From Daniel A. Rezneck's article, "Roosevelt was right: Waterboarding wrong," on Politico.com:
But waterboarding was also a prime subject of controversy in Congress and in the U.S. more than 100 years ago.
The occasion was the Philippine insurrection, which began soon after the American victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898. It soon became clear that the American liberation of the Philippines from Spanish rule did not mean freedom for the Filipinos but annexation by the United States.
The Filipinos fought back savagely against the American occupation, committing many atrocities.
American soldiers responded with what was called the “water cure” or “Chinese water torture.” As described in a 1902 congressional hearing: “A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit on his arms and legs and hold him down, and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick as big as a belaying pin ... is simply thrust into his jaws, ... and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose, ... until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious. ... His suffering must be that of a man who is drowning but who cannot drown.”
Edmund Morris, in the second volume of his brilliant biography of Theodore Roosevelt, recounts how a master politician took over the situation. Roosevelt met with his Cabinet and demanded a full briefing on the Philippine situation. Elihu Root, the secretary of war, reported that an officer accused of the water torture had been ordered to stand trial.
Dissatisfied, Roosevelt sent a cable to the commander of the U.S. Army in the Philippines, stating: “The president desires to know in the fullest and most circumstantial manner all the facts, ... for the very reason that the president intends to back up the Army in the heartiest fashion in every lawful and legitimate method of doing its work; he also intends to see that the most vigorous care is exercised to detect and prevent any cruelty or brutality and that men who are guilty thereof are punished. Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.”
Roosevelt also ordered the court-martial of the American general on the island of Samar, where some of the worst abuses had occurred. He did so “under conditions which will give me the right of review.” The court-martial cleared the general of the charges, found only that he had behaved with excessive zeal and “admonished” him against repetition.
Roosevelt responded by disregarding the verdict of the court-martial and ordering the general’s dismissal from the Army. Morris wrote that Roosevelt’s decision “won universal praise” from Democrats, who congratulated him for acknowledging cruelty in the Philippine campaign, and from Republicans, who said that he had “upheld the national honor.”