A War of Frontier and Empire The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902

David J. Silbey

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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The 1899 Philippine-American War has been termed an insurgency, a revolution, a guerrilla war, and a conventional war. Played out over three distinct conflicts—one fought between the Spanish and the allied United States and Filipino forces; one fought between the United States and the Philippine Army of Liberation; and one fought between occupying American troops and an insurgent alliance of often divided Filipinos—the war marked America's first steps as a global power and produced a wealth of lessons learned and forgotten.

In A War of Frontier and Empire, Silbey traces the rise and fall of President Emilio Aguinaldo, as Aguinaldo tries to liberate the Philippines from colonial rule only to fail, devastatingly, before a relentless American army. He tracks President McKinley's decision to commit troops and fulfill a divinely inspired injunction to "uplift and civilize" despite the protests of many Americans. Most important, Silbey provides a clear lens to view the Philippines as, in the crucible of war, it transforms itself from a territory divided by race, ethnicity, and warring clans into a cohesive nation on the path to independence.


Praise for A War of Frontier and Empire

"Silbey provides us with a timely, deft reexamination of American politics at the turn of the 20th century . . . Silbey moves seamlessly between the political arena, the insurrectionists, and the war diaries of the US infantry. He follows the fortunes of Emilio Aguinaldo, the complicated leader of the insurrectos, as he is chased across Luzon struggling to keep his army in the field. When Aguinaldo is finally captured, and broadcasts an appeal to lay down arms, the guerrilla war continues without him. Read Silbey's account for his masterful restraint. It is a quick and sobering study."—Peter Kneisel, The Boston Globe

"The war that David Silbey refers to in the subtitle of his concise new history, A War of Frontier and Empire, is not one you will find in any textbook's index. The long conflict that gave America control of the Philippines is usually remembered, if at all, as a minor sequel to the Spanish-American War. The only episode from that conflict that remains in the popular memory, even in a small way, is the Battle of Manila Bay, when Commodore George Dewey sank a Spanish fleet. But as Mr. Silbey shows in this timely study, the American war in the Philippines didn't really begin until the Spanish-American War was over . . . Mr. Silbey, a professor of European history at Alvernia College, expertly shows how these American advantages, combined with the Filipinos' uncertain command structure and poor morale, led to a series of major American victories. By the fall of 1899, it seemed, the Philippine-American War had been won . . . Mr. Silbey tells this little-known story in exemplary fashion. A War of Frontier and Empire is a short, fast-paced book, which offers a good summary of the military history while making room for fascinating excursions into economic, social, and cultural issues."—Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

"The origins of the American addiction to military and economic intervention abroad since 1898, is a long story . . . David Silbey's thoughtful and welcome account of the U.S. invasion of the Philippines in 1899 picks up this unfamiliar piece of our past when Filipinos, initially as rebels against Spanish rule, then as an army, and finally as a guerilla force, fought the invaders. The war officially ended in 1902 but actually lasted until 1903 as Moros in the southern islands continued fighting. Silbey, an associate professor of European history at Alvernia College in Reading, Pennsylvania, traces the rise and fall of Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo and the military battles as well as the economic and political maneuvering behind the decision to occupy and control the Philippines. When the war ended, the U.S. emerged as a world power."—History News Network

"As President Bush tries to shape his legacy in regard to the Iraq war, he should pick up David Silbey's engaging history A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902. Though both were wars of choice, the details are quite different. Still, the generalizations that can be gleaned from Silbey's account are eerily familiar: a quick and stunning conventional military victory turns into longer-than-expected guerrilla warfare; a failure by the United States to understand its enemy; a sense of racial superiority that enflames troops and politicians in Washington; and a native population whose loyalties seemed to change depending on the time of day . . . Silbey's well-researched account adds shrewd observations and is highly readable and concise. And though the book doesn't explore the full ramifications of the Philippine-American War after 1902, it is powerful today as Americans debate the meaning of ‘victory' in Iraq and when troops will come home."—Michael Janairo, Albany Times Union

"David Silbey provides a much-needed introduction to the Philippine-American War. In well-written and clearly argued prose, Silbey offers a smart and provocative argument for this war's complexity, brutality, and centrality to American as well as Filipino history. Everyone with an interest in American habits of empire should read it."—Eric Rauchway, author of Blessed Among Nations

"Since at least the Vietnam War of the 1960s, the Filipino revolt of 1899 against the U.S. occupation has provided crucial historical lessons in regard to American mirages about Washington's ability to nation-build and install democratic systems in fragmented, non-industrial countries. Silbey masterfully and succinctly (and, at appropriate times, graphically) analyzes that revolt and its implications for the time of Theodore Roosevelt—and George W. Bush."—Walter LaFeber, Tisch University Professor Emeritus, Cornell University

"A big-picture account of an unremembered war that has uncomfortable parallels with ugly little wars that followed. Silbey maintains academic distance, so let the reader insert the appropriate names. A ruler forges from a congeries of tribes a rudimentary nation. Another nation invades, ostensibly to free those tribespeople from oppression. The invader churns up resistance that truly unifies those hitherto scattered tribespeople. Silbey worries at the outset how to characterize the conflict: 'If there was no Philippine nation to engage in war or be conquered . . . what happened in the archipelago from 1899 to 1902 was an insurgency, not a war.' Fine distinctions aside, the Americans certainly considered it a war, and so did the Filipinos, and so did subsequent Filipino historians whose work Silbey takes into account, unlike some earlier histories of what has thus been called the Philippine-American War. Silbey is good on the overall shape of the conflict, whose preamble is rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo's innocent remark to American officers: 'I have studied attentively the Constitution of the United States and in it I find no authority for colonies and I have no fear.' He had reasons to be afraid, as Filipino forces began to suffer casualties that outnumbered American losses. Massacres ensued on both sides—and Silbey says too little about the American counterinsurgency techniques, among them assassination and torture, that led Mark Twain to suggest that the stars on our flag be replaced with skulls. It was a war against 'niggers,' 'gooks,' 'chinks' and 'redskins,' and on this racist dimension Silbey is quite good. When one black detachment arrived to fight, he notes, a white man yelled, 'What are you coons doing here?' The reply came from several black soldiers at once: 'We have come to take up the White Man's Burden.' Ironic, bloody, full of foreshadowing: a solid work."—Kirkus Reviews

"After the overwhelming American victory in the Spanish-American War, President McKinley, after considerable (he claimed) soul-searching, decided to annex the Philippine Islands. His move provoked considerable opposition from anti-imperialist Americans. More importantly, it provoked outrage among various Filipino nationalist groups, who had been struggling to liberate the islands from Spanish control. The result was a complicated, confusing, and brutal war that kept the Philippines under American control and solidified the nation's role as a Pacific power. Silbey's chronicle of that conflict is fair and frequently surprising. As Silbey indicates, the Americans were hardly brutal imperialists; their motives for holding the islands were a mixture of self-interest and altruism. Although Filipino nationalists fought bravely, they were hindered by a fragmented political movement and erratic leadership. Silbey's portrait of the personality and career of Filipino icon Emilio Aguinaldo is particularly interesting. This is a well-researched examination of a struggle that, ultimately, helped forge a new nation out of disparate elements."—Jay Freeman, Booklist

"Silbey merits praise for the best brief introduction to the complex subject of the U.S. conquest of the Philippines now available. Synthesizing a broad spectrum of published scholarship from both Philippine and American sources, he convincingly establishes that the Philippine-American War included three separate conflicts. The first was a Filipino-American war against Spain, which the Filipinos were on the point of winning by themselves. In the second, the U.S. decisively outfought the embryonic Philippine Republic. Silbey establishes the U.S. decision to annex the Philippines as a transition from a frontier to a global ethos, incorporating spiritual, modernist and Darwinian elements, aided by the American army. However, that lost war defined Filipino national identity—far more so than the third war, which was a guerrilla conflict between the U.S. armed forces and an increasingly locally focused insurgency. Though the American victory involved episodes of brutality, Silbey demonstrates that it was sufficiently quick, decisive and humane, and the former opponents cooperated so amicably, that Americans were arguably deceived regarding the general prospects of reconciling enemies. As America contributed to Philippine nationalism by establishing economic, social and linguistic connections, he shows that Filipino defeat came to look like victory."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
A Summit
President Emilio Aguinaldo sat beneath a mountain one December day of 1899 and wondered what had happened to his revolution. More than a year before, he had been the head of an Army of Liberation...

Read the full excerpt


  • David J. Silbey

  • David J. Silbey is an associate professor of European history at Alvernia College in Reading, Pennsylvania

  • David J. Silbey Steve Shane for Alvernia College