Ferdinand Marcos was the president of the Philippines from 1966 to 1986. He was initially a reformer and anti-colonial independence fighter. But after he became president he became increasingly dictatorial and corrupt and by the time he was thrown out of power he was considered by many to be the greatest kleptocrat of all time. In the presidential election of 1965, as the Nacionalista candidate, Marcos triumphed over the previous president Diosdado Macapagal. He then dominated the political scene for the next two decades, first as an elected president in 1965 and 1969, and then as a virtual dictator after his 1972 proclamation of martial law.

Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, “Ferdinand E. Marcos was as tough as he was debonair, and he came to rule the Philippines with an iron hand before popular unrest forced him to flee in 1986 after two decades in power. Mr. Marcos was first elected President in 1965 and converted his country's sputtering democratic system into a personal fief, with his luxury-loving wife, Imelda, as virtual co-ruler. He came to control most of the apparatus of power and acquired the right to rule by decree. For most of that time, he had the firm support of the United States.” [Source: Eric Pace, New York Times, September 29, 1989 ]

“A skillful lawyer and orator, Mr. Marcos entered public life in 1949 and served successively as a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, Senator and president of the Senate before he was first elected President in 1965. He was re-elected in 1969, later proclaimed that the governmental machinery was not operating and set about transforming it. He entrenched himself as the Philippines' autocratic ruler during the nine years, from 1972 to 1981, in which he imposed martial law. He held on to sweeping powers afterward, and his regal manner and sumptuous way of life seemed to enhance his authority over his poverty-plagued, largely rural nation. independent in 1946.

During his first term, Marcos initiated ambitious public works projects that improved the general quality of life while providing generous pork-barrel benefits for his friends. Marcos perceived that his promised land reform program would alienate the politically all-powerful landowner elite, and thus it was never forcefully implemented. He lobbied strenuously for economic and military aid from the United States while resisting significant involvement in the Second Indochina War (1954–75). In 1967 the Philippines became a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Marcos became the first president to be reelected (in 1969), but early in his second term economic growth slowed, optimism faded, and the crime rate increased. In addition, a new communist insurgency, this time—starting in 1968—led by the new Communist Party of the Philippines-Marxist-Leninist and its military arm, the New People’s Army, was on the rise. In 1969 the Moro National Liberation Front was founded and conducted an insurgency in Muslim areas. Political violence blamed on leftists, but probably initiated by government agents provocateurs, led Marcos to suspend habeas corpus as a prelude to martial law.

Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972, and did not lift it until January 17, 1981. During this time, he called for self-sacrifice and an end to the old society. However, in the “New Society” Marcos’s cronies and his wife, former movie actress Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, wilfully engaged in rampant corruption. In 1979 the United States reaffirmed Philippine sovereignty over U.S. military bases and continued to provide military and economic aid to the Marcos regime. When martial law was lifted in 1981 and a “New Republic” proclaimed, little had actually changed, and Marcos easily won reelection.

Early Life of Ferdinand Marcos

Ferdinand Marcos was born in llocos Norte Province at the northwestern tip of Luzon, a traditionally poor and clannish region. He was first baptized into the Philippine Independent Church but when he was three he was baptized in Roman Catholic Church.

Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, “Ferdinand Edralin Marcos's early years were rather more austere. He was born Sept. 11, 1917, in the town of Sarrat in a rice- and tobacco-growing area in Ilocos Norte in northern Luzon. His father, Mariano R. Marcos, was a politician and educator. His mother, the former Josefa Edralin, was a teacher from a well-to-do landowning family. The Marcos family moved to Manila in 1925, and the future President graduated from secondary school in 1934 and went on to study law on a scholarship at the University of the Philippines.[Source: Eric Pace, New York Times, September 29, 1989 ]

Marcos studied law at the University of the Philippines, attending the prestigious College of Law. He excelled in both curricular and extra-curricular activities, becoming a valuable member of the university's swimming, boxing, and wrestling teams. He was also an accomplished and prolific orator, debater, and writer for the student newspaper. He also became a member of the University of the Philippines ROTC Unit (UP Vanguard Fraternity) where he met his future cabinet members and Armed Forces Chiefs of Staff. He sat for the 1939 Bar Examinations, receiving a near-perfect score and graduating cum laude despite the fact that he was incarcerated while reviewing; had he not been in jail for 27 days, he would have graduated magna cum laude. He was elected to the Pi Gamma Mu and the Phi Kappa Phi international honour societies, the latter giving him its Most Distinguished Member Award 37 years later. [Source: Wikipedia]

Sterling Seagrave's book “The Marcos Dynasty” mentions that Marcos possessed a phenomenal memory and exhibited this by memorizing complicated texts and reciting them forward and backward, even such as the 1935 Constitution of the Philippines. Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, in an interview with the Philippine Star on March 25, 2012, shared her experience as a speech writer to President Marcos: "One time, the Secretary of Justice forgot to tell me that the President had requested him to draft a speech that the President was going to deliver before graduates of the law school. And then, on the day the President was to deliver the speech, he suddenly remembered because Malacañang was asking for the speech, so he said, 'This is an emergency. You just have to produce something.' And I just dictated the speech. He liked long speeches. I think that was 20 or 25 pages. And then, in the evening, I was there, of course. President Marcos recited the speech from memory."

Murder Charges and Questions About Ferdinand Marcos’s World War II Record

While he was a student, he was convicted of the murder of a political rival of his father, but the verdict was reversed by the Philippine Supreme Court after the young man argued his own appeal. He then became a trial lawyer in his father's Manila law firm. [Source: New York Times]

In December 1938, Ferdinand was prosecuted for the murder of Julio Nalundasan along with his father, Mariano, his brother, Pio, and his brother-in-law Quirino Lizardo; Nalundasan one of the elder Marcos' political rivals. Nalundasan had been shot and killed in his house in Batac on 20 September 1935–the day after he had defeated Mariano Marcos a second time for a seat in the National Assembly. According to two witnesses, the four had conspired to assassinate Nalundasan, with Ferdinand Marcos eventually pulling the trigger. In late January 1939, they were denied bail[4] and in the fall[when?] of 1939 they were convicted. Ferdinand and Lizardo received the death penalty for premeditated murder, while Mariano and Pio were found guilty of contempt of court. The Marcos family took their appeal to the Supreme Court of the Philippines, which overturned the lower court's decision on 22 October 1940, acquitting them of all charges except contempt. [Source: Wikipedia]

During World War II, Marcos served in the Battle of Bataan and then claimed to have led a 9,000-man guerrilla unit called Ang Mahárlika (Tagalog, "The Noble") in northern Luzon. Like many other aspects of his life, Marcos's war record, and the large number of United States and Philippine military medals that he claimed (at one time including the Congressional Medal of Honor), came under embarrassing scrutiny during the last years of his presidency. His stories of wartime gallantry, which were inflated by the media into a personality cult during his years in power, enthralled not only Filipino voters but also American presidents and members of Congress. *

Pace wrote: “In World War II, he was a much-decorated officer in both the Philippine and United States Armies. The decorations that Mr. Marcos claimed to have earned for military service against the Japanese became a campaign issue four decades later, when Mrs. Aquino denounced what she called his ''false medals.'' The Government's count of his war decorations ranged from 26 to 33. When their validity was challenged by American and Philippine journalists, his Government argued that documentation of his exploits as a wounded army officer and guerrilla leader had been destroyed by fire.”

In 1986, research by historian Alfred W. McCoy into United States Army records showed most of Marcos's medals to be fraudulent. According to Dr. Ricardo Jose, former chairman of the Department of History of the University of the Philippines, Marcos's claims in his self-commissioned autobiography Marcos of the Philippines that Gen. Douglas MacArthur pinned on him the Distinguished Service Cross medal for delaying Japanese at Bataan for 3 months was highly improbable. In fact, his father Mariano Marcos was a known Japanese collaborator who was executed by Filipino guerillas in April 1945, and the younger Marcos was accused by some guerillas of being a collaborator as well. [Source: Wikipedia]

Ferdinand Marcos’s Political Career

In 1946 and 1947, Mr. Marcos was special assistant to President Manuel Roxas. He was a member of the Philippine House of Representatives from 1949 to 1959 and of the Senate from 1959 to 1966, serving as president of the Senate from 1963 to 1965. His 1954 marriage to former beauty queen Imelda Romualdez provided him with a photogenic partner and skilled campaigner. She also had family connections with the powerful Romualdez political dynasty of Leyte in the Visayas. *

Marcos reportedly made his first million as a first-term congressman in 1949 and 1950 selling import licenses. He bought a Cadillac to celebrate his new status. Before then there was no outward indication of any wealth. When Marcos courted Imelda in 1954 the story goes that he brought her to a bank vault and showed her stacks of hundred-dollar bills but no gold bars. He didn't open his first bank account abroad until 1967. [Source: Charlie Avila's Marcos Chronology Report, bibliotecapleyades.net]

When the Philippines was granted independence on July 4, 1946 by the American government, the Philippine Congress was established. Marcos ran and was three times elected as representative of the 2nd district of Ilocos Norte, 1949–1959. He was named chairman of the House Committee on Commerce and Industry and member of the Defense Committee headed by Ramon Magsaysay. He was chairman, House Neophytes Bloc in which (President) Diosdado Macapagal, (Vice President) Emmanuel Pelaez and (Manila Mayor) Arsenio J. Lacson were members. He was also a member of the House Committee on Industry; LP spokesman on economic matters; member, Special Committee on Import and Price Controls and on Reparations; House Committees on Ways and Means, Banks Currency, War Veterans, Civil Service, Corporations and Economic Planning; and the House Electoral Tribunal. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Marcos won his senate seat in the elections in 1959 and became the Senate minority floor leader in 1960. He became the executive vice president of the Liberal Party in and served as the party president from 1961–1964; Senate President, 1963–1965. During his term as Senate President, former Defense Secretary Eulogio B. Balao was also closely working with Marcos. Marcos led a controversial political career both before and after his term as Senate President. He became Senator after he served as member of the House of Representatives for three terms, then later as Minority Floor Leader before gaining the Senate Presidency. He introduced a number of significant bills, many of which found their way into the Republic statute books. +

Marcos ran for president in 1965 on a popular campaign as being a bemedalled anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter during World War II. By the mid 60's Marcos touted himself to be the most decorated guerilla leader of World War II, having been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and Purple Heart among his many medals. +

Marcos Elected with High Hopes in 1965

Marcos was first elected in 1965 under the seductive slogan “This nation can be great again” and became the first Philippine president to win two terms in office. According to Lonely Planet: “At first it indeed was a new era, and Marcos and his even more charismatic wife Imelda went about trying to bring back some of Manila's pre-war energy. Imelda drove projects like the Cultural Center for the Philippines, which got lots of international attention.” [Source: Lonely Planet]

Marcos’s government was initially considered a showcase for democracy. During his first term as president, Marcos initiated ambitious public works projects — roads, bridges, schools, health centers, irrigation facilities, and urban beautification projects — that improved the quality of life and also provided generous pork barrel benefits for his friends. Massive spending on public works was, politically, a cost-free policy not only because the pork barrel won him loyal allies but also because both local elites and ordinary people viewed a new civic center or bridge as a benefit. By contrast, a land reform program — part of Marcos's platform as it had been that of Macapagal and his predecessors — would alienate the politically all-powerful landowner elite and thus was never forcefully implemented. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Marcos lobbied rigorously for economic and military aid from the United States but resisted pressure from President Lyndon Johnson to become significantly involved in the Second Indochina War. Marcos's contribution to the war was limited to a 2,000- member Philippine Civic Action Group sent to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) between 1966 and 1969. The Philippines became one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), established in 1967. *

Marcos as President

After taking office in 1965, he improved his country's infrastructure but failed to lift the economy. As the years wore he became increasingly dictatorial. Marcos labeled his government as "authoritarian" not "a dictatorship. He ruled the Philippines like a party boss, dispensing favors to loyal followers and handing over big contracts and concessions to his wealthy friends.

Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, “While he was President, Mr. Marcos was not apologetic about departing from the norms of Western democracy. ''What we ask of the developed countries,'' he wrote in 1982, ''is to let the third world find a third way. We must now create a political and economic system responsive to our unique character and our special realities.'' Defending his right to rule by decree, if he chose, he asserted that otherwise ''you will have Communists going back and forth, causing the dastardly ruin of our country, the killing of people and the rape of women.'' [Source: Eric Pace, New York Times, September 29, 1989 ]

With her husband’s support, Imelda Marcos built her own power base. She became governor of Metropolitan Manila and minister of human settlements. The previously nonpolitical armed forces became highly politicized, with high-ranking positions being given to Marcos loyalists.
“Over the years, Mr. Marcos's hand was strengthened by the support of the armed forces, whose size he tripled, to 200,000 troops, after declaring martial law in 1972. The forces included some first-rate units as well as thousands of unruly and ill-equipped personnel of the civilian home defense forces and other paramilitary organizations. In the martial-law years, he also consolidated his parliamentary power and curbed civil liberties, harassing or exiling political opponents.

Marcos' leadership was also marked by political turmoil that was partly the result of widespread unemployment and the gap between the lower class poor and the upper class elite. Under Marcos, the poor were encouraged to improve their lives by eating earthworms and snails for protein. Television shows were often interrupted for Marcos speeches. His solution to the Philippines’s deforestation problem was to decree that every Filipino over the age of 10 had to plant and maintain one tree for five years to offset the logging done by his cronies.

In the 1950s, Filipinos was probably the best fed country in Asia. During the Marcos period, people in India, Indonesia and perhaps Bangladesh ate better than Filipino. A staggering 40 percent of all the nation’s death were caused by malnutrition. Under the Marcos government 80 percent of the Philippines’ people live below poverty line and 75 percent of the land was owned by 2 percent of the people. More than a half a million women prostituted themselves. [Source: people.brandeis.edu]

Lonely Planet reported: “By 1970, widespread poverty, rising inflation, pitiful public funding and blatant corruption triggered a wave of protests in Manila. When several demonstrators were killed by police outside the presidential Malacañang Palace, Marcos' image as a political saviour died with them. However he still had a hugely powerful backer in the form of the US military, whose Clark and Subic Bay bases were vital to the Vietnam War.

King Ferdinand and Queen Imelda

Ferdinand and Imelda lived like a king and queen in their riverside palace. When Pope John Paul II visited the Philippines in 1981, Mr. Marcos had bronze medals struck depicting himself and the Pope. The Cultural Center that Marcos built hosted the Bolshoi Ballet, Frank Sinatra and Placido Domingo. AFP reported: “In the glory days of the 1970s, the world's best ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, brought great pleasure to those in the 1,893-seat main theatre. That halcyon era also saw tenor Placido Domingo sing for the opera "Tosca", while the Bolshoi Ballet performed "Swan Lake" and Frank Sinatra cast his famous blue eyes across an enraptured audience.” [Source: Agence France-Presse, September 24, 2009]

Robert Trent Jones Jr., an American golf course designer, told the New York Times, “"I'd built six courses in the Philippines, and Marcos cheated on every one of them to keep a phony 7 handicap. He used barefoot caddies, who curled their toes around his bad lies and moved the ball into the fairway." [Source: A. Craig Copetas, New York Times, January 15, 2005]


Philippine’s Claim to Sabah

In the 1960s there were disputes between the Philippines and Malaysia over Sabah in northeast Borneo, The Philippines objected to the formation of the Malaysian federation, which including Sarawak and Sabah in northern Borneo, claiming North Borneo was part of Sulu, and thus the Philippines. It was discovered, after an army mutiny and murder of Muslim troops in 1968 (the "Corregidor Incident") that the Philippine army was training a special unit to infiltrate Sabah.

Philippine Muslims regard themselves as descendants of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu. The Royal Sultanate of Sulu was an Islamic kingdom that ruled the islands and seas in the southern Philippines and northern Borneo long before the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century.

In 1966 the new president, Ferdinand Marcos, dropped the claim, although it has since been revived and is still a point of contention marring Philippine-Malaysian relations. The Philippines’ differences with Malaysia did not involve organized violence but were longer lasting. A legally complex territorial dispute over Sabah led to the occasional suspension of diplomatic relations between 1963 and 1968, although relations were restored in December 1969. Relations were later strained as Sabah’s chief minister allowed Muslim insurgents from the Philippines to use Sabah as a haven until he lost an election in April 1976. [Source: Wikipedia]

Marcos and the United States

Marcos was propped up by the U.S. government which provided economic aid to the Philippines and trained the Philippine military and police in return for permission to keep American soldiers in American military bases on the Philippines and be a bulwark against Communism in Asia. During the Vietnam War era, when the Philippines was a key American ally, the United States had a major naval base at Subic Bay and a major air force base at Clark Air Force base, with 16,000 U.S. military personnel.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan supported Marcos during most his time in office. After one clearly rigged election, Reagan stood up for Marcos, saying, “There was cheating on both sides.” On a visit t the Philippines, Reagan’s vice president, George Bush, proclaimed “love” for Marcos and his “devotion to the democratic process.” To gather information about Marcos' health the CIA reportedly tried to retrieve the contents of his visits to the toilet while in Washington.

Eric Pace wrote in the New York Times, “His ties with Washington were of long standing. Early in his presidency, Mr. Marcos was a strong defender of American involvement in Vietnam, and he maintained close relations with Washington in the years that followed. Those relations soured somewhat under the Carter Administration, which included the Philippines among the targets of its human-rights campaign. But Vice President George Bush appeared to signal a different tack in 1981 when he visited Manila and told Mr. Marcos: ''We love your adherence to democratic principles and to democratic processes. We will not leave you in isolation.'' Mr. Bush said the next day that he had been speaking generally of American allies in Southeast Asia, but his remarks were associated in the public mind with the Philippines and came to be quoted with ironic intent.” [Source: Eric Pace, New York Times, September 29, 1989]

Marcos’s Second Term

Although Marcos was elected to a second term as president in 1969 — the first president of the independent Philippines to gain a second term — the atmosphere of optimism that characterized his first years in power was largely dissipated. Economic growth slowed. Ordinary Filipinos, especially in urban areas, noted a deteriorating quality of life reflected in spiraling crime rates and random violence. Communist insurgency, particularly the activity of the Huks — had degenerated into gangsterism during the late 1950s, but the Communist Party of the Philippines-Marxist Leninist, usually referred to as the CPP, was "reestablished" in 1968 along Maoist lines in Tarlac Province north of Manila, leaving only a small remnant of the orgiinal PKP. The CPP's military arm, the New People's Army (NPA), soon spread from Tarlac to other parts of the archipelago. On Mindanao and in the Sulu Archipelago, violence between Muslims and Christians, the latter often recent government-sponsored immigrants from the north, was on the rise. In 1969 the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was organized on Malaysian soil. The MNLF conducted an insurrection supported by Malaysia and certain Islamic states in the Middle East, including Libya. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The carefully crafted "Camelot" atmosphere of Marcos's first inauguration, in which he cast himself in the role of John F. Kennedy with Imelda as his Jackie, gave way in 1970 to general dissatisfaction with what had been one of the most dishonest elections in Philippine history and fears that Marcos might engineer change in the 1935 constitution to maintain himself in power. On January 30, 1970, the "Battle of Mendiola," named after a street in front of the Malacañang Palace, the presidential mansion, pitted student demonstrators, who tried to storm the palace, against riot police and resulted in many injuries. *

Random bombings, officially attributed to communists but probably set by government agents provocateurs, occurred in Manila and other large cities. Most of these only destroyed property, but grenade explosions in the Plaza Miranda in Manila during an opposition Liberal Party rally on August 21, 1971, killed 9 people and wounded 100 (8 of the wounded were Liberal Party candidates for the Senate). Although it has never been conclusively shown who was responsible for the bombing, Marcos blamed leftists and suspended habeas corpus — a prelude to martial law. But evidence subsequently pointed, again, to government involvement. *

Government and opposition political leaders agreed that the country's constitution, American-authored during the colonial period, should be replaced by a new document to serve as the basis for thorough-going reform of the political system. In 1967 a bill was passed providing for a constitutional convention, and three years later, delegates to the convention were elected. It first met in June 1971. *

The 1935 constitution limited the president to two terms. Opposition delegates, fearing that a proposed parliamentary system would allow Marcos to maintain himself in power indefinitely, prevailed on the convention to adopt a provision in September 1971 banning Marcos and members of his family from holding the position of head of state or government under whatever arrangement was finally established. But Marcos succeeded, through the use of bribes and intimidation, in having the ban nullified the following summer. Even if Marcos had been able to contest a third presidential term in 1973, however, both the 1971 mid-term elections and subsequent public opinion polls indicated that he or a designated successor — Minister of National Defense Juan Ponce Enrile or the increasingly ambitious Imelda Marcos — would likely be defeated by his arch-rival, Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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