Empire Strike Examined

This week, CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard reviews PBS documentary The Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War. It airs Monday, Aug. 23, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET.

Some of us came to our passionate identification with another country the way we came to be fans of strange teams in distant cities: by accident, a need to root, and a moment of grace.
John Leonard
I went to the Philippines on a State Department speaking tour one December almost a quarter of a century ago. Bing Crosby sang "White Christmas" in the tropics. At a banquet in a Palace of Culture on landfill in Manila Bay, I sat between the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and the Swedish film director Vilgot Sjoman.

A Smuggling of Namescolor>

Lapped at by babyfat and precious jewels, we were asked to eat a meal worth more than the annual wage of the average Filipino. I fled on foot before dessert, looking for a jeepney and a jet. In my pocket, I had a list of names of political prisoners, which I'd smuggle back to the New York Times.

How was it possible that my government, when it wasn't playing footsie with the tinpot, Ferdinand, and a sexpot named Imelda, licked their boots as they corrupted the courts, the army and the schools? As they stole elections, jailed playwrights and looted the treasury of billions?

How this was possible will all be explained Monday night on public television, in a remarkable documentary called The Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War.

Reviews by CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard
In both Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, the natives were restless and rose in revolt against their Spanish rulers. This was equally convenient for Theodore Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of war in William McKinley's cabinet, who thought it was about time we had a manly empire of our own, and for William Randolph Hearst, the publisher seeking to increase the circulation of his newspaper.

First Filmed War color>

The Senate had its doubts about American imperialism, and four current U.S. senators re-create the debate of the time.

It was when the Maine blew up. We'll learn tommorow night that it blew itself up, but in 1898 we blamed Spain. And so to war, with lots of rhetoric and martial music, on behalf of what William Howard Taft would call "my brown bothers." It was our first filmed war, so we got to see Teddy's Rough Riders storm up San Juan Hill - though much of the footage was faked.

What we didn't see, as is patiently explained by such historians as Stephen Ambrose, Douglas Brinkley and Walter Lafeber, and was testified to at the time by writers like Stephen Crane and Joseph Marti, were yellow fever, dysentery and that brand new phenomenon, the concentration camp; race riots in Tampa, Fla., between black and white American soldiers who didn't want to serve together or go at all; a use of torture that turned even the stomach of a Hearst; and of course America's military suppression of land reform and the very independence movements in both poor countries that gave us our excuse to intervene in the first place.

Reminders of Cuba color>

Edward James Olmos narrates Crucible of Empire. You may recognize the voices of Lou Diamond Phillips, Lawrence Luckinbill and Larry Linville as Teddy Roosevelt. Mention will also be made of Fidel Castro. But I am reminded of 25 years ago in Cebu, in the far south of the Philippines where the Japanese play golf and Bloomingdale's steals most of its wicker.

It was near Cebu in 1521 that Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe was permanently interrupted by Lapu-Lapu, the king of Mactan. Unfortunately for Lapu and Mactan, the Spaniards who survived Magellan stayed put for another 350 years, and then it was our imperial turn.

Written by John Leonard