The big lie
Ferdinand Marcos once told a convention of historians that he actually signed the martial law proclamation on Sept. 17. But he was lying to the historians. How do we know this? We know it from Marcos himself. A bit of background: He first floated the idea of martial law in 1969, in a speech at the Philippine Military Academy. In his own diaries, he started mentioning the need for martial law in 1970, and started detailed planning for it, by his own reckoning, in 1971.
In 1972, Marcos gave the military a pep talk on Sept. 14 to fill them in on what the senior generals already knew, since they had helped in the planning of martial law. By Sept. 17, Marcos had sent his children abroad for safety. Marcos claimed in his diary that plans were finalized on Sept. 18. On Sept. 20, he complained he couldn’t sign the necessary papers because they had to be retyped. He also mentioned he asked Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor to submit a report on his views on the plans for martial law.
Then came Sept. 21. What happened on that day? Not martial law. Four things prove this. First, Congress remained open and, in fact, opposition senator Ninoy Aquino gave a speech in the Senate — his last — warning that martial law was coming within 48 hours. Second, a big rally was held in Plaza Miranda. It was organized by the Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties. Third, in his diary, Marcos recounted that he met with the Northern bloc of congressmen worried about Ninoy’s speech. He told them what he intended to do. Fourth, Marcos then met the US ambassador to confirm his plans for martial law. All the US ambassador said was, he hoped it could be postponed until after the US presidential elections in November.
So there was no martial law on Sept. 21. It was, instead, the last day of freedom when people could say they went about their business normally. To be sure, Marcos had planned to impose martial law on Sept. 21, 1972. But something had gotten in the way. Congress was that thing. It was scheduled to go on recess on that date. This was important, because Marcos wanted to make sure Congress was on vacation to reduce the risk that senators and congressmen might try to oppose martial law.
But Congress didn’t go on recess on Sept. 21. A joint committee of the House and Senate wasn’t finished arguing over the Tariff and Customs Code. Congressional leaders told Marcos they expected to adjourn on the 23rd, if the joint committee finished its work on the night of the 22nd.
This left Marcos in a bind, and it explains what happened after midnight as Sept. 22 gave way to Sept. 23. Having gotten so far in planning martial law, but having had to delay it, Marcos and his generals feared they’d lose the initiative and more details would leak out. Marcos had to find an excuse to impose it. That excuse was the supposed assassination attempt on Juan Ponce Enrile at Wack-Wack subdivision, around 8 o’clock in the evening of Sept. 22.
Things moved quickly after that. Shortly before or shortly after midnight, the joint committee on the customs tariff was interrupted when soldiers arrived to arrest Ninoy. Five trucks of soldiers had been sent to do the job. Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, PLDT, the airport, were shut down in the early hours of Sept. 23. Media, political and other personalities and activists were rounded up also in the early morning hours.
This is why people woke up to discover that TV and radio stations were off the air. Later in the day, some stations started playing easy listening music and some stations aired cartoons. But Marcos’ speechwriters were slow, then the teleprompter broke down, and the speech had to be handwritten on kartolina. So it wasn’t until dinnertime that Marcos finally appeared on TV and the country found out martial law was in place.
Why do so many people who actually lived through martial law misremember when it was proclaimed? Marcos once said that the people would accept anything so long as it was legal. Marcos said he had imposed martial law on Sept. 21. We know this wasn’t true, because the document itself was co-signed, not by Alejandro Melchor, his executive secretary, but by a presidential assistant. This was because Melchor had left for abroad before Marcos actually signed the martial law proclamation sometime between the evening and early morning of Sept. 22 to 23.
Marcos went further to wipe the public’s memory clean. He later proclaimed Sept. 21 as Thanksgiving Day. This is the power of propaganda. By altering the date, Marcos helped erase not only Sept. 21 as the last day of freedom, but also how that freedom was lost between Sept. 22 and 23. A piece of backdated paper became the ultimate instrument for national amnesia.
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