25 August 2019
The Dewey Monument in San Francisco commemorates the Battle of Manila Bay of 1898. Photos: Supercarwaar/Wikimedia Commons
The Dewey Monument in San Francisco commemorates the Battle of Manila Bay of 1898. Photos: Supercarwaar/Wikimedia Commons

120 years of American gunboat diplomacy

As America’s newspapers run headlines about Trump’s legal troubles and historic developments in the Korean peninsula, a small anniversary passes quietly. May 1, 2018 is the 120th anniversary of America’s first foreign overseas naval victory in Manila Bay, during the short-lived Spanish-American War, and one which has been commemorated since 1903 by the Dewey Monument in San Francisco.

The naval victory at Manila Bay allowed America to debut on the world stage, ended Spain’s global empire, and also allowed the Filipinos led by Emilio Aguinaldo (in exile in Hong Kong) to return to raise the flag a few weeks later.

America’s first victory at Manila Bay set the stage for its involvement in World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, and its current tensions in the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula.

The inability to distinguish between movements of national liberation and one simply driven by ideology would prove fatal to America a few decades later in Vietnam.

For Spain, the defeat in Manila coupled with that in Cuba signaled the end of an empire. The loss of the Spanish-American War and her overseas territories is called “The Disaster of ’98″, and created a societal cataclysm propelled by her writers, artists, and intellectuals.

America’s dreams of overseas empire were driven mainly by Assistant Navy Secretary Teddy Roosevelt and influenced by the ideas of Captain Alfred Mahan, head of the Naval War College and author of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, who realized that without a powerful navy, there was no global power. Then as now, control of the seas and oceans was as vital to projecting influence abroad.

The British, part of the old imperial powers, met with then Commodore George Dewey in Hong Kong prior to the departure from Mirs Bay to Manila. The British naval officers were not too confident with Dewey’s chances, and were said to have remarked, “A fine set of gentlemen. Unhappily, we shall never see them again.”

Of course, after Dewey gave his famous order, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” most of the Spanish ships commanded by Almirante Patricio Montojo were either sunk or scuttled. After noontime of May 1, 1898, power in that corner of the globe was transferred from Spain to America, a young and vibrant nation whose celebration knew no bounds.

Then there were the Filipinos, who like the Cubans, only wanted national independence. Then as with Vietnam a few decades later, America ended up fighting with the Filipinos headed by Emilio Aguinaldo, who raised the Philippine flag for the first time on June 12, not too far from where the Battle of Manila Bay took place.

Dewey and Roosevelt did not do so badly after the end of the Spanish-American War. Dewey became so popular and became an unsuccessful presidential contender after receiving various tributes including New York City’s first ticker tape parade where two million people were said to have attended.

Dewey, up to this day, remains the only US naval officer to receive the rank of Admiral of the Navy. Roosevelt was luckier in the sense that he became his nation’s president after his successful leadership of the Rough Riders in Cuba.

Montojo, after the loss of his fleet and 381 men, was court-martialed in Madrid for dereliction of duty. Fortunately for him, his former naval foe Dewey came to his defense. Unlike some wars these days, where civilians (including women and children) are deliberately targeted, codes of honor between gentlemen warriors were still given importance.

The 120-year-old Battle of Manila Bay has some interesting lessons that remain useful to the current generation and geopolitics. It should not be buried beneath news of presidential legal troubles or celebrity news.

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Philippines based author, columnist and playwright

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