Getting It Wrong
In an article in the Philippine newspaper Inquirer of 13 June 2012, Rodel Rodis wrote: “Dewey, under specific orders from Navy Undersecretary Theodore Roosevelt to not make any commitments to Philippine independence, dispatched an artillery colonel, L.M. Johnson, to represent him….”
Dewey did no such thing. Johnson’s identity has generated a number of fallacies, from being Dewey’s secretary to being a US Army colonel to being a retired US Army veteran.
Stanley Karnow’s In our image: America’s empire in the Philippines gets it wrong:
“Colonel L. M. Johnson, an obscure retired officer then in business in Shanghai, who had come to Manila to exhibit a newfangled contraption known as the cinematograph. Aguinaldo, eager to have an American on hand to symbolize U.S. recognition of his endeavor, had persuaded him to participate.”
As does James C. Bradford in his 2016 book America, Sea Power, and the World when he says “Johnson had no official role in the Philippines”
There there is the conspiracy theory silliness of Ritchie Quirino’s Pinoy Jazz Traditions:
He was none of these, and as is often the case with fallacies his real story is far more interesting. In October 1898, for instance, he was arrested for smuggling arms to Aguinaldo. I bet that wasn’t in your history book!
Would a US Army Colonel be a mere secretary to a US Navy Commodore? Vanishingly unlikely. And it doesn’t help that there was no colonel on the roster of the Olympia, not even an “LM Johnson”.
So what do we really know about a man whose sole claim to fame is that he signed the Philippine Declaration of Independence?
Or does he have a far bigger claim to fame?
According to RM Taylor’s The Philippine Insurrection Against the United States: “(Aguinaldo sent invitations to Dewey, who did not come to the declaration) It was, however, important to Aguinaldo that some American should be there whom the assembled people would consider a representative of the United States. “Colonel” Johnson, ex-hotel keeper of Shanghai, who was in the Philippines exhibiting a cinematograph [Davis cite here], kindly consented to appear on this occasion as Aguinaldo’s chief of artillery and the representative of the North American nation. His name does not appear subsequently among the papers of Aguinaldo. It is possible that his position as a colonel and chief of artillery was a merely temporary one which enabled him to appear in a uniform which would befit the character of the representative of a great people upon so solemn an occasion.” (Page 55).
Taylor was citing an 1899 book, “Our Conquests in the Pacific by Oscar King Davis, a correspondent for the New York Sun who arrived in Manila aboard the UST Australia with General Anderson on 1 July 1898. That actual mention of Johnson gives far more information about Johnson, which cross-references with other known information about him and suggests that Taylor was being somewhat disingenuous in his analysis of why Johnson was feted at Malolos and supposedly signed the declaration.
Other than the mention of Johnson in the Declaration of Independence, that is about as far as ever gets into the history books. Taylor is wrong on several counts.
If we follow up Taylor’s citation, from Oscar King Davis’s we find this brief gem of information:
“… on the morning of the 6th (July, 1898) we started, five newspaper men, an interpreter, and ” Colonel” Johnson, an American soldier of fortune, who is here as Aguinaldo’s chief of ordnance. He ran a hotel—the Astor House—in Shanghai for a while and came down here on a cinematograph proposition. Now the insurgents are guarding his machine in Lipa, and he is showing them how to handle smooth-bore cannon here. We had with us Mr. Charvet, a Frenchman, born in New York, who was Johnson’s partner in the cinematograph. He speaks Spanish fluently”. (Page 107)
By this time, then, the Declaration had been signed – on 12 June – and Johnson was actively fighting the Spanish under Aguinaldo.
So, let’s take a look at Mr. Johnson and how he came to play his role in the Philippine Revolution against Spain. A role now forgotten.
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1: Getting It Wrong