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Looking back at history in proper perspective

opinion / Columnists
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Looking Back

Looking back at history in proper perspective

Forceful and opinionated was the late nationalist historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo. He did not take to fools lightly and he would cut them up cleanly, his weapons of choice being a sharp pen or an acid tongue. From his writings on the triumphs and failures of the Philippine Revolution of 1896 led by Andres Bonifacio, or what he called “The Crisis of the [First] Republic” led by Emilio Aguinaldo, we realize that our 19th-century history and heroes remain relevant because the challenges they faced were similar to the ones we face in the 21st century.

Agoncillo did not live to see Edsa 1986 but he was, like many Filipinos then, polarized by the impunity that was the 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino. Asked in 1984 why he did not tackle Marcos’ martial law in his writings, he disappointed many with his reply: He could not write on Marcos and martial law because the historian needs distance to see things in its proper perspective.

There have been many books and scholarly articles published since Edsa 1986, but these were not synthesized and simplified for use in history textbooks that produced a generation with a perverse nostalgia for Marcos and martial law.

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While working on the diaries of Ferdinand Marcos, I remembered Agoncillo: How would he deal with this tricky primary source material? Aside from reading the handwritten text and checking the transcription, the entries for each day are also checked with the Official Gazette on the President’s Day, as well as with physical copies of the Manila Chronicle (preserved in the Lopez Museum and Library) from the period.

Nick Joaquin intruded into my work as well, through a Free Press article on Marcos after the so-called First Quarter Storm of 1970, with long quotes from Marcos’ diary. Marcos diary entries from January 1970 don’t match Joaquin’s more detailed quotes. Did Joaquin see the actual diaries? Did Joaquin take notes direct from these, or did Marcos read from them and add more detail? Did Joaquin make the additions?

Marcos himself complicates the historian’s task further. On Nov. 28, 1972 he addressed the annual convention of the Philippine Historical Association in Malacañang on the theme “Towards a New Social Order: The Rationale of Martial Law in the Philippines” (published 1973 in the association’s historical bulletin). He said, among many things, that the idea of martial law had been in his mind as early as 1938, citing an article he wrote for the Philippine Law Journal when he was a UP law student. He admitted—or boasted, if you will—that he signed the martial law proclamation on Sept. 17 (using his lucky 7) postdating it to the 21st (which makes three times seven).

Marcos relates: “There are many who say, the proclamation was made on the 23rd of September. If by proclamation is meant my appearing on television and saying that martial law is enforced, it was on September 23. But when did I sign the proclamation of martial law? I actually signed it on September 17. But it was held and it was suspended and I kept it in my possession, because on September 17 I wanted to make sure that the things I wanted to know where definitely confirmed.”

Then Marcos  adds that he prayed over it:

“This is the first time I reveal this because I believe that the Philippine Historical Association is entitled to this particular fact of history. I signed two copies, only two copies of this proclamation. One copy was supposed to be signed on September 17, but it is dated September 21. I wanted a period within which I could communicate with myself and with God and ask him whether it was correct for me to proclaim martial law. I asked for a sign. He gave me several signs… it seems I was being led by and guided by some strange greater mind above me, and I felt and knew it. And therefore, even before the ambuscade on Secretary Ponce Enrile, I had already ordered the enforcement of the proclamation… Long before that, I had decided to proclaim martial law.”

Marcos says he did not act alone, that people were consulted on the use of martial law, and that even God approved.

Agoncillo is right about the need for perspective in history. But even with 45 years past the martial law declaration in 1972, just making sense of the Marcos primary source material remains a challenge.

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: History, marcos, martial law
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