The Marcos medals, questionable in 1966
Two decades before Alfred McCoy’s 1986 exposé on Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s war medals and war record, the US state department and Army already knew two medals were questionable. These come to light from declassified US documents that I was reading in relation to the eighth foreign trip of President Marcos Jr. in his first seven months in office. Only three of the eight are state visits. Acceptance of invitations extended by Indonesia, Singapore, and China underscored friendly bilateral relations. That is not the case with the President’s trip to Davos for the World Economic Forum, which made me read up on his father’s 1966 state visit to the US.
Press coverage of the visit was generally positive. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos charmed Washington. Their youth contrasted with the age of their hosts, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, such that the Marcoses were said to be the Asian version of the Kennedys. At the time, the Philippines was an important US ally in the Vietnam War, so the state department pulled all the stops toward the success of the visit, and the goodwill inspired in the guests. Every detail was covered: scheduling, security, press briefings, and, would you believe, even the length of Marcos’ golf clubs. A cable from the US ambassador in Manila dated Aug. 29, 1966, reported that:
“Marcos is right-handed, will be 49 on Sept. 11, is five feet six or seven inches, and last had [a] handicap of eight when playing regularly. His swing weight is D-Zero (i.e. one step lighter than D-One), he prefers ‘Regular’ shaft flexibility, and for present [golf] set has length of 43 inches for Woods and 38 ½ inches for Irons.”
Golfer friends told me the above data suggest Marcos was a good golfer and that his clubs were custom-made and not bought off the rack from a store. More importantly, the US state department documents I have access to made reference to Marcos’ infamous military medals. Our story begins with a confidential cable from the US ambassador in Manila dated Sept. 6, 1966.
During an interview with a Time correspondent, Marcos stated that he never received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), which is the US Army’s second-highest military decoration conferred on those who exhibited “extraordinary heroism in combat with an armed enemy force.” US Ambassador William McCormick Blair Jr. suggested that Marcos be conferred the DSC in the White House during his state visit. Rationale for this gesture was that it:
“[W]ould be much appreciated here, and would help point up for [the] American public [the] fact of Marcos’ wartime heroism under [the] US flag. We understand that medal itself [is] easily available since DSC [was] already awarded, though not physically conferred, for Salian River Battle. Although Silver Star [was] not mentioned by Marcos, [it] might be handled in [the] same way if he has not received it.”
The Silver Star is the third-highest US military decoration for valor in combat. Two days later, on Sept. 8, 1966, the state department “determined that the US Army [is] ready and willing [to] go ahead with presentation [of] the DSC and Silver Star medals on basis that Marcos’ Army records do not, repeat, not show he ever received them.” The cable mentioned that photos of Marcos’ medals in a government publication included the DSC and Silver Star, conferred for missions in Mount Natib, Mount Samat, and Salian River. These medals were physically pinned on Marcos by Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself. In Marcos’ authorized biography by Hartzell Spence, the dust jacket showed Marcos sporting a Silver Star! The state department asked the ambassador to confirm Marcos received these medals. During Marcos’ birthday party on Sept. 11, 1966, Blair coursed the query through Marcos’ brother in law, Benjamin Romualdez.
On Sept. 13, 1966, Blair confirmed with Marcos himself that the Time correspondent was mistaken about the medals and that he had, in fact, received both the DSC and the Silver Star. Therefore, the discreet White House conferment was canceled. The declassified exchange between Manila and Washington above proves that the US was willing to give Marcos the DSC and Silver Star, even if US Army records show he never received them. Diplomacy then was revising history.
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