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Ramon Magsaysay: A Philippine tragedy

NO, I am referring not just to his death on March 17, 1957 when, together with 24 others, he perished in a plane crash that ended the first Philippine presidency that inspired the masses. (The second presidency to have captivated the masses, inarguably, would be that of Rodrigo Duterte.)

It is a sad testament to our low level of national consciousness that there was hardly any commemoration yesterday of the death of a President who led the Republic in defeating the communist insurgency in the 1950s, and who first put high on the nation’s agenda the urgency of agrarian reform.

Even the website of the Rockefeller-funded Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation, which fancies itself as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize, didn’t even note that yesterday was the 62nd death anniversary of the man it has named its awards after. (Ironically, the foundation’s trustees have mostly been representatives of the Philippine elite that Magsaysay fought in his time.)

In contrast, there is a non-working national holiday for Benigno Aquino, Jr., who never got to be president and who, going by a mountain of evidence that has emerged, helped the communist insurgency of the 1970s to grow, that it continues to trouble our rural areas to this day.

Ironically, it was Magsaysay who appointed Aquino in 1954 as his personal emissary to convince the insurgent Huk Supremo Luis Taruc to surrender. Fifteen years later, Aquino tapped his contacts with the Huks he made in that task to convince a young Huk guerilla Kumander Dante to join Jose Ma. Sison’s fledgling Communist Party to form a new rebel force the New People’s Army

The first Philippine president to have endeared himself to the masses.

The tragedy I am referring to is the fact that a definitive, accurate work on Magsaysay and his role in the nation’s history hasn’t yet been written. This has allowed the narrative that Magsaysay was a puppet of the US Central Intelligence Agency to prevail among intellectuals here and abroad.

A generation of Filipinos – mine – had been brainwashed by the Communist Party, the landlord elite who wanted to block Magsaysay’s land reform agenda, and left-wing writers like the late Renato Constantino that he was simply and entirely a puppet of the US government, a pliable tool in fact of the CIA’s now renowned Cold Warrior, an Air Force officer seconded to the CIA, Edward Lansdale.

As a communist cadre in my youth, it was one of my rock-solid beliefs that Magsaysay was the epitome of a US imperialist puppet. Magsaysay was a favorite target of vitriol of Communist Party chairman Jose Ma. Sison. But of course; the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, of which he was an officer before he broke away to form his own party, was routed by Magsaysay, first in his post as defense secretary and then as President.

The communist leaders, intellectuals from the middle class like Sison obviously couldn’t accept the fact that a mere mechanic like Magsaysay who rose to fame because of this wartime guerrilla exploits, could defeat them. They claimed Magsaysay was just a tool of the most powerful country in the world.

The tragedy with Magsaysay is that there have been so many books, mostly written by Americans, claiming this to be so, that it has come to be the standard view.

The big flaw in this interpretation is that it is mostly based not just on interviews with, but writings of, the CIA operative Lansdale himself who would, as most human beings do, exaggerate his role in the making of—and power over—a Philippine president.

Lansdale’s boasting wouldn’t be simply because of his ego though. He was the epitome of the American Cold Warrior (the model in fact for the protagonists in two great Cold War novels, The Ugly American and The Quiet American), and after the defeat of the “Huks,” wanted his counter-insurgency techniques used in countries such as Vietnam and Latin American faced with communist-inspired insurgencies.

More than that though, his work before he joined the US Air Force had been in PR and advertising, and he promoted his alleged exploits in the Philippines through magazine and newspaper articles, helped by American journalists whom he consciously befriended. Indeed, he was promoted to colonel after his anti-Huk activities in the Philippines.

Lansdale’s PR genius is evident in that he planted spectacular anecdotes showing his control over the Philippine president, the kind US writers love to spread. An often-told one is that he punched Magsaysay in a fit of anger for reading a speech written by a Filipino and not by Lansdale’s American writers.

However, the source of this story is solely Lansdale. He “casually” made the remark given to a US Navy historian, and narrated it to show that he “was so close to Magsaysay that they were like brothers.” The Navy historian of course quickly spread Lansdale’s yarn in US media.

What fogs an accurate view of Magsaysay is the fact that the US CIA did financially and operationally support his candidacy, fearing that his rival Elpidio Quirino was incompetent to defeat the Huk insurgency, especially as he was bogged down in corruption allegations. Quirino also had appeared to be apathetic to US interests. (The false but widely spread report that Quirino even had a golden orinola (chamber pot) – when it was ordinary brass – was said to have been Lansdale’s idea.)

Uncle Sam
But during that time when Filipinos still looked to the US as their Uncle Sam of sorts, and Magsaysay was going against the Liberal Party that was the bastion of landed elites, would Magsaysay have been so idealistic as to reject such help?

What also clouds an accurate view is that Lansdale did give valuable advice to the Philippines on how to defeat the communist-led Huks (Hukbo ng Bayan), especially in psywar techniques. A quintessence of Lansdale’s work was the tactic of killing a Huk guerrilla, punching two holes in his neck, draining his blood out by hanging him upside down, and leaving him in the Huks’ guerilla zones That spread terror among the Huks, who were mostly peasants, that a vampire had come into their area that they vacated it.

Was he just boasting too much of his hold on Magsaysay?

However, a book that is the most authoritative biography of Lansdale (Jonathan Nashel, Edward Lansdale’s Cold War) has pointed out the emergence of a new narrative to the “Magsaysay-was-a-CIA-agent” one:

“The relationship between Lansdale and Magsaysay continues to intrigue scholars. The standard view has Lansdale seeing in Magsaysay a pliable American tool; countless books depict Lansdale as a Svengali-like figure who persuades Magsaysay to think he is acting on his own or on his country’s behalf when he is really doing only what Americans think best.”

“Beginning in the 1990s, a revisionist interpretation began to develop. Richard Slotkin argues in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America that ‘it was a serious mistake to see the Lansdale/Magsaysay partnership as a tutelary one. In fact, Lansdale and Magsaysay worked effectively because the relationship was balanced; and Magsaysay, as both a native leader and an expert in his own political culture, shaped the objectives and overall course of policy. Magsaysay was a genuine reformer.’

Slotkin goes on to describe the intelligence, integrity, and general acumen possessed by Magsaysay, all to make the larger point that people of the Third World were (and are today) not simply pawns or dupes of American policy.

Likewise, Douglas J. Macdonald in Adventures in Chaos: American Intervention for Reform in the Third World asserts: ‘Though it was believed within the CIA, and by later critics of American policy that Lansdale ‘invented’ Magsaysay, this is an incorrect, ethnocentric and rather arrogant interpretation.’

Nick Cullather, in Illusions of Influence: The Political Economy of United States-Philippine Relations emphasizes that ‘the two men formed an association based on mutual career building; that when they finally met in 1950, Lansdale made it his business to advance Magsaysay’s career, but…Magsaysay was already a leading figure in his own right’.”

It is such a tragedy that our own historians have been derelict in allowing the narrative of a CIA agent to dominate our assessment of Magsaysay, who led the nation in a crucial period of its history.

Would we have had a more egalitarian nation if Magsaysay had not boarded that cursed plane and continued to a second term, enough time to undertake social and economic reforms?


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