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Policing America’s Empire

The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State

Alfred W. McCoy

Publication Year: 2009

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the U.S. Army swiftly occupied Manila and then plunged into a decade-long pacification campaign with striking parallels to today’s war in Iraq. Armed with cutting-edge technology from America’s first information revolution, the U.S. colonial regime created the most modern police and intelligence units anywhere under the American flag. In Policing America’s Empire Alfred W. McCoy shows how this imperial panopticon slowly crushed the Filipino revolutionary movement with a lethal mix of firepower, surveillance, and incriminating information. Even after Washington freed its colony and won global power in 1945, it would intervene in the Philippines periodically for the next half-century—using the country as a laboratory for counterinsurgency and rearming local security forces for repression. In trying to create a democracy in the Philippines, the United States unleashed profoundly undemocratic forces that persist to the present day.
    But security techniques bred in the tropical hothouse of colonial rule were not contained, McCoy shows, at this remote periphery of American power. Migrating homeward through both personnel and policies, these innovations helped shape a new federal security apparatus during World War I. Once established under the pressures of wartime mobilization, this distinctively American system of public-private surveillance persisted in various forms for the next fifty years, as an omnipresent, sub rosa matrix that honeycombed U.S. society with active informers, secretive civilian organizations, and government counterintelligence agencies. In each succeeding global crisis, this covert nexus expanded its domestic operations, producing new contraventions of civil liberties—from the harassment of labor activists and ethnic communities during World War I, to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, all the way to the secret blacklisting of suspected communists during the Cold War.

“With a breathtaking sweep of archival research, McCoy shows how repressive techniques developed in the colonial Philippines migrated back to the United States for use against people of color, aliens, and really any heterodox challenge to American power. This book proves Mark Twain’s adage that you cannot have an empire abroad and a republic at home.”—Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago

 “This book lays the Philippine body politic on the examination table to reveal the disease that lies within—crime, clandestine policing, and political scandal. But McCoy also draws the line from Manila to Baghdad, arguing that the seeds of controversial counterinsurgency tactics used in Iraq were sown in the anti-guerrilla operations in the Philippines. His arguments are forceful.”—Sheila S. Coronel, Columbia University
Winner, George McT. Kahin Prize of the Southeast Asian Council of the Association for Asian Studies

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

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pp. ix-xiii

The intellectual debts I have accrued during my decade of work on this book begin and end in the Philippines. I started this project as a Fulbright-Hays fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University in 1998 – 99, where my work was hosted by Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, SJ, Antonette Palma-Angeles, and Fr. Jose Cruz, SJ. During...


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pp. xv-xviii

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Prologue: Analogies of Empire

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pp. 3-14

In October 2003, as Baghdad bathed in blood from bombs detonated in opposition to the U.S. occupation, President George W. Bush flew toward Manila aboard Air Force One on a mission of historical affirmation. Over the Pacific the president’s entourage recast the past for reporters with a briefing paper explaining that U.S. colonial rule over the Philippines “was always declared to be temporary and aimed to develop institutions that would . . . encourage the eventual establishment of a free and independent government.” The formal reason for this...

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1. Capillaries of Empire

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pp. 15-56

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Commodore George Dewey of the U.S. Navy arrayed his squadron of steel-hulled warships at the edge of Asia. Steaming across Manila Bay at first light on May 1, 1898, his rapid-fire guns sank the aging Spanish fleet and cleared the way for an attack on Manila. After transports arrived three months later, U.S. Army troops stormed Manila’s...

Part One: U.S. Colonial Police

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2 Colonial Coercion

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pp. 59-93

Just after 8:00 a.m. on April 30, 1903, the Pacific Mail steamship carrying one of America’s most influential imperialists dropped anchor into the mud of Manila Bay. After five years of U.S. colonial rule, the capital was ready for his return. Thousands of American flags fluttered from city spires in the brisk...

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3 Surveillance and Scandal

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pp. 94-125

On July 2, 1902, fifty American colonials gathered at the Army-Navy Club for “the most sumptuous banquet ever given in Manila,” a farewell dinner for the local Associated Press (AP) correspondent, the dashing English gentleman Capt. Edgar G. Bellairs. Led by Gen. Adna Chaffee, the U.S. Army commander in these...

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4 Paramilitary Pacification

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pp. 126-174

On March 16, 1905, General Henry T. Allen, chief of the Philippines Constabulary, paused during combat against peasant rebels in the central Philippines to record an angry entry in his private diary. For the past three months he had been leading his troops along Samar Island’s muddy trails, which were booby-trapped with spike-filled pits and deadly spring spears. Hacking their way up steep ridges...

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5 Constabulary Covert Operations

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pp. 175-205

In July 1907,Manila was stunned by news of a spectacular upset in the elections for the first Philippine Assembly. After years of harassment by the courts and constabulary, Filipino nationalists had captured a clear majority of seats, reducing the once dominant collaborators of the Federalista Party to an impotent...

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6 Policing the Tribal Zone

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pp. 206-235

Sometime in 1908 Captain Harold Elarth was leading a patrol of ten Filipino constabulary soldiers into the mountains of Mindanao Island to investigate rumors of a revolt by local Muslims, the “warlike” Moros. Suddenly his soldiers ran headlong into “a thousand tribesmen, armed and ready for action.” Without warning, three “frenzied fanatics” broke from the crowd and attacked, screaming...

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7 American Police in Manila

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pp. 236-267

In November 1911, Manila’s assistant chief of police, Capt. John F. Green, seemed exhausted. Looking “like a ghost,” he collapsed into a chair before the crusading editor of the Philippines Free Press, R. McCulloch Dick. “I’m not feeling very well and I shouldn’t be surprised if I passed in my checks almost any time,” Green said. “Before I go, however, I should like to . . . place some documents...

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8 The Conley Case

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pp. 268-292

On the night of July 17, 1923, Senator Manuel Quezon led five Filipino cabinet secretaries, all attired in formal dress, up the grand staircase into Malaca

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9 President Wilson’s Surveillance State

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pp. 293-346

In July 1971 the New York Times published a curious story, buried inside on page five, about “a private dossier on alleged Communists . . . kept for 23 years by a retired army colonel and his wife. ”Recently, the story continued, the Pentagon had sent this dossier to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, famed for its...

Part Two: Philippine National Police

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10 President Quezon’s Commonwealth

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pp. 349-371

On November 15, 1935, the U.S. secretary of war stood before a half-million Filipinos massed in Manila’s morning heat to inaugurate the Commonwealth of the Philippines. After four centuries of colonial rule, this autonomous government would control the country’s internal affairs while Washington directed its foreign relations for ten more years until full independence. After the secretary of...

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11 Philippine Republic

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pp. 372-396

By 7:00 P.M. on a moist, monsoon night in August 1971, every square inch of Manila’s Plaza Miranda, from Quiapo Church to Mercury Drug, was packed with a partisan crowd. For two hours senatorial candidates from the opposition Liberal Party slammed President Ferdinand Marcos’s corruption and incompetence. As emotions peaked and a fireworks display erupted above the...

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12 Martial Law Terror

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pp. 397-432

In the fourth month of President Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law rule, two constabulary troopers marched a middle-aged Chinese merchant across a Manila parade ground. As they tied him to a stake, Lim Seng joked with the soldiers, still confident that he could buy his way out. Only when they fixed the blindfold to his face did the realization strike home. Lim Seng, Manila’s top heroin...

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13 Unsheathing the Sword

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pp. 433-451

In January 1987 some fifteen thousand peasants paraded peacefully before Malaca

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14 Ramos’s Supercops

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pp. 452-470

Just before dawn on May 19, 1995, a cavalcade of thirty-five vehicles stopped near a flyover on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City, the nation’s capital. Fifty muscular men got out, all armed with pistols and rifles. Several stepped into the street to stop the early morning traffic of buses, taxis, and cars. The remainder formed a ragged circle around two Mitsubishi L-300 passenger...

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15 Estrada’s Racketeering

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pp. 471-497

On January 19, 2001, the presidency of Joseph Estrada was in its last desperate hours. For the past four months, a provincial governor had plunged the nation into crisis by repeatedly accusing the president of taking bribes from illegal jueteng gambling. After Estrada’s impeachment trial before the Senate produced damning evidence but collapsed on a technicality, tens of thousands of angry...

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16 Extrajudicial Executions

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pp. 498-520

On June 27, 2005, President Gloria Arroyo appeared on national television for an unprecedented act of political contrition. After pummeling her for months with accusations of electoral fraud, the opposition had finally proved its case by releasing the sensational “Hello, Garci” tapes with the president’s own gravelly voice ordering a corrupt election commissioner to manufacture a million-vote...

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17 Crucibles of Counterinsurgency

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pp. 521-540

For over a century, the United States and the Philippines have collided, on their separate historical trajectories, in ways that have proven transformative for both nations. Through a prolonged pacification after 1898, the U.S. Army plunged into a crucible of counterinsurgency, forging a security apparatus that helped form the Philippine polity and transform the American state. After swiftly...


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pp. 541-636


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pp. 637-659

E-ISBN-13: 9780299234133
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299234140

Page Count: 759
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Philippines -- History -- Philippine American War, 1899-1902 -- Secret service.
  • Philippines -- History -- Autonomy and independence movements.
  • Espionage, American -- Philippines -- History -- 20th century.
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