A few days ago, Donald Trump made an incendiary comment in public about the supposed actions of an American military officer in the Philippines more than a century ago. In particular, he repeated a myth that an American officer by the name of John Pershing had ordered that Muslims be executed with bullets that had been dipped in pig’s blood.

I had never heard of this myth, and I’m not sure where it came from, but in looking at some information about John Pershing one can get a sense of how such a myth could have been created.

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The Wikipedia entry on Pershing gives a sense of his long and diverse career in the military. This included a period from 1899-1903 when he participated in the American conquest of the Philippines. During this time Pershing engaged in campaigns against “Moros,” that is, Muslims in Mindanao.

He was very successful, however if the writings about Pershing are to be believed, then he was successful for precisely the opposite reason that Trump’s comments suggested. Rather than being merciless and deliberately culturally incentive, Pershing was depicted as seeking to bring peace by building bridges between the conquering Americans and the Moros.

This, for instance, is how Pershing was described in a 1919 work, John Joseph Pershing: A Story and a Play by Ruth Hill:

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“Captain John Joseph Pershing like a good soldier never questioned orders and never delayed their execution. When the government ordered that proclamations be sent to the Moros warning them against resistance, he immediately delivered such proclamations. His experience with the Indians, however, helped him in dealing with these savage tribes. In his messages, he addressed every chief as his friend.

“All the time he had been in the Philippines, he had been studying the conditions there. He had gone alone Into the villages where no white man ever had been before. No more difficult mission had ever been given him, however, than when he was sent to the worst part of the Moro country. He and his soldiers took the proclamations to the Moro villages. Whole tribes would start to resist, but he would convince the chieftain that he came in friendship, and there was little trouble.”

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This idea that Pershing made an effort to befriend Moro chiefs is repeated in the writings about him. At the same time, a 1961 biography – Richard O’Conner’s Black Jack Pershing – also indicates that Pershing at least threated to cross cultural boundaries.

To quote,

“He was not easily dissuaded that peaceful methods would work and even used what must have seemed like white witchcraft to impress the natives. A number of Moro chiefs, on the verge of warring among themselves, were summoned to a peace conference but balked at signing a treaty. Pershing ordered his aides to bring in an Edison ‘talking machine,’ which had just been developed and put on the market back in the States. Helen Gould, the daughter of financier Jay Gould, had purchased ten of the machines and presented them to the Army for recreational purposes. One of these had been sent to the Philippines and was passed along, by coastal steamer and pack train, to Camp Vicars.

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“Pershing played a musical selection, which only bored the Moros, who regarded their own gong, cymbal, and bamboo flute music as superior. Then he put a cylinder titled ‘A Day at the Farm’ on the machine. The sounds of an American barnyard delighted his guests, but they still refused to sign the treaty.

“Pershing nodded to another officer, and a moment later two orderlies appeared. One carried a dead pig, the other a bucket of pig’s blood. More than anything else, the Moros feared contamination by a pig, which would bar them from the Mohammedan heaven. Pershing scooped up a dipper of the blood, enough to spatter the whole assemblage, then pointed to the treaty. There was no further argument from the chiefs. One by one they stepped forward and agreed to the treaty.”

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So this is a connection between Pershing and pig’s blood. The same book, however, contains another passage in which Pershing rejects a suggestion to use this religious taboo as a tool to defeat the Moros.

To quote again,

“General Bliss, commanding the Philippine Division, suggested to Pershing on May 23, 1911, that he adopt the methods used by the British in India to deal with Mohammedan fanaticism. Juramentados, Bliss recommended, should be buried with the carcass of a pig or encased in a pigskin, which meant to any Mohammedan that he would spend eternity in a state of contamination. ‘This I think a good plan, for if anything will discourage the juramentado it is the prospect of going to hell instead of heaven,’ Bliss wrote. He recognized that there might be an outcry of protest from humanitarians over such a measure, but ‘you can rely on me to stand by you in maintaining this custom. It is the only possible thing we can do to discourage crazy fanatics.’

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“Pershing, however, realized that General Bliss’s suggestion, while ingenious, might arouse an enduring bitterness among the whole Moro population. The British in India, for all their condign punishments, including the practice of shooting natives out of cannon, had never managed to rule except by the exercise of force, and he was intent on conciliating the Moros to the extent that they could soon be handed over to civilian administrators.

“His approach was paternalistic and would probably have seemed to verge on the maudlin to any proper British colonial officer. It was exemplified by a letter he wrote the Moros of the Taglibi district on Jolo: ‘I am writing this letter that you may know that I want my children to come in and stop fighting. We do not want any more fighting. Too many Moros and their women may be killed. . . . These guns are not worth fighting for. . . . Your people are better off not to have these guns as we can then have peace in the island. The government will pay for all guns. … If your people need rice to eat, the government will give it to them. . . . I want to see all of my people and speak to them so that we may forever be friends.’”

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While the above comments portray Pershing in a generally positive light, it seems clear that he was also participated in bloody battles as well.

In particular, in 1913 Pershing was sent back to the Philippines where he directed a battle against Moros on Mount Bagsak on the island of Jolo in the Sulu Archipelago.

This is how O’Conner wrote about this battle in 1961:

“‘Probably there has been no fiercer battle since the American occupation,’ Pershing wrote to the commanding general at Manila. He listed his own casualties as six killed and seven wounded. Not even an estimate of the Moros who were killed in the crater was given.

“Newspaper dispatches from Manila reported that Bagsak had been defended by 500 Moros and that most of them had been killed, either in rushes down the slopes or in the crater itself. Back home, however, newspapers gave wide circulation to an interview in San Francisco with John McLeod, a civilian employee of the Army Quartermaster Department who arrived in San Francisco from the Philippines six weeks after the battle. McLeod told reporters that 2000 Moros had been killed, among them women and children ‘mowed down by the scores’ with rifles and machine guns. ‘The news of the fighting was strictly censored at Manila. . . . Three correspondents who managed to reach the seat of war were arrested on orders of General Pershing. . . It was believed that every Moro that took part in that battle was killed.’ The reporters did not question McLeod on the source of his information, and his account, necessarily based on hearsay, was greatly exaggerated. Bagsak, however, was a stern and blood-spattered ‘punishment,’ as Pershing himself put it. It was also the last large-scale action fought hi the Moro country until the final withdrawal of American authority from the Philippines.”

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In 1963, the above poster was made by the Department of the Army entitled “Knocking Out the Moros,” and this is how it was described:

“The four-day battle of Bagsak Mountain on Jolo Island in the Philippines took place from 11 to 15 June 1913. Americans of the 8th Infantry and the Philippine Scouts, personally lead by Brigadier General John J. Pershing, brought to an end years of bitter struggle against the Moro pirates. These Bolo men, outlaws of great physical endurance and savage fighting ability, were well organized under their Datus or chiefs. They had never been conquered during several centuries of Spanish rule in the Philippines. The U.S. Army .45-caliber pistol was developed to meet the need for a weapon with enough striking power to stop fanatical charges of lawless Moro tribesmen in hand-to-hand fighting.”

So what can we determine from all of this? While Trump was repeating a myth, one can get a sense of where that myth might have come from. In Pershing’s biography there is an episode involving the threat to contaminate with pig’s blood, and there is a discussion of a bloody battle which largely brought to an end Moro resistance to American rule. The above poster then emphasizes the use of the .45-caliber pistol in that battle.

In other words, while there is no evidence for the story that Trump talked about, one can see how such a myth could have been “inspired” by various elements in the history of Pershing’s time in the Philippines. However, the reality of what actually occurred in the past was clearly different and far more complex than the simplistic and incendiary version that Trump presented.