“Wonder child” was what we called one of my nieces when she was a cute, chubby grade school chatterbox who seemed to have memorized more textbook history than me. She was particularly fond of the presidents of the Philippines and seemed to know all the dates, names, places and events that I didn’t. Once, while we were walking to the Malacañang ceremonial hall, I pointed randomly to the formal portraits that lined the wall, and like a jukebox she sang the selected tune. All went well until I pointed to Jose P. Laurel, who she described as “the puppet president of the Second Republic.” I was taken aback and asked where she learned all this. School was the answer, and it made me realize that maybe our grade school history can be more nuanced.
“Puppet president” seemed like a term that became current immediately after the war, when Laurel was denounced as a “collaborator” and charged with treason. Unfortunately, Laurel did not have the chance to clear his name through the courts because his cases were never brought to trial following a general amnesty by Manuel Roxas in 1948. A year later he ran for president but lost to Elpidio Quirino. He did win a seat in the Senate in 1951, and considered this his vindication.
Laurel became more than a name when I met his youngest son, Salvador H. Laurel, who was known to almost everyone by his nickname “Doy” and to his staff as “DHL.” Learning about JP Laurel from his son made me stop and reconsider the title “puppet president” that tarnished his name.
In his youth Laurel stole a kiss from a girl named Concepcion Lat and ran away. Two days later he was involved in a brawl with Exequiel Castillo over the kiss. The brawl resulted in two slight wounds on Laurel’s head and serious injuries on Castillo. Laurel was brought to court and was eventually acquitted.
This experience came back to Laurel in 1940 when he acquitted the young Ferdinand Marcos of the murder of Julio Nalundasan. Both young men were acquitted and rose to become presidents of the Philippines, making us reflect on the strange twists of fate. If these two men had been thrown in prison, Philippine history would have played out differently. Laurel also saved Manuel Roxas—twice—from the Japanese, keeping him alive to rise and become the last president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines and the first president of the Republic of the Philippines.
Moving out of my 19th-century comfort zone into 20th-century Philippine history, I cannot but see all the connections between personalities from the Commonwealth and World War II to their descendants in the 21st century. What a tangled political web we have, indeed.
Recently I have been reading up on Laurel in an effort to get to know him through his writings. Then there are other primary sources by people who worked closely with him, like Jorge Vargas whose Sugamo prison diary was edited and published as the last book of the eminent Filipino historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo. Toward the end of January 1946, Vargas tried to define and explain, in a rambling way, what collaboration meant to him:
“…[C]ollaboration not necessarily bad term—President Quezon in giving me his picture autographed it to his ‘collaborator’—He and MacArthur always spoke of collaboration and Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin spoke of collaboration in Tehran and Yalta. Collaboration with Japanese was a form of patriotic resistance. Resistance in Phil may be classified into
(2) above ground on diplomatic level and
(3) long distance. Underground were the guerillas in Manila, provinces and in the mountains,
(2) above ground or diplomatic were those who openly dealt with Japanese to convince them Filipinos could take care of themselves, as independent nation fully as capable if not more than they for self-government and political matters, resisted openly and tactfully every Japanese move for subjugation although helpless militarily to avoid atrocities and brutalities of sadistic and feudalistic minded Japanese soldiers, but saved numerous others as entire population could not be transferred elsewhere—also made possible survival of large numbers
(3) long distance were those who went away and from safety of space carried on fight from halls of Congress, the press, radio, and in General MacArthur’s headquarters—In other words, entire Filipino nation resisted the Japanese so much so that they had to give us independence which was so much before war from attack by Japs.”
On Feb. 18, 1948, Vargas reiterated the above in his diary by explaining his official actions: “Never collaborated with Jap in sense of working for them or for their benefit—Negotiated yes, in behalf and interest of civilian population or non-combatant Filipinos in occupied territory to temper Jap militarism in country… No official in Phil. Whether high or low, ever felt he was doing anything for the benefit of Jap. but only serving welfare of his country and people.”
While there are many who will tell us to take Vargas’ words with a grain of salt, I have been thinking about Laurel a lot recently, trying to weigh the simplified “puppet president” taught to us in textbook history with the man trying to make the best of a complex and bad situation. We may never erase the “puppet president” image of Laurel, but trying to understand him and his times is a good start.
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