September 23, not 21
It’s not true that Joseph Goebbels advised that a lie, repeated often enough, becomes the truth, as an insight into his own methods. He was cleverer than that. What he did say was, in reference to the British, in a speech attacking Winston Churchill on Jan. 12, 1941: “The English follow the principle that when one lies, it should be a big lie, and one should stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” Goebbels always claimed, as totalitarians do, that what he broadcast was the truth; it was the enemy that lied.
The moment you commemorate martial law on Sept. 21, Marcos wins. That is because Sept. 21 is only tenable as the anniversary of martial law if you accept legal fiction— t hat, simply because the Great Dictator pointed to a hastily typed stack of papers, it must be so because he said it was so. But it was not. But so strong was the lie — because so often repeated, and so often commemorated — that many of those who lived through it recall it as he wanted it recalled. However, if you ask often enough, recollections will suddenly emerge from their Marcos-induced fog of lies, and reveal the truth.
What happened on Sept. 21, 1972? Four things will suffice to disprove the Marcos chronology of events. It was a Thursday, so Congress had a regular session day. In the Senate, Benigno S. Aquino Jr. made a privilege speech about the danger of a martial law proclamation. The Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties held a demonstration at Plaza Miranda in Quiapo; 30,000 people attended. The northern bloc of congressmen popped up at the Palace to ask President Marcos if martial law would be declared in 48 hours. The US ambassador visited Marcos to ask the same thing.
Marcos had planned to proclaim martial law on Sept. 21 because that was the day Congress was supposed to adjourn, sine die, reconvening in the last weeks of January, which was then the start of the new legislative session (since then, it’s been moved to July). With typical inefficiency, Congress was behind schedule, and so the scheduled adjournment of what was already a special session, on Sept. 23, to give time for the bicameral conference committee on the Tariff and Customs Code to be held over the next couple of days. (It was at this meeting, at the Hilton Manila, that Aquino would be arrested around midnight of Sept. 22/23.)
Marcos, of course, zigged and zagged about the particulars, and never had the opportunity to sort out his own chronology. In his own diary, he wrote that he finished preparing Proclamation No. 1081 in the evening of Sept. 21 (but he’d also mentioned finishing the paperwork in prior entries). Marcos would also tell a gathering of historians he signed the proclamation on Sept. 17. David Rosenberg, in a 1973 article, said Marcos signed it around 3 a.m. on Sept. 23, and journalist Raymond Bonner, based on an interview with Juan Ponce Enrile, said the defense secretary witnessed Marcos sign the proclamation in the morning of Sept. 23.
At best, no chronology can claim to be definitive, as of now. It may turn out that Marcos, expecting resistance and possibly a countercoup, didn’t formalize the paperwork until the die was cast and things were turning out to be proceeding fairly smoothly. What we do know is that, as Sept. 22 turned into Sept. 23, the forcible closing of media and the arrest of “target personalities” took place. That is why people woke up in the morning of Sept. 23 to discover most media shut down, and the remaining TV station and radio stations broadcasting cartoons and Muzak. People were told to await a national address that kept being postponed until, at 7:15 p.m., Marcos finally appeared on TV.
Together with the New Society came the cult of Sept. 21, enshrined as Thanksgiving Day. Logically enough, then senator Arturo Tolentino told his stunned colleagues, “This is a coup d’état!” But Marcos smoothly applied a combination of bribery (members of Congress and constitutional convention delegates were promised automatic membership in a future Interim National Assembly) and threats (Supreme Court justices were warned: Leave martial law alone or I will proclaim a revolutionary government and you will be out of a job) to maintain a surface appearance of institutional continuity, while he figured out how to permanently scrap the 1935 Constitution.
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