Looking Back

Marcos in the days leading to martial law

/ 04:05 AM September 25, 2019

Some people were disappointed when nationalist historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo declared that Marcos and martial law could only be written about 50 years after the events had passed. They mistook his prudence for cowardice, and the historian’s need for distance, perspective and objectivity a lame excuse. Didn’t he break this rule when he published his two-volume “The Fateful Years: Japan’s Adventure in the Philippines, 1941-1945” in 1965?

The loud cry over the weekend for remembering and for an accounting by Marcos for martial law reminded me that it is almost 50 years since Proclamation No. 1081 was read to the nation on grainy black and white TV on Sept. 23, 1972, by Information Secretary Francisco Tatad, and later officially announced by Ferdinand Marcos.


While books on Marcos and martial law have seen print over the years, these are no match for the slick revisionist history dished out on social media and the internet that paints Marcos and martial law as a golden age in Philippine history, a narrative that weighs all Philippine presidents against Marcos and finds them all wanting.

Question is, are the primary source documents on the period accessible to historians? Our jigsaw puzzle is incomplete, not enough to even make out the full picture. In my ongoing work on the diaries of Ferdinand Marcos, the challenge has been finding the other pieces in the puzzle. For example, on Sept. 14,1972, Marcos met with the secretary of national defense, the chief of staff and the major service commanders and announced:


“…I intend to declare martial law to liquidate the communist apparatus, reform our government and society, then have the Con[stitutional] Con[vention] ratify our acts and the people confirm it by plebiscite and return to constitutional processes; but that I needed at least one year and two months; that this would be a legitimate exercise of my emergency powers under the Constitution as clarified under the Habeas Corpus case by the Supreme Court last January; that we needed to cure the ills of our society by radical means (I mentioned national corruption, tax evasion, criminality, smuggling, lack of discipline, unequal opportunities) so we must keep our noses clean and submerge self-interest.”

No one objected to the plan, but Fidel Ramos recommended that “the closing of the media should be done by a civilian minister supported by the military,” and another general recommended tasking by branch of service. The Official Gazette mentions the activities of the day and the people who were present, but does not mention the meeting with the military or the call of US Ambassador Henry Byroade. According to Marcos’ diary, he discussed Byroade’s weekly reports to Washington (are these declassified and open to historians?), issues that affected US business interests in the Philippines: parity decision, sugar quota, etc. “I suggested that while we in the Philippines were talking of survival, the Americans were talking of property and profits. And we were not thinking on the same plane.” Marcos complained that he could not get through to the state department.

“I asked Marcos yesterday,” Byroade reported on Sept. 15, 1972, “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 staged assassination attempt on Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile provided justification for martial law, and the rest is history as we know it.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Ferdinand Marcos, Looking Back, martial law
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