Mother Jones


Decades before Trump was born, a young Army officer built America’s first empire of paranoia.

MANILA, 1901. THE CITY is a steamy mix of grand Spanish colonial buildings mildewed from tropical heat, the ramshackle dwellings of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, and horse-drawn wagons rumbling through squares and gates with names like Plaza de Cervantes and Puerta de Isabel II. Hastily erected hotels, houses of prostitution, and gambling dens cater to a flood of newly arrived Americans: bureaucrats, missionaries, merchants, speculators—and soldiers. Despite its swift victory in the Spanish-American War three years earlier, the United States is now in the middle of its first protracted war in Asia. Filipino nationalists, delighted to be free at last from several centuries of Spanish rule, have discovered that the US troops in broad-brimmed hats who they first hoped were liberators are in fact here to establish an American colony. The brutal conflict now underway will eventually leave more than 200,000 Filipinos dead.

Captain Ralph H. Van Deman was almost certainly too abstemious to loiter in the city’s bars and brothels or place bets at the Manila Jockey Club, but for an ambitious US Army officer, wartime Manila was nevertheless the place to be. Tall, gray-eyed, and almost cadaverously thin, he had a long, hawklike face and ears that seemed to jut out from his head at right angles.

When he took up a new post in Manila in February that year, the lanky 35-year-old polymath—he’d studied both law and medicine—at last discovered his métier, an endeavor that would consume the rest of his life. The conflict in the Philippines, now largely forgotten, was the first time the United States had tried its hand at counterinsurgency on another continent. And for that it needed not battleships and fortresses, but intelligence information. In an old Spanish military building in a walled quarter of the city, Van Deman was placed in charge of the Bureau of Insurgent Records—a post that would turn him into the founding father of American surveillance.

His assiduous spying in war and peace would span half a century and three continents, and presage a vengeful nastiness eerily familiar to us today: racial stereotyping, the smearing of political enemies with fact-free rumor, and charges that those who questioned American government actions were unpatriotic or treasonous. Van Deman’s career would culminate in helping a particularly unscrupulous future president on his path toward the White House, and it is instructive to review today precisely because it reminds us that these toxic threads in our political fabric stretch far back in time.

IN MANILA, THE US occupation authorities were deeply alarmed that so many Filipinos wanted independence. Van Deman put the Army’s intelligence operation into high gear, ordering 450 officers throughout the archipelago to provide data “from every possible source” on all mayors, priests, and “active civilian sympathizers.” As a sign of his operation’s growing importance, it was moved to US Army headquarters, one floor down from the commanding general. To compile his storehouse of data on suspect Filipinos, Van Deman used the most sophisticated information management system of his day: file cards. Each was printed at the top, “DESCRIPTIVE CARD OF INHABITANTS,” and had spaces for an American officer to fill in such details as a

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