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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: July 2014

6 - America, Aguinaldo, and the Philippines, 1898


The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages, [which establishes] the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people.

– Theodore Roosevelt

Only a few days after the United States declared war against Spain on April 25, 1898, Commodore George Dewey, on his flagship the USS Olympia, guided the American fleet from Nagasaki to Manila Bay to confront the antiquated Spanish navy. Washington’s orders to Dewey’s were short but clear: “War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to Philippine islands. Commence operations at once, particularly against the Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavors.”

The fighting in Manila Bay began on the morning of May 1, when for posterity Dewey reportedly shouted, “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” After several hours of shelling, Dewey’s men took a break for breakfast and then resumed. When one American gunner heard that Dewey had ordered the cessation, he apparently pleaded, “For God’s sake, Captain, don’t stop us now. To hell with breakfast.” By lunch on a hot and windless day, the Americans had soundly defeated the Spanish fleet of battle-seasoned Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo. In one of the most lopsided victories in naval history, the Americans had lost only one man, from heatstroke. All the main Spanish ships were sunk; other auxiliary ships were captured or scuttled. A total of 381 Spanish sailors were left dead or wounded. When news of Dewey’s victory reached Washington, it stunned U.S. officials, who had not expected that victory in the highly strategic Pacific region would come so fast or so easily.