Bias in History: Old Views of the Spanish-American War Die Hard

Every once and a while I did through old text-books from my history classes.  Re-selling them is a pitiful experience, and rather than lose a downright silly amount of money by doing that, I kept them.  A good historian, after all, needs a good library.  I’ll admit that sometimes I find the study of history to be frustrating.  To really find an untouched topic, or approach it in a new way, is extraordinarily difficult these days.  The historian thrives on arguing with other writers, and lately I’ve been having trouble finding anything worth arguing about.  Until I found my old copy of Readings in American Military History, a collection of essays edited by James M. Morris.

I remember these essays as being very influential for me.  They were assigned undergrad reading, so in a lot of cases they were my introduction to some real historical arguments.  But now that I’ve advanced, one essay in particular stood out to me as either poorly researched (no footnotes, so I can’t tell) or biased in such a way as to render the entire interpretation moot. 

“Our First Southeast Asian War” by David R. Kohler and James Wensyel seeks to draw parallels between the Vietnam War and the Philippine Insurrection.  I’ll admit, when I first read this essay years ago, it formed the basis of what I knew about the Philippine Insurrection and to this day I regale people with superficial comparisons in conversation.  But now I wonder if maybe this whole interpretation is wrong, and my doubt stems from the authors citing flawed theories early on in their essay.

You can’t talk about the Philippine Insurrection without prefacing it with the Spanish-American War.  Kohler and Wensyel do this, but they promote the theory that the war was brought on by yellow journalism and business interests, a leftist interpretation that has fallen out of favor because…well…there isn’t any evidence that yellow journalism influenced anyone in authority, and the business interests were against war.  Further, the authors seem to pin the blame for the war on America.  With regards to pre-war negotiations over the revolution in Cuba, “Spain initially rejected the humiliation of surrounding its arms in the field but then capitulated on all points.  The Americans were not satisfied.”  The rest of modern scholarship, since the ‘80s, has emphasized President McKinley’s patience.  He was so anti-war he alienated members of his own party like Theodore Roosevelt.  When he declared that “I have exhausted every effort to relieve the intolerable condition. . .at our doors,” he really meant it.  Spain had indeed made concessions, but never carried them out.  Spain was overwhelmingly two-faced during the whole proceedings.  In reality, then, McKinley was far more justified in giving up on diplomacy than Kohler and Wensyel make it seem.

I haven’t finished re-reading the article yet, but I’m pretty skeptical and disappointed already.  It seems that the Spanish-American War just can’t catch a break in the eyes of historians.  Kohler and Wensyel seem geared up to carry an outdated leftist interpretation of the Philippine Insurrection.  I’m not familiar with anything else these two have written, so maybe I’m way off the mark here in my judgment, but it makes me wonder just how accurate some of our conceptions of the Philippine Insurrection may be.



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