Policy Papers

Winning 'hearts and minds': American imperial designs of the early twentieth and twenty-first centuries

Adam D. Burns |

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Executive Summary

  • In 1898, following the short Spanish-American War, the United States was left in possession of several formerly Spanish-run insular colonies.
  • Uniquely, the US chose to annex some occupied islands with neither the promise of potential statehood, nor a timeframe or even a guarantee for their future independence.
  • William H. Taft was appointed the first US Civil Governor of the Philippines in 1901. Instead of independence, Taft envisaged a long-term imperial relationship between the United States and the Philippines.
  • Facing guerrilla warfare, Taft formulated a 'policy of attraction' to win over the Filipino population to US rule and create a lasting imperial bond.
  • This included the building of schools, involvement of Filipinos in the government of the Philippines and a sustained campaign to lower US trade barriers.
  • The degree of commitment involved in Taft's policy of attraction alarmed many US politicians, and in 1916 a promise of independence was given to the Philippines. Independence came about in 1946.
  • Taft's policy could have provided an alternative precedent to that which US administrations have followed: a relatively brief period of nation-building, followed by a relatively rapid withdrawal.
  • The Filipino experience offers intriguing comparisons with future US intervention around the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.


In his 2004 book Colossus, historian Niall Ferguson describes the United States as an 'empire in denial'. In Ferguson's opinion, two of the main drawbacks of this denial are that not enough resources are given to non-military aspects of US interventionism and that the US allows an unrealistically short timeframe in which to attempt economic and political transformations where they become involved. He argues that this truncated timeframe, in particular, could be seen arising again in US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898 the United States acquired a formal overseas empire for the first time in its history, when it annexed the populous islands of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Some historians write off this period as an unfortunate anomaly in US history. While the twentieth century did become the 'American Century', the type of imperial annexation seen after 1898 did not become the norm for US overseas interventionism - as it did for the other 'great powers' of the period. Overseas empire simply did not sit well with America's understanding of itself. Could a post-colonial nation become a coloniser?

After Puerto Rico and the Philippines, this formal annexation of populous overseas territories came to a halt. Although there have been mandates and protectorates following wars, never again did the United States go down the path of annexing conquered nations and submitting them to rule from Washington. Within a decade of the war's end, most Americans were agitating for a promise of independence, if not for the more local Puerto Rico, then certainly for the distant Philippines. In this archipelago on the far side of the Pacific the 'Philippine-American War' had proved a costly guerrilla campaign for independence following US annexation, and reported American war crimes had led to a general apathy towards the continued retention of the islands among the American public.

In terms of motivations for US interventionism in both 1898 and the twenty-first century, there are certain marked similarities. In the Philippines the US recognised the potential economic benefits of greater proximity to the lucrative Chinese market, as well as the military/strategic benefits of occupying the islands before a European power or the Japanese could take their place. Similarly, in Iraq there was an evident concern for oil resources and regional stability, though intervention in Afghanistan offered no such clear economic benefits. In all of these cases the motivation for intervention contained a strong element of US security, be it rival empires or Islamist radicals. Despite this, the United States was also always keen to stress the less directly pragmatic humanitarian benefits of military intervention: overthrowing the existing regimes and bringing democracy to these oppressed populations (even when these benefits might have been offered much sooner). Though the rhetoric of intervention has always been gilded with high-minded ideas of improving lives, destroying the existing regimes has always proved far simpler and more popular than the rebuilding process.

On 4 July 1901, William Howard Taft, a former circuit court judge from Ohio, became the first US Civil Governor of the Philippines. For the next two decades Taft would maintain a strong interest in the future of the US experiment in the islands. As Civil Governor, then Secretary of War under Theodore Roosevelt, and then as President in his own right, Taft developed a distinct vision for a permanent imperial union. In the 1912 election, when the Republicans lost control of the White House for the first time since 1896, Taft became a figurehead for retention in opposition to the Democratic Party's platform to promise the Philippines future independence. Ultimately Taft's imperial vision was undone by the Democrats, who gave the Philippines a formal promise of independence in 1916, in what Taft saw as a 'policy of scuttle'.

Where Niall Ferguson characterises twentieth-century US foreign interventionism as lacking in a non-military strategy and long-term commitment to economic and political transformation, the sort of policy Taft advocated was the exact opposite. Looking back to the early years of US civil government in the Philippines provides a striking vision of how US interventionism might have differed had Taft had his way back in the early 1900s.

The policy of attraction

The phase 'winning hearts and minds' might seem the mainstay of much current US foreign policy, but the premise is certainly far from novel. When Civil Governor Taft arrived in the Philippines his slightly less catchy slogan was the 'policy of attraction,' but the premise was much the same. Taft told a Senate Committee in 1902 that if the policy of attraction were given suitable time to take effect then within a generation or two the Filipino people would 'rise to call the name of the United States blessed'. Though Taft was relatively vague when it came to providing a timeframe, he was clear in one respect - it would take many, many years. Taft's frequent assertions that the United States could only create the situation where the Filipino people would embrace and celebrate US rule after decades of continued imperial supervision was hard to sell to the US public and, therefore, most politicians as well.

Although in the initial surge of post-war enthusiasm, the Republican Party was buoyed by public support for their expansionist foreign policy, this enthusiasm soon waned. The anti-imperialist lobby in the United States had what was essentially the 'easy argument' in the battle for US opinion towards imperialism. The United States was born out of a rejection of empire and rule from a distant and indifferent metropolis. To build a permanent subservient empire stood against the nation's founding ideals. The argument for empire appeared selfish, racist and exploitative. Indeed, even so staunch an expansionist as Teddy Roosevelt began to change his opinion (ever the master of staying on top of popular opinion). On 21 August 1907, he stated:

I wish our people were prepared permanently ... to assume the control of the Philippines for the good of the Filipinos. But as a matter of fact I gravely question whether this is the case. ... Personally I should be glad to see the islands made independent, with perhaps some kind of international guarantee for the preservation of order.

Roosevelt was not only guided by the sway of popular opinion in this case, but also by strategic concerns. The president thought that with the rise of Japan and increasingly strained relations in the Pacific, the Philippines had become an Achilles' heel for the United States. Taft dismissed Roosevelt's concerns and decided not to make a promise of future independence as the president had suggested when he travelled to the Philippines on a tour of East Asia that year. He was determined that the policy of attraction that he had initiated as civil governor of the islands needed time to take effect.

Taft's attraction strategy divides quite readily into three distinct spheres: social, political and economic. The remainder of this article will explore the policy in each of these spheres and how they aimed to tie the Philippines into a variety of permanent bonds with the United States that would, in time, draw the two nations closer.

The social sphere

In 1899, the British poet Rudyard Kipling advised the United States to take up the 'White Man's Burden,' in his oft-cited poem of that name. For Taft, this idea of the duty of Americans to the Filipinos was crucial in guiding how he viewed imperialism. Taft felt that the people of the Philippines were in a sort of 'race infancy,' and assigned to them traits like those of children. For Taft this was both an advantage and a disadvantage. Though unfit to run their own affairs, he felt, there was ample opportunity to show them how to do things. Taft felt that above all things the Filipino people appreciated 'ocular demonstrations' of American benevolence.

As historian John Morgan Gates has made clear, the building of schools was just one of the ways in which the US military had sought to pacify the islands during the ongoing guerrilla campaign against American rule. This was not the only policy Taft, as Civil Governor, borrowed from the military to bring into his policy of attraction. The former Military Governor, General Arthur MacArthur, also held a number of racially mixed social events, or fiestas, during his time in charge. Taft regarded such events, much like school building, as clear visual demonstrations of American benevolence, in this case lifting the 'colour bar'. For Taft, the key to the policy of attraction was that it had to demonstrate that the United States was going to deal with the people of the Philippines in a different way from other empires.

Perhaps the biggest publicity coup of Taft's time in charge of the islands was the purchase of the 'Friar Lands' in the Philippines. The US perceived these Vatican-owned lands, as well as the powerful friars themselves, as elements that were causing particular frustration among the general populace of the islands. By purchasing the lands for potential sale back to Filipinos and removing many of the Spanish friars, the US could show that it was looking after Filipino interests. Though the policy looked like it would fail on numerous occasions, Taft, who travelled to the Vatican personally to oversee discussions, was ultimately successful in securing their purchase.

Considered together, these policies might seem somewhat uncoordinated. However, they all have one clear, common thread: they aimed to show the people of the Philippines that the United States was there to make their lives better. Taft believed very firmly that then US should use spectacle as a method of winning over 'hearts and minds,' be this school building or lavish banquets for Filipino dignitaries. As mentioned earlier, the Philippine-American War that followed the US defeat of Spain illustrated clearly that the Filipino people were not overly enamoured with the idea of becoming part of an American empire so soon after they had cast off a European one. In Taft's eyes, if this US imperialism were to be successful it had to be clear to the Filipinos themselves that the US was acting in their best interests, distancing themselves from the actions of Spain, and drawing the population over to the idea of benevolent assimilation.

The political sphere

Despite borrowing some ideas from the military for his policy of attraction, Taft was keen from the outset that the Civil Government of the islands would be seen as quite separate from the Military Government that preceded it. The military might have built schools, but they were also the face of violence and oppression to those had fought the United States to maintain their nascent independence. The military were also seen as acting in a racist and derogatory manner towards the Filipino people. Therefore, Taft was eager to see that the Civil Government take control of Philippine affairs as quickly as possible so that he might be able to implement his policy of attraction. However, he also had to contend with the question of how exactly one puts the issue of independence off the agenda in a country where most of the population favoured it. In the political arena Taft made it clear in his speeches that he subscribed to the idea of the 'Philippines for the Filipinos' and that politics in the islands would be quite different from that which had gone before. From his very earliest days as governor Taft patronised a Filipino-run political party (the Federal Party) that initially advocated US statehood for the Philippines. He also accepted that, though he would have liked to begin wholesale reformation of the political classes, in practice this would be impossible. As a result, Taft decided to rely heavily upon existing political elites to populate his pro-American political party, and seemed to support the idea of future statehood as a least-worst alternative to independence.

The idea of becoming a state within the United States was unlikely from the outset. There was little appetite among either imperialists or anti-imperialists for a sizable non-white state in the union. However, in the early days Taft sought to use the ambiguity of the islands' status under US rule to allow him to toy with such ideas. During the first decade of the twentieth century the US Supreme Court made a series of decisions, collectively known as the Insular Cases, which designated the Philippines an 'unincorporated territory' of the United States, where the Constitution did not always follow the flag and future statehood was not a natural right for Filipinos.

Aside from utilising elements of the existing political elite, Taft also sought to stifle the efforts of pro-independence parties to organise, and even passed a Sedition Act outlawing the advocacy of independence. However, the carrot that Taft offered was the policy of 'Filipinization', which worked much like the social sphere of the policy of attraction. Filipinization would see Filipino politicians take up an increasing number of political positions, mainly at lower levels of government. Before long, Filipinos made up a minority portion of the leading governmental commission of which Taft was the head.

The main outcome of Filipinization and political attraction was the passage of the 1902 Organic Act that set out a timeline for the establishment of a popularly elected lower house (Assembly) made up entirely of Filipino politicians, to work alongside a veto-wielding US-dominated upper house. Despite the fact that the US would maintain control, in this age of empire such rapid transfer of so much power to hands of the ruled was unusual. It was not until 1909 that Britain passed the very limited Morley-Minto reforms providing for an increase in Indian representation within that country's government, and in its African colonies such reforms remained a long way off. Taft's political policy of attraction, like its social counterpart, saw him try to convince the Filipino population that US rule was geared towards their benefit, even to the extent of risking the seemingly inevitable participation of pro-independence politicians in the future Philippine Assembly.

The economic sphere

Most opponents of the US role in the Philippines, at the time, cited the economic motivations behind the venture as an example of the exploitative nature of imperialism. An economic motivation, for the anti-imperialists, showed more clearly than anything else that the American version of an overseas empire was hardly exceptional. Nevertheless, many advocates of imperialism in the Philippines pointed to the trading and commercial benefits of the relationship as perhaps the only concrete benefits for American businessmen and citizens, not to mention its much-heralded position as the gateway to the China market. Administrators such as Taft attempted to express the economic benefits of the imperial relationship in a more balanced way with the idea that economic and trading benefits would be shared with, and maybe even favour, the Filipino people. Taft also saw these economic ties, trade links and (especially) long-term US investment in the islands, as crucial to cementing the social and political bonds around which he sought to create a permanent imperial union.

In October 1900 Taft wrote to Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that the islands' 'capacity for development under American auspices is not to be exaggerated in a material way. ... Nothing will civilize them so much as the introduction of American enterprise and capital here'. Here Taft focused attention on the potentially civilising aspects of economic intervention; after all, the United States was a capitalist and economic powerhouse and there was no shame in economic motives. This suggestion on Taft's part can be looked at in a number of ways. In the most benevolent sense, capital investment would see increased productivity and substantial growth in infrastructure that Taft viewed as integral both to his policy of attraction and also as evidence that the US was in the islands for the long haul and not just a quick gain.

In line with such beliefs, Taft felt that much could be gained from reducing or even removing the tariffs between the US and the Philippines. However, the question of tariff revision was far from straightforward. For example, in early 1900 the Republican McKinley administration had suggested revising the tariff with Puerto Rico. Historian Göran Rystad suggests that the issue of Puerto Rican tariff revision served as a rallying point for anti-imperialists as, prior to the Supreme Court's further definition of the islands' status in the Insular Cases, there was a belief that tariff revision could set a wider precedent for equal treatment under the US Constitution. Since Taft was approaching the tariff question in the Philippines at a time when the question of the insular possessions' constitutional status was still not fully defined, he was swimming against the tide of political opinion.

Ultimately, in December 1901 and early 1902, the US Congress debated a new tariff bill to determine the trade relations between the United States and the Philippines. Taft told the Senate Philippine Committee in early 1902:

We are looking, so far as we can, after the interests of the Philippine Islands, with a view to developing trade there that shall be a benefit to those islands. ... [T]he lower you get the duties on goods coming from the Philippine Islands into the United States, the more trade will be developed.

Following long debates in both houses, the tariff rate was lowered in March of 1902 when Congress voted to set a duty of 75 percent of the existing rates on Philippine goods entering the United States. The result was less than Taft had hoped for and he continued to push for a further reduction. However, Taft's efforts to reduce the tariffs routinely failed, in part due to the fears of wider political implications, but also due to fears among sugar and tobacco interests in the US of cheaper Philippine competition.

In the same testimony before the Philippine Committee, Taft went so far as to claim that an end to the US imperial presence in the islands would 'drive out capital; prevent capital from coming there; and upon the investment of capital, the building of railroads, the enlargement of vision of the Filipino people much of our hope of progress must depend'. If the Philippines were to develop in the image of the United States and not be exploited as they were by the Spanish, Taft believed that not only US-style democracy and government had to be duplicated in the islands but so did a modern economic state.


Taft's vision for a permanent imperial presence in the Philippines, where one day the Filipinos would 'rise to call the name of the United States blessed,' did not come to fruition. However, his wider aims provide a glimpse of a path not taken in terms of US interventionism. Elements of the 'policy of attraction' have certainly been used by the United States since Taft's time: as suggested at the start, the phrase 'winning hearts and minds' has a lot in common with Taft's aims. However, on numerous occasions Taft stated that he saw the imperial experiment as a long-term project that could, if properly undertaken, see the Philippines remain as a US Dominion (like the relationship between Britain and Canada or Australia). He envisaged around a century of tutelage and progress towards responsible self-government. Taft's distinct imperial vision offered a very different view of US intervention, regime change and future relations than was ultimately realised throughout the course of the twentieth century and beyond.

Though the rhetoric of formal imperialism grew increasingly unpopular during the twentieth century, especially following the disintegration of the European empires after the Second World War, the blueprint for US policy that Taft failed to establish provides a useful counterpoint to the path that was ultimately taken. Taft saw US expansion as ill-advised. He consistently favoured the use of international arbitration and peace-keeping institutions. Taft did not seek to acquire new territories for the United States and instead believed that the US should perfect their own systems before they might attempt to change those of other nations. However, Taft saw Philippine annexation as a regrettable fait accompli that provided a chance to illustrate how the United States could conduct imperialism differently and more successfully than its European predecessors. In practice during the twentieth century the United States set a very different pattern of intervention and regime change. Its policies favoured a truncated period of 'nation building,' followed by what Taft would have termed 'scuttle'. For Taft, this sort of policy of would prove disastrous and the twentieth century has proved that Taft was much more far-sighted in this area than he was ever credited with. In 1916 the United States passed legislation guaranteeing the future independence of the Philippines against strong protests from figures such as Taft, and with it the US ended its best opportunity to see if long-term interventionism (or imperialism) via the use of 'attraction' or 'hearts and minds' was a genuinely workable policy.

In early 2008, while running for the nomination as the Republican Party candidate for the presidential election of that year, Senator John McCain suggested that the United States might have to stay in Iraq for one hundred years or more to achieve success. In response Democratic opponents derided McCain for suggesting a policy that would prove too costly in dollars and lives, not to mention the negative effects on the US public that a projected century-long war might create. However, what the Senator - a veteran of the Vietnam War - did recognise as the crux of the issue was similar to Niall Ferguson's suggestion: that for real success in an intervention, long-term commitment was the key. A century before McCain's failed bid for the White House, the 1908 Republican nominee, William Howard Taft, was suggesting the same solution in his own imperial vision. If Taft's vision had been given a real chance, the United States would now have a viable alternative model by which to judge the wisdom of staying versus 'scuttling' in the twenty-first century.

Further Reading

H.W. Brands, Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines (Oxford, 1992).

Rene Escalante, The Bearer of Pax Americana: The Philippine Career of William Howard Taft (Quezon City, 2007).

Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London, 2004).

John Morgan Gates, Schoolbooks and Krags: The United States Army and the Philippines (Westport, CT, 1973).

Frank Hindman Golay, Face of Empire: United States-Philippine Relations, 1898-1946 (Quezon City, 1997).

Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines (London, 1990).

Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006).

Glenn Anthony May, Social Engineering in the Philippines: The Aims, Execution, and Impact of American Colonial Policy, 1900-1913 (Westport, CT, 1980).

Göran Rystad, Ambiguous Imperialism: American Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics at the Turn of the Century (Lund, Sweden, 1973).

Bonifacio S. Salamanca, The Filipino Reaction to American Rule, 1901-1913 (Quezon City, 1984).

Peter W. Stanley, A Nation in the Making: The Philippines and the United States, 1899-1921 (Cambridge, MA, 1974).

Leon Wolff, Little Brown Brother: America's Forgotten Bid for Empire Which Cost 250,000 Lives (London, 1961).


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