As Americans grapple with the scenes of parents being separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border, the question of balancing the need to be tough with being fair and humane comes to the fore.
For Montpelier, Vt. native son Admiral George Dewey 120 years ago, the choice was crystal clear. He had to be tough as he and his Asiatic squadron entered Manila Bay. For him, the Philippines was an unknown place many thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland. Just to be sure, Dewey held his lucky rabbit’s foot in his hand May 1, 1898, as he entered Manila Bay to take on the Spanish fleet.
The U.S. Navy at that time was not what it is today prior to when Dewey said his immortal line, “You may fire when you are ready Gridley.” In 1898, the old European powers did not consider the USN to be as powerful as they were. The British were said to have remarked to Dewey and his men as they left Hong Kong for Manila, “A fine set of gentlemen. Unhappily we shall never see them again.”
After the battle, Dewey once again felt he had to show toughness when the German navy showed up at Manila Bay after the Spanish defeat. A German squadron led by Admiral Otto Von Diederichs had the ships Kaiser, Irene, Cormoran, Kaiserin Augusta, and Prinzess Wilhelm ready to claim the Philippines if no one else would. As tensions rose, Dewey remarked, “If Germany wants war, all right, we are ready.”
But outside of battle, Dewey was quite a different man. Thirty days after, he wrote to the navy secretary to seek exemption on behalf of 50 Chinese seamen who accompanied him at Manila Bay from the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act. They were the crew of the Nanshan and Zafiro, coal ships he had acquired in Hong Kong prior to sailing to the Philippines, as fuel from the U.S. mainland was too far away. Dewey felt that since the Chinese were part of the victory, they should be allowed to enter the U.S.
Dewey also bore no ill will towards his former Spanish foe Contraalmirante Patricio Montojo. Montojo was subsequently court martialed in Madrid for dereliction of duty and asked for assistance in his defense, to which Dewey gladly responded with help.
With Filipino revolutionary leader General Emilio Aguinaldo, the situation was a bit mixed. Both had some mistrust of each other’s intentions, but both somehow worked out a tactical alliance. Dewey gave Aguinaldo’s navy a captured Spanish pinnace boat and in return Aguinaldo gave some intelligence on Spanish forces. Unfortunately, when President William McKinley decided to purchase the islands from Spain and annex it, the Philippine-American War erupted.
All in all, Dewey was not a politician, but he was a good naval commander. More importantly, he knew that bravery and toughness were demanded when the situation called for it but not at the expense of one’s humanity.
Written by Dennis Posadas. Dennis Posadas is a Filipino author, columnist, and playwright. His play is about how Admiral Dewey came to the court martial defense of his Spanish foe, Almirante Montojo.