American isolationism never really existed. The myth of isolationism often obscures the U.S. Navy’s long history of small-scale expeditions embarked upon in the name of commerce and civilization. However, an older America had a much saner and more limited foreign policy—a foreign policy based around protecting the Western hemisphere and keeping the shipping lanes open.
A foreign policy of this sort, which privileges the Navy over the Army, could return America to its lost greatness.
One of the other great myths of the modern world is that America is not and has never been at war with Islam. Any serious student of history can spy the deep-seated lie almost immediately, though of course geopolitical forces often inspire action colored by religion. The West, which used to be just called Christendom, has been in varying levels of conflict with pirates, corsairs, sultans, and jihadists since Islam stormed out of the Arabian deserts in the 7th century. Few know or care that the Middle East and North Africa the Islamic hordes conquered was culturally Roman, ethnically Berber and Levantine, and religiously Christian.
Of course, it also goes without saying that the Umayyad conquest of Spain was an act of cultural destruction that forever cut the advanced Hispano-Visigoths from history. Rather than bring with them Aristotle or the genius of Arab mathematics, the Islamic invaders stopped a Christian and Romanized culture from reaching its full potential.
Centuries later, Islam had not changed much. The new Islamic power, Ottoman Turkey, had twice threatened Western Europe at the gates of Vienna before being repelled by a Christian coalition. By the early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was clearly in decline. But Constantinople, thanks to its ports in North Africa and territories in the Balkans and East Africa, continued on with its lucrative slave trade without much in the way of interference.
Enter a new power—the secular and liberal United States of America. Influenced by the Enlightenment and the Anglo-Scottish championing of capitalist enterprise, Washington, D.C. quickly began a locus of international trade. This provided the centerpiece for early American foreign policy, and the small U.S. Navy became the chief disseminator of America economic power abroad. Unlike the British Navy, the fledgling American Navy could not fully guarantee the safety of its citizens involved in the Mediterranean sea trade. Such a limitation proved fatal, due to the Ottoman policy of state-sponsored piracy, which notably was tinged with religious significance.
Realizing the weakness of the new Atlantic power, the independent Sultanate of Morocco and the Ottoman Beylik of Tunis, Eyalet of Triolitania, and the Regency of Algiers stepped up their campaign of raiding merchants ships and taking crews hostage. Many of these sailors became slaves for the “Sublime Porte.”
The most famous event of both the First and Second Barbary Wars was the burning of the U.S.S. Philadelphia in February 1804. Five months earlier, Ottoman pirates had seized the frigate after it ran aground just outside of Tripoli’s main harbor. At the time, U.S. Navy officer Edward Preble was launching constant naval attacks on the Barbary corsairs and was close to winning the war. However, when 307 American sailors fell into Barbary hands, Preble’s light at the end of the tunnel dimmed.
Convinced that the Philadelphia had to be destroyed, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. volunteered for the dangerous mission. After nightfall on February 16, 1804, Decatur’s ship the Intrepid crept into Tripoli’s harbor. Decatur’s men dressed up like Maltese and Arab pirates and boarded the Philadelphia. Without losing a single man, the Intrepid’s raiding party managed to free the American hostages and kill about twenty Tripolitan pirates. While the war would drag on, and the U.S.S. Constitution (which remains in active service today) was called upon to win the Second Battle of Tripoli Harbor, Decatur’s daring raid effectively took the starch out of the Muslim corsairs.
Many historians, especially those trained in the Marxist style of complete materialism, consider the Barbary Wars nothing more than a conflict over commerce. It is believed that America was inspired by economics, not religion or even national pride.
However, President Thomas Jefferson knew full well the pirates were animated by Islam, in addition to the desire for wealth. In 1785, Jefferson and John Adams met Tripoli’s ambassador in London. During their chat, the American delegation broached the subject of Islamic piracy; they wanted to know why the men of North Africa felt justified in taking American and British ships. “It was written in the Koran,” the ambassador told them, “that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their (Muslim) authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
It’s important to note the overarching factors involved, namely that seizing American and British ships was self-interested and also a political power move challenging Western ambitions.
Such disdain for non-believers again surfaced in the 1830s when the U.S. Navy was called in to deal with another set of Islamic pirates. This time the battleground was in Asia, specifically the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). Erroneously considered a bastion of progressive Islam, Indonesia, then as now, belonged to Sunni Islamists. Prior to the two expeditions to Sumatra, American merchants, especially those based in Salem, Massachusetts, had a flourishing relationship with the Aceh Sultanate, one of the world’s greatest exporters of pepper.
In February 1831, the vessel Friendship, which was owned by the wealthy Salem shipbuilder Joseph Peabody, was attacked by local pirates who killed the ship’s first officer and two crew members. Yet another hostage situation developed.
Fortunately, for the crew of the Friendship, three U.S. ships—the Palmer, the James Monroe, and the Governor Endicott—were armed and in the area. Their appearance scared off the pirates and the Friendship ultimately made it back to Salem.
An outraged President Andrew Jackson decided that such villainy could not stand. He ordered Commodore John Downes to redirect his ship from Brazil to Kuala Batee, the location of the Friendship’s ordeal. On February 6, 1832, the Potomac, which had been disguised as a Dutch merchant vessel, attacked Kuala Batee with a sustained bombardment and the deployment of some 282 Marines. About 100 Sumatrans died in the battle, while the area’s defenses lay in ruins. A similarly punitive expedition was carried out between December 1838 and January 1839 after Muslim Malay pirates of the Aceh Sultanate once again attacked another American merchant vessel.
While some have characterized these sea-based battles as early skirmishes in the long War on Terror, the truth is that the U.S.’s first sustained contact with Islamic fighters did not occur until 1901. At that time, the U.S. had already become an imperial power, with Puerto Rico, Guam, the Panama Canal, and the Philippines all under direct U.S. control. The relative ease of the Spanish-American War gave way to the brutish jungle fighting of the Philippine-American War of 1899. Until 1902, U.S. soldiers fought a Filipino insurgency that utilized guerrilla tactics that eerily presaged the Vietnminh and the Vietcong. Unlike the later Indochina War, the U.S. military successfully pacified the Philippines, but at a terrible cost. Overly 6,000 Americans were killed, while approximately 20,000 Filipinos died. The U.S. also practiced the “water cure,” a type of early waterboarding, in order to break the will of the guerrillas.
Even before the larger war could be resolved, a second front opened on the Muslim-majority island of Mindanao. Here, Moro rebels, whom the Spanish called “Moros” because they reminded them of their old Moorish enemies from Morocco, Tunis, and Algiers, took up arms against their new masters. American military leaders feared that the Moros, who practiced polygamy and the use of “infidel” slaves, would treat the American troops like they did the Spanish by capturing lone grunts, torturing them for hours in the jungle, emasculating them, and burning them alive.
The fearsome Moro tribesmen utilized suicide attacks made by amoks, berserker-like Muslim warriors. Such people proved unwilling to be “civilized” by President McKinley and President Theodore Roosevelt. The notion of American civilization and attendant Protestant Christianity was anathema to the Moros and the people of the Sulu Archipelago. They saw no reason to change their traditional habits of pillaging, internecine warfare, piracy, and slave-taking.
Therefore, not long after Marines landed at Zamboanga, members of the Moro Maranaos tribe began attacking American jungle camps. By 1902, Juramentados, or Muslim warriors who had sworn an oath to attack all opponents of Islam, began harassing U.S. military patrols all over Mindanao. The Juramentados were feared for their bravery and zealotry. One of their number even managed to take several revolver rounds before he successfully chopped off an American officer’s legs. (The ineffectiveness of the standard issue .38 Long Colt against Moro warriors led to the adoption of the .45 ACP round by the U.S. military.)
Ultimately, a new military commander, the old Indian fighter Captain John J. Pershing, found the right formula against the Moros. Believing that the Muslim warriors only respected force, Pershing pursued a hammer-fisted policy against the rebels. At every opportunity, American forces used artillery to bombard Moro cotas, or wood and bamboo forts, before mopping up all resistance with infantry charges.
“Civilize ‘em with the Krag” became the motto of Pershing’s men.
Pershing’s successor, Major General Leonard Wood, continued the program of aggressive jungle probes combined with attempts to integrate his men with the local Moro communities. As the military governor of Mindanao, Wood faced multiple tribal rebellions to resulted in over 100 expeditions to Jolo and beyond. Wood’s biggest moment in the Philippines came when his forces climbed 2,000 feet in order to take on 600 Moros hunkered down in the extinct volcano at Bud Dajo. Although the American press would characterize this battle as too savage, Wood won the day.
Until 1913, when between 6,000 and 10,000 Moro warriors made their last stand against the Americans at Bud Bagsak, the Moro Rebellion stayed as nothing more than low-level insurgency. America’s ultimate victory there proved fleeting. Today, under the rule of Manila, Mindanao and the majority Muslim provinces of the south continue to bedevil the Philippine security forces. As of this writing, the ISIS-linked Maute Group continues to fight the Filipino military in the city of Marawi. Martial law has been declared. Other cities in Mindanao fear that the Islamic rebellion could spread.
As was the case in Tripoli, Sumatra, and Jolo City, Islam has been used for geopolitical purposes as an animating force of opposition to the West.