This is a guest post by Dr. Laura Diaz-Esteve, a historian of imperialism in Southeast Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries, with a focus on the American occupation of the Philippines.
Veteran historians had told me about the satisfaction of visiting an archive with preconceived ideas of your potential findings and discovering an unexpected line of inquiry even more interesting than what you had imagined. My visit to the Martin Egan Collection was my first practical encounter with such an experience.
Editorials like this indicate how Egan fully believed in the so-called American Benevolent Assimilation and thought “it was moving forward.” Retrieved from: Twelve Years from Dewey’s Coming Editorial, The Manila Times, April 2, 1910. Martin Egan Papers, ARC 1222, Box 48, Folder: Manila Times 1913-1915, 1921, 1925-1926, 1929-1930. The Morgan Library & Museum.
I was attracted to it because Martin Egan (1872–1938) was a journalist working for The San Francisco Chronicle when the war against Spain broke out in 1898, and he traveled to the Philippines to cover the conflict. Secretary of State John Hay labeled it the “Splendid Little War” due to the relatively low financial expense and number of human casualties it caused for the U.S. and its high popularity in the country. The media mainly presented it as a humanitarian crusade to free the Cubans from Spanish tyranny while protecting American interests in that nearby island. Driven by the feeding frenzy, hundreds of war correspondents reported the events in Cuba. Their story is thoroughly researched, but their equivalents in the Pacific theater of the war and the seminal conflict that followed there, like Egan, have received much less popular and academic attention. After the defeat of the Spanish Empire, the U.S. decided to annex the Philippine Islands and engaged in a long, controversial, and violent war against Filipino revolutionaries, who had been fighting for self-governance long before the American intervention. I went to the Morgan Library & Museum to better understand the war correspondents’ experience in the islands and how they depicted the conflict, using Egan as a case study.
Existing research has revealed that a complex cultural structure, ranging from academia to literature and photography, framed the American imperialist policies by portraying the natives of the Philippines as uncivilized peoples. Amidst a national debate about what to do with the islands after the Spanish defeat and the possibility of annexation, many in the media sustained the authorities’ arguments that, after centuries of oppression and misgovernance, the natives of the archipelago were unfit for independence, and granting them total autonomy would cause internal conflicts and possibly invite another occupation by European imperial powers. Consequently, also bearing in mind important strategic and economic interests, the McKinley Administration encouraged what the president called “Benevolent Assimilation,” uplifting the Filipinos until they were prepared for self-governance.1 During my research in the Morgan Library for part of my Ph.D. dissertation, defended on March 2022, I noticed how Egan’s texts and opinions exemplify the reasoning and behavior of those who believed such arguments, and how he, as a journalist, contributed to the cultural machinery that encouraged expansionism. As his colleague Frederick Palmer put it, Egan was one of the war correspondents who helped to hang the American flag on the Carabao’s horns in the name of Benevolent Assimilation.2
Therefore, the answers the collection offered to my enquiries about the coverage of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars were interesting and supported what several historians had already pointed out. Unfortunately, the material available about those episodes is very limited, as the bulk of the archive covers Egan’s activities in later years. Still, to my surprise, those open a window to several far-reaching events that deserve further analysis.
The year 1898 marked a turning point for the United States expanding its influence around the world, and Egan witnessed and participated in the process from that time through the next fifteen years. After the Spanish-American War, Egan returned to Asia often, for example to cover the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, and the continuance of hostilities in the Southern Philippines. In 1908 he took the opportunity to return to that archipelago by joining the ownership and editorial board of The Manila Times, a position he held until 1913. His public comments on its pages, his social relations with influential characters of the political, military, social, and financial circles in the islands, and his engagement in its civic organizations constitute potential sources to analyze the American occupation during that early period.
Moreover, although my work at the archive focused on his Philippine experience, a glance at Egan’s unpublished biography by Keith Torbert, available in the collection, highlights the significance of his activities after returning to the U.S. in 1914. For almost twenty-five years, he was a pioneering Public Relations specialist for J. P. Morgan & Co., where he also served as personal assistant to senior partners. He not only witnessed and communicated but actively participated in significant episodes of U.S. history where the institution played important roles, like its foreign economic expansion during and after the First World War or its part in the Wall Street Crash. 3
Therefore, Martin Egan’s career can draw the attention of students of multiple dimensions of the period. Torbert’s unpublished biography and a projected one, also available in the collection, confirm the interest of Egan’s life and that more in-depth study of this character needs to be done. Luckily, the professionals at the Morgan Library assist researchers in navigating his extensive archives, which also include the personal papers of writer Eleanor Franklin Egan, who married Martin in 1905, already presented in this blog post. Moreover, during my second visit to the collection, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reading Room librarians were incredibly empathetic with the difficulties of researching and traveling from afar amid this health crisis. This trip was definitely worth it as it allowed me to explore through Martin Egan’s eyes important events during U.S. expansion in the first half of the twentieth century and also simply to visit the Morgan and its astonishing library after productive workdays!
- To learn more about the media portraits of the Spanish-American War, the so-called “Philippine Question” and the Philippine-American War, see, among many others Bonnie M. Miller, From Liberation to Conquest: The Visual and Popular Cultures of the Spanish-American War of 1898 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).
- Letter from Frederick Palmer to Martin Egan from July 1, 1936, Martin Egan Papers, ARC 1222, Box 56, Folder Palmer, Frederick, The Morgan Library & Museum.
- Egan Biography Projects. Torbert’s Draft, Part I, Martin Egan Papers, ARC 1222, Addenda 1. Box 81, Folder 6, The Morgan Library & Museum.
Dr. Laura Diaz-Esteve is a historian of imperialism in Southeast Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries, with a focus on the American occupation of the Philippines. She visited the Morgan Library & Museum during a research stay at George Mason University supported by a Fulbright Spain Predoctoral Research Grant.