Waterboarding and U.S. History

by William Loren Katz on January 6, 2008

The water cure became front-page news when William Howard Taft, appointed U.S. Governor of the Philippines, testified under oath before Congress and let the cat out of the bag. The “so called water cure,” he admitted, was used “on some occasions to extract information.” The Arena, an opposition paper, called his words “a most humiliating admission that should strike horror in the mind of every American.” Around the same time as Taft’s admission a soldier boasted in a letter made public that he had used the water cure on 160 people and only 26 had survived. The man was compelled by the War Department to retract his damaging confession. But then another officer stated the “water cure” was being widely used when he reported, “the problem of the ‘water cure’ is in knowing how to apply it.” Such statements leave unclear how often the form of torture was used for interrogation and how often it became a way to exhibit racial animosity or display contempt.

During a triumphal U.S. speaking tour General Frederick Funston, bearing a Congressional Medal of Honor and harboring political ambitions, bellicosely promoted total war. In Chicago he boasted of sentencing 35 suspects to death without trial and enthusiastically endorsed torture and civilian massacres. He even publicly suggested that anti-war protestors be dragged out of their homes and lynched.

Funston’s words met far more applause than criticism. In San Francisco he suggested that the editor of a noted anti-imperialist paper “ought to be strung up to the nearest lamppost.” At a banquet in the city he called Filipinos “unruly savages” and (now) claimed he had personally killed fifty prisoners without trial. Captain Edmond Boltwood, an officer under Funston, confirmed that the general had personally administered the water cure to captives, and had told his troops “to take no prisoners.”

President Theodore Roosevelt reprimanded Funston and ordered him to cease his inflammatory rhetoric. Facing a political challenge from General Nelson Miles based in the Philippines, TR, who rode into the White House on his heroic exploits at San Juan Hill, did not intend to nourish more competition. The President privately assured a friend the water cure was “an old Filipino method of mild torture” and claimed when Americans administered it “no body was seriously damaged.” But publicly TR was silent about the “water cure.”

In an article, “The ‘Water Cure’ from a Missionary Point of View,” Reverend Homer Stunz justified the technique. It was not torture, he said, since the victim could stop it any time by revealing what his interrogators wanted to know. Besides, he insisted, it was only applied to “spies.” The missionary also justified instances of torture by pointing out that U.S. soldiers “in lonely and remote bamboo jungles” faced stressful conditions.

Mark Twain, a leading anti-imperialist voice, offered this view of the water cure:

“Funston’s example has bred many imitators, and many ghastly additions to our history: the torturing of Filipinos by the awful ‘water- cure,’ for instance, to make them confess — what? Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless. Yet upon such evidence American officers have actually — but you know about those atrocities which the War Office has been hiding a year or two….”

U.S. military trials for what are now known as war crimes all resulted in convictions. Waller was acquitted because he followed the orders of Smith, and later retired with two stars. “Howling Jake” Smith was convicted, but he returned to a tumultuous citizens’ welcome in San Francisco. When the convicted U.S. war criminals received only slaps-on-the-wrist U.S. prestige abroad sunk to new lows.

A San Francisco park was named after General Funston. TR appointed General Bell of Batangas infamy as his chief of staff. And the President continued to wave the banner of aggressive imperialism. In 1903 he flagrantly seized a broad swath of Columbia’s Isthmus of Panama so he could link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans under U.S. control. This boosted his popularity and splintered the anti-imperialist movement. TR also worked to undermine efforts to grant the Philippines independence, which finally took place after World War II.

TR easily won a return to the White House in 1904, and in 1908 he chose Taft as his successor. By the time Taft left the White House in 1913, military resistance in the Philippines had ended, and so presumably had the “water cure.” TR had become a Mount Rushmore-size American icon.

The “water cure” was accepted as a necessary embarrassment in wartime. Appeals to muscular patriotism had exonerated the “water cure” and reduced a crime of torture to a misdemeanor. Is the U.S. headed the same way in 2007?


This essay also appeared on the History News Network.

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