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Looking Back

History unfolding in September 1972 US cable

/ 05:34 AM September 22, 2017

All the historical and historiographical training I received in a classroom or in conversation with an older generation of historians pales in comparison with everything I learned through actual archival research. There is no substitute to finding the primary-source material and trying to read a document written in a different time and style. Deciphering 21st-century gayspeak or codes and abbreviations in text messages is the same critical process one goes through in reading Spanish documents from the 17th century with rubrics, flourishes, shortcuts and other meanings hidden from those unfamiliar with the writing conventions of a given time and place.

I remember the late O.D. Corpuz telling me that I should always have a shelf of references within reach of my work table. This consisted of: dictionaries (English, Spanish, French, German, and Filipino), almanacs, fact books, atlases, encyclopedias and bibliographies. Most of these books can now be disposed of to make way for other books because Google can provide information and translations at the click of a mouse. Looking at my now-obsolete arsenal for writing history, I ask myself: What would Corpuz or Teodoro Agoncillo, Renato Constantino or Gregorio Zaide be had they lived long enough to experience the wonders of the internet?

Many of the rare volumes unavailable or inaccessible in Manila libraries when I was a student can now be read or downloaded online. I can read news from 19th-century Philippines in the New York Times or Hong Kong Telegraph online (but I cannot do the same for the Inquirer five years ago). It may be an excuse to travel, but a Filipino historian really requires to be physically in a foreign library or archive to ferret out the details of the Philippine past. Early this year I pointed out declassified US State Department records on pre-martial-law Philippines available online. But these are only a tip of the proverbial iceberg because the historian needs to physically sift through all related documents not available online to complete the picture.

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There are two September 1972 cables from US Ambassador Henry Byroade that give us a view of history unfolding. Writing from Manila on Sept. 15, 1972, Byroade talked about Ferdinand Marcos extending himself in power beyond his unprecedented second term. Byroade believed that Marcos could stay in power beyond his legal second term through a new constitution then being drafted, and he didn’t need US help to do so. But there was the possibility that Marcos would extend his term through martial law, which he hinted at in his talks with US President Lyndon Johnson and the visiting US Sen. Daniel Inouye, who is best remembered today for the Honolulu airport that bears his name.

Byroade reported:

“I asked Marcos yesterday if he were about to surprise us with a declaration of martial law. He said no, not under present circumstances. He said he would not hesitate at all in doing so if the terrorists stepped up their activities further, and to a new stage. He said that if a part of Manila were burned, a top official of his Government, or foreign ambassador, assassinated or kidnapped, then he would act very promptly. He said that he questioned Communist capability to move things to such a stage just now and asked my views. I said I thought it a bit premature in their plans, but the present atmosphere undoubtedly increased their recruiting capability. He said 3,000 students were no longer in greater Manila universities (implying they have allied themselves with the dissidents — a figure we cannot sustain), and that if it were inevitable he would just as soon see them go for big things now in order to get this period of indecision over with!”

The envoy also reported on the deteriorating peace and order situation, and added:

“Imposition of martial law, or an abandonment of the democratic constitution, would present us in America with a problem. Thailand, for instance, can change its governmental system with hardly a ripple felt in the United States. I do not believe this would be the case with regard to the Philippines, where we introduced our own brand of democracy.”

US Embassy cables give us a report not just on Marcos and the situation at the time but also on the political and economic interests that America wanted to protect even if it meant waltzing with Marcos and martial law.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, archival research, Ferdinand Marcos, Henry Byroade, Looking Back, Marcos martial law
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