The Forbidden Book: The Philippine American War in Political Cartoons

Reviewed by Max

The Forbidden Book: The Philippine American War in Political Cartoons, by Abe Ignacio, Enrique de la Cruz, Jorge Emmanuel, and Helen Toribio. San Francisco: T' Boli Publishing & Distribution [], 2004.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 lasted six months and cost 2,446 lives. It is featured prominently in all US history textbooks.

The Philippine-American War of 1899-1914 lasted 15 years and killed at least 100,000 people. It is hardly mentioned even in college-level history texts and has been all but erased from the US public memory, even within the (non-Filipino-American) left.

Yet the Philippine-American War occupies a central place in the rise of the US to become the 20th century' s paramount imperial power. It was a pivotal episode in the intertwining of US-style racism with empire-building, openly touted as the moment when the US supplanted Britain in 'taking on the white man' s burden.' And Washington' s brutal assault on the Philippine independence movement was daily front-page news at the turn of the century, with the New York World editorializing that 'The American public eats its breakfast and reads in its newspapers of our doings in the Philippines.'

The campaign to bury the history of US manipulation, racism, pillage and annexation in the Philippines began even while the war was still underway. The Chicago Chronicle printed a cartoon in 1900 showing President William McKinley locking shut a book titled 'True History of the War in the Philippines.' The cartoon' s title was 'The Forbidden Book.'

Now, 104 years later, The Forbidden Book has been opened. And the newly published work utilizing that title does even more than bring to light events that have been subject to a century-long cover-up. The volume is simultaneously a vivid illustration of the direct continuity between the ideologues of 'manifest destiny' in 1900 and the neoconservative Project-for-a-New-American-Century crowd that is in charge of Washington' s policies today.

The historical narrative provided by activist/historian authors Abe Ignacio, Enrique de la Cruz, Jorge Emmanuel and Helen Toribio is fact-filled, concise, and supplemented by a convenient timeline and extensive bibliography. But the heart and soul of this book lies in the reproduction of several hundred images, many in full color, from the US popular media of 1896-1907. The majority are political cartoons (a few are photographs) which appeared in US newspapers and especially in the 'illustrated magazines' (Puck, Judge and Life) which were the most influential opinion-makers of the period. Assembled mostly by co-author Ignacio via three decades of combing antiquarian bookstores, libraries and the internet, this unique collection gives The Forbidden Book the kind of gripping, eyewitness quality that would not be matched by text alone.

There is political subtlety in many of the cartoons, but most, especially the ones which favor the US war, go straight for the emotional jugular. They offer flag-waving, heroic images of 'our troops' and demonic images of the 'enemy.' But what stands out above all is the blatant, let's-flaunt-it racism in the way Filipinos are portrayed, in particular the widespread transference of the era' s racist images of African Americans to Filipinos.

Pictures worse than minstrel-show caricatures are commonplace, such as one in a cartoon depicting McKinley as a circus trainer and a Black/Filipino as one of many circus animals ('Trouble Ahead for the Trainer,' 1906). Even a fond look back at outright slavery was not too much for pro-war cartoonists: Puck magazine proudly featured the image of Uncle Sam auctioning off a dark-skinned Filipino under the heading 'Make Me an Offer' (1907).

Such images corresponded to events taking place within the US as well as in the military' s campaign of death and dehumanization abroad. In 1896, the same year Filipinos were beginning their independence struggle against Spain (to be continued against the US), the US Supreme Court approved the 'separate but equal' doctrine in Plessy vs. Ferguson. An average of three Blacks a week were lynched across the South as white mobs cheered.

Is it any wonder that many of the African American soldiers sent to the Philippines in segregated units turned against the war? More than a dozen Black G.I.s defected to the side of the Filipino independence movement. Nine soldiers wrote an open letter that read 'the time has come to break the silence so that you will see the folly of... fighting these people who are defending their country against the cruel American invasion...' Cruel was an understatement: US General Jacob Smith, a veteran of the Wounded Knee massacre of Native Americans, articulated official policy by ordering his troops to 'take no prisoners' and 'kill everyone capable of bearing arms... that means ten years of age.'

The second most striking set of images are those portraying the large anti-imperialist opposition movement that developed within the US The Anti-Imperialist League, founded in 1898, grew to a nationwide force with chapters in every major city; notables of the anti-imperialist cause included renowned writer Mark Twain, Hull House founder Jane Addams, journalist Joseph Pulitzer, first NAACP president Moorfield Storey, numerous senators and representatives and even Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Derisively labeling these anti-imperialists 'aunties' and portraying them as cowardly old women when not showing them stabbing US soldiers in the back, pro-war cartoonists spared no sexist or racist taunt in ridiculing their targets. The 'National Democratic Bed' showing candidate Bryan embracing the caricature of an African/Filipino man is only one among many cartoons that would make Karl Rove drool with envy.

Indeed, echoes of today' s headlines resound from virtually every page. Reading about the 'reconcentrado pens' used to hold Filipino prisoners conjures up the image of Abu Ghraib. Learning that the US military orchestrated a provocation on the eve of a key congressional vote (and that McKinley manipulated news of it to win support for annexation by a single ballot) literally screams with parallels to Bush and Weapons of Mass Destruction. And substitute the image of an Iraqi or Palestinian for a Filipino in just about any cartoon and you get a close match to one or another image published in the US press within the last three years.

Denial runs deep in US society. But every day there are people opening their minds, questioning the national myth, and searching for the truth. When you run across people embarked upon that journey, give them The Forbidden Book.

Reviewed by Max Elbaum
Author, Revolution in the Air