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Ninoy believed martial law was necessary and supported it

(First of a series)
THE Yellow and Red Cults’ narrative has been that President Marcos imposed martial law solely in order to perpetuate himself in power, as the Constitution then barred him from seeking a third term with his second term ending in 1973.

They claim that the one main excuse Marcos gave why an authoritarian rule was necessary—that the communist insurgency, financed by oligarchs had become so serious that it couldn’t be addressed in a democratic system—was false, that the threat had been exaggerated.

However, assassinated opposition leader Benigno (“Ninoy”) Aquino, Jr., Marcos’ arch enemy did believe the strongman’s explanation: martial law, while it did allow him to continue in power, was necessary to prevent the country from falling into chaos.

This is according to a United States airgram—a top-secret communication sent by courier via the diplomatic bag instead of by telegram—from the American embassy in the Manila to the Department of State on September 21, 1972, or two days before martial law was announced.

The airgram was drafted by then Political Counselor John Forbes—who after two tours of duty in the Philippines, has remained here since the 1990s as a permanent resident, earning a reportedly very good living as a political and business consultant. It has been declassified recently along with about 50 other such confidential diplomatic documents by the US State Department’s Office of the Historian as basic source material for its compilation, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, available online.

The report—based on Forbes’ and another unnamed embassy officer’s conversations with Aquino— reads:

“With rapidly worsening law and order and communist dissident problems added to these economic woes, Aquino believes that Marcos must take strong actions in the near future and that these will include martial law. If the President follows this course, Aquino said that, ‘for the good of the country,’ he would support Marcos.

HE KNEW IT WAS COMING: Left, Marcos declaring martial law Sept. 23, 1972; right, Aquino exposing the plot in the Senate 10 days before, calling it Oplan Sagittarius.

HE KNEW IT WAS COMING: Left, Marcos declaring martial law Sept. 23, 1972; right, Aquino exposing the plot in the Senate 10 days before, calling it Oplan Sagittarius.

“Since the law and order and economic situation is deteriorating so rapidly, in Aquino’s view, the good of the country requires strong measures on the part of the central government.

“The growing threat from the dissidents, the worsening law and order problem, the serious economic setback that has resulted from the floods in central Luzon and the probable ill effects of the Quasha decision of the Supreme Court [*See note below–RDT] on the country’s foreign investment climate were cited by Aquino as reasons why stronger central government action is needed. Such action means martial law. Were he President, Aquino indicated that he would not hesitate to take such strong action and would, for example, execute several corrupt officials at the Luneta Park in Manila as a lesson to other officials that ‘he meant business’.”

‘Low-key it’
Perhaps that was one reason that convinced the US not to protest the country’s move towards dictatorship that shattered its image as its showcase of democracy in a region where strongman rule — e.g., Suharto of Indonesia, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Park Chung-hee of South Korea, Chiang Kai-shek of Taiwan—were more the norm than the exception:

When martial law was declared at midnight September 22, Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander Haig sent a memo to President Nixon briefing him on the development, and advising him “to refrain comment on Marcos’ action, regarding it as a Philippine matter”. Haig noted though that that would be interpreted as a ”tacit US support” for Marcos’ imposition of martial law. Next to this sentence was a notation in Nixon’s handwriting, which read: “K — Low key it.”

Haig’s memo, taken from the National Archives, Nixon’s Presidential Materials, and marked “Secret: Sensitive” was another material in the State Department Office of the Historian’s Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976. Parts of it read, which turned out to be an accurate narrative of events, and far from the Yellow narrative of a Dark Lord imposing his will on the land:

“Embassy Manila estimates that the country will react with resigned acceptance, after the initial shock and uproar. Criticism of Marcos’ action would diminish particularly if there were early evidence of movement toward meaningful reform…

“At least in the short term, martial law should pose no direct serious problems for US security and economic relations with the Philippines. In fact, the climate for individual business operations might even be improved.

“As to our position, I believe we should refrain from comment on Marcos’ action, regarding it as a Philippine matter. This stance may well be interpreted as tacit US support for Marcos’ move, and result in criticism of us, particularly if Marcos does not make good use of his increased authority and the situation deteriorates.

“On the other hand, Marcos probably will appreciate such a stance on our part, and this should result in his continued cooperation in our maintaining effective access to our bases in the Philippines and his assistance in resolving US private investment problems resulting from last month’s Quasha decision.”

Quasha decision
*The “Quasha decision” referred to the Supreme Court’s decision on August 17, 1972 that ruled the termination in 1974 of the so-called Parity Rights Amendment, which since 1947 gave Americans the same property rights as Filipinos, also required all US citizens to divest their properties in the country. The decision panicked US businesses, not only since they owned land where their offices stood but had vast agricultural plantations, as in the case of Dole and Del Monte.

A way out of this quagmire, or at least for an orderly and gradual divestment of American property holdings, had become a major concern of US government itself, and appears to be one major reason why it supported Marcos’ martial law. The main system that Marcos offered US property owners—which is practiced to this day—is for American companies to sell their lands to law firms, which then leased these back to them.

Thanks to Ambeth
I am indebted to noted historian Ambeth Ocampo, former chairman of the National Historical Commission and later head of the Ateneo Department of History, for pointing out in his recent column this extremely vital source of information, the US State Department’s compilation of original materials on American foreign policy.

Ocampo entitled his column, based on the same material that I based this column on, “What Ninoy told the US about Marcos,” and put Aquino’s agreement with the need for martial law way down his piece.

It’s another instance of renowned scholar Edward Carr’s point in his book that is a bible of sorts for historians, What is History? “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”

Nevertheless, I am happy that Ocampo whose prodigious research skills I admire, appears to have started to shift his interest from the history version, entertaining though, of the Trivial Pursuits game, (e.g., Aguinaldo’s breakfast, Rizal’s lotto winnings, Bonifacio’s bolo) to modern Philippine history that could help us to understand the present.

His expertise would debunk the simplistic Yellow version of the martial law period at the Ateneo de Manila where he teaches and where he is considered the rock star of historians there. While its huge history department has done little in historical research on the martial law years—preferring to focus on obscure foreign topics such as Chinese medieval history—the Ateneo has been shameless in the propagation of the Yellow narrative they can’t even back up with facts.

(On Wednesday: Did Aquino know about the Plaza Miranda bombing? Clues a US formerly secret cable provides.)