Curing our Memory: America’s Amnesia about its Imperial Past

Spanish American War, 2nd Regiment (George Eastman House/Flickr)
Spanish American War, 2nd Regiment (George Eastman House/Flickr)

by Arthur Chow


The United States’ War in the Philippines during the early 1900s was a pivotal event in this country’s history, but memory of the war fell through the cracks of Americans’ minds somewhere between the Spanish-American War and World War I, according to author Gregg Jones at an event hosted by Asia Society Northern California on February 28.
Jones was on-hand to talk about his new book, Honor in the Dust, which is both a historical account of an important period in U.S. history and a treatise about America’s relationship with its history. According to Jones, the Philippine-American War is a seldom-told tale that left a long-forgotten black mark on this country’s past. While he did not go so far as to say that there was a vast conspiracy to cover up American atrocities and misadventures in the Philippines, he did note that it is a topic that is often overshadowed by other 20th century conflicts that would follow. The obscurity of this war in the American conscience drove him to write a well-researched and detailed account of the event.
A central figure in Jones’ narrative is Theodore Roosevelt, who he describes as a gung-ho “cowboy” that spearheaded America’s imperialist ventures at the turn of the century. Jones shared a little-known fact about this famous figure in America’s history: in Roosevelt’s 600-plus-page autobiography, he mentions the war in the Philippines a mere six times. It seems that even for the eventual Commander-in-Chief, the war was to be forgotten before it was even over.
Jones added that the current debates over U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond are not new and have long roots in American history, starting with the U.S invasion and short-lived colonization of the Philippines. He emphasized that he simply wanted to challenge people to “know your history.”