was fought not against a European power but an Asian insurgency, it faded from historical memory. Perhaps its reflection on the United States was not such that historians hastened to add it to the nation's textbooks. Yet as a harbinger of war in the 20th and 21st century, in both its legal and tactical forms, the Philippine-American War was more significant than the famous war that preceded it. The Philippine-American War also clearly shows that the undeclared war is hardly a recent innovation.

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