Shortly after a large vehicle collided with pedestrians on Barcelona's Las Ramblas, Donald Trump suggested via Twitter that his followers "study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught." Trump claimed that "there was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years" as a result of Pershing's actions in the Philippines. But what exactly did General Pershing do?
Trump was evidently alluding to a controversial myth that Pershing had his men shoot terrorists with bullets dipped in pigs' blood — and though there is minimal historical evidence that this actually happened, it is not the first time Trump has brought it up. Trump previously referenced this story during a campaign rally in February 2016, as he reiterated his support for waterboarding as an interrogation technique.
He told the crowd at the rally about an incident that has gained a lot of traction on the internet over the years — an incident that purportedly took place early in Pershing's career, when he was the governor of the heavily Muslim Moro Province in the Philippines:
They were having terrorism problems, just like we do. And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pigs’ blood — you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem. OK? Twenty-five years, there wasn’t a problem.
PolitiFact conducted a series of interviews with historians to fact-check Trump the first time he referenced this story last year, and their conclusion was that there is not a significant amount of historical evidence to support that Pershing ever took these actions. Instead, these legends about Pershing seem to stem from a 1939 Gary Cooper movie plot point that pigs' blood on the bullets could keep Muslims from entering heaven, but nothing in Muslim texts suggests that this is true. Consequently, the Council on American-Islamic Relations denounced Trump's retelling of this story last year on the basis that he was intentionally inciting violence against Muslims.
In his memoir, Pershing did write that another commanding officer in the Philippines had Muslim insurgents buried in the same grave as a dead pig, which means there is evidence that the United States did use pigs as a tactic against them. A letter written in 1960 by a soldier who served in the Philippines appears to implicate Pershing in this particular tactic. However, there is nonetheless very limited evidence that Pershing ever ordered bullets to be dipped in pigs' blood, and Trump's claim that such an action would have succeeded in eliminating terrorism is even less sound.
"Where Trump’s remark becomes ridiculous is in the idea that this actually worked," Cornell University historian David Silbey told Politifact. "The Moro War did not end until 1913, and even that’s a bit of a soft date, with violence continuing for quite a while afterward. Defilement by pig’s blood isn’t — and wasn’t — some magical method of ending terrorism."