Elected last May, President Duterte governs a half‐failed state. His signature domestic policy is the extra‐judicial murder of drug users and dealers. His government faces a bitter Islamic insurgency in the country’s south. In a region dominated by economic “tigers” the Philippines barely muddles along, leaving its energetic and entrepreneurial population well behind neighboring peoples.
After taking office Duterte wasted no time in denouncing President Barack Obama, the United States, and the U.S.-Philippine alliance. For a time Duterte even appeared to join Team China, proclaiming that he was in Beijing’s “ideological flow.” Although his enthusiasm for the Sino embrace appeared to fade when Beijing failed to ease its territorial claims, in his State of the Nation address on Monday President Duterte ostentatiously again flaunted his anti‐Americanism.
He demanded the return of three bronze church bells taken in 1901 by U.S. troops battling the Filipino resistance against Washington after the latter seized the archipelago from Spain. Explained Duterte: “Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears … who resisted the American colonization and sacrificed their lives in the process. Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage.”
In fact, the Filipino people have good claim to the bells. But demanding them in a high profile speech after ostentatiously trashing America guarantees rejection. Indeed, the only reason Donald Trump didn’t respond in kind is because he took no notice of Duterte’s speech. The latter was a political act, not a genuine request to redress history.
The relationship between America and the Philippines has been complicated from the start. Washington launched the Spanish‐American War in 1898 in the name of freeing Cubans from Spanish colonial oppression. Madrid also conveniently controlled the Philippines, which offered America an advanced naval station on the way to what were imagined to be illimitable Asian markets.
Although Filipinos already were fighting for independence, Washington insisted that defeated Spain surrender the islands and then undefeated Filipinos accept a new colonial master. Many refused. The American military fought an increasingly dirty war against the insurgents. Some three years and 200,000 dead Filipinos later, Washington had established its control over most of what now was America’s first “Salt Water” or overseas colony. Some resistance, especially among the Muslim minority, continued for years.
One of the noted battles occurred in Balangiga, where guerrillas infiltrated the town and assaulted a U.S. Army base, killing 48 Americans. The ringing of church bells signaled the start of the attack. Retaliation was brutal, the kind of conduct Americans most often associate with Nazi Germany. Brig. Gen. Jacob W. Smith ordered the killing of anyone who could fight, meaning ten years old and up. Explained the commander: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” He further instructed his men to make the region “a howling wilderness.” Estimates of the number murdered start at around 2000, though no one really knows. Smith was forced into retirement, but not otherwise punished.
Amid the slaughter the U.S. Army took the bells as war booty. One is housed in a military museum at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea; the other two are displayed at Wyoming’s Francis E. Warren Air Force Base. President Duterte complained: “they hijacked it, stole it and never returned it to us.” The bells represent oppression, not liberty; brutality, not bravery. Given their history, the bells should generate shame and embarrassment in any American who views them. They should go back to the Philippines.
But Washington never has reacted well to demands to reexamine America’s past dubious conduct. President Bill Clinton rejected the request from far more respectable Philippine President Fidel Ramos for the bells’ return. Wyoming politicians also have steadfastly defended their state’s plundered bells. Three years ago Filipinos started an online petition requesting the bells back, but received no response.
While criticism of America’s war‐time conduct is warranted, the abuses occurred almost 120 years ago. President Duterte’s anti‐American feelings date to his childhood (his grandmother reportedly described U.S. war crimes) and apparently were reinforced while he served as mayor of Davao City, when he was denied a visa to visit America because of his use even then of extrajudicial killings to fight crime. Today Duterte is sensitive to foreign, and especially U.S., scrutiny of his murderous misbehavior at a national level.