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Marcos and Morality

Waltzing with a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy

by Raymond Bonner
Times Books, 533 pp., $19.95

Raymond Bonner, an ex–Marine Corps officer, worked for Ralph Nader, wrote an indictment of US policy in El Salvador, and annoyed his boss at The New York Times for being too sympathetic to the Sandinistas. He has been consistent and courageous in his idealism. Inside his book are photographs of some of his principal villains. There are Ronald Reagan, looking like an aging hairdresser, Richard Nixon, grinning awkwardly like a parent at a teen-age dance, Henry Kissinger, like your friendly delicatessen owner, all three in Filipino shirts dancing with the evil princess, Imelda Marcos. There are Meldy and Ferdie warbling a pop song into a microphone belonging to “Jessie’s Light and Sound System.” There is George Shultz, like a dancing bear with flowers around his neck, kissing the evil princess, and then US Ambassador Armacost (“Ourmarcos”) shaking hands with the dictator. Across a White House table from the evil princess sits Jimmy Carter’s assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, with the eager beam in his eye of the best kid in class, no doubt crushing human rights policies under his shiny brogues.

For Bonner the only admirable person in this unholy gallery (if we exclude the holy Cory Aquino) is Patricia “Patt” Derian, assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Carter administration and the implacable foe of Holbrooke. Bonner describes her as “tall and bearing a slight resemblance to the actress Lily Tomlin…. She treated dictators and strongmen, even if they were heads of state, with all the respect she would have shown a redneck southern sheriff.” This is meant as a compliment. But it might lead one to think that she saw the world as if it were all part of America. Her responsibility during the Carter campaign was apparently “liberals, intellectuals, and attitudes.” Bonner’s book, though ostensibly about the Philippines, tells us a great deal about the attitudes of American liberal intellectuals.

Bonner is a moralist, which is both admirable and a problem in his book, for he is given to adopting a consistent tone of outrage, which makes his analysis of American foreign policy predictable and in many ways unsatisfactory. How much morality to inject into foreign relations is of course a subject of ceaseless debate. Bonner quotes George Kennan with implicit disapproval as the typical exponent of Realpolitik:

We should dispense with the aspiration to “be liked” or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers’ keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and—for the Far East—unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

This statement, written in 1948, was a rather sweeping variation (in the Philippines, for example, democracy was not an unreal objective) of Lord Palmerston’s statement that his country had no permanent friends, or permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.

On the other side of the fence we find Jimmy Carter’s professed, though—to Bonner’s disgust—rarely practiced, maxim that

a nation’s domestic and foreign policies should be derived from the same standards of ethics, honesty and morality which are characteristic of the individual citizens of the nation…. There is only one nation in the world which is capable of true leadership among the community of nations and that is the United States of America.1

This is the policy Patt Derian stood for: human rights, not just as an adjunct to foreign policy, in which fundamental values are asserted and their violation protested and publicized, but as its main driving force. Foreign strong men and dictators should be treated as redneck sheriffs. From Selma, Alabama, to Pretoria, from Buenos Aires to Manila, the freedom march would go forward. George Kennan, writing in Foreign Affairs in 1985, pointed out the unconscious chauvinism inherent in this attitude:

The interventions have served, in the eyes of their American inspirers, as demonstrations not only of the moral deficiencies of others but of the positive morality of ourselves; for it was seen as our moral duty to detect these lapses on the part of others, to denounce them before the world, and to assure—as far as we could with measures short of military action—that they were corrected.

Moral principles and Realpolitik sometimes converge, and sometimes not. The central thesis of Bonner’s book is that, at least in the case of pro-American dictators, they always do. In his concluding sentence he exclaims (his prose tends to exclaim a lot): “It’s not a moral imperative which says don’t embrace dictators; it is hard, cold realpolitik. If that wasn’t clear before, it should be after Marcos.” In a world where, sadly, democracy is still a minority creed, this leaves a superpower little room to maneuver. Surely Bonner would not argue that embracing and aiding Stalin during World War II was a mistake.

What about the Philippines? Was Marcos just another strong man, like Diem, the Shah, or Somoza, whom Washington embraced to its peril, as Bonner contends? Does the Philippines fit neatly into a pattern of American foreign policy disasters, from which firm lessons can be drawn? There are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from the Marcos years, but the “Fil-American relationship” has been so unusual, so tangled up in colonial history, so incestuous and so plagued by myths and mutual deception, that it defies easy categorization. The Philippines is such a strange place and Marcos such an odd dictator that easy comparisons (of which there are all too many in Bonner’s book) muddy our understanding instead of helping it.

America never quite knew what to do with the Philippines. After Dewey’s fleet kicked the Spaniards out of Manila in 1898, President McKinley said to a group of Methodists:

When next I realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides…. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came—I) that we could not give them back to Spain…[and] 2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany, our commercial rivals in the Orient…. There was nothing left for us to do but take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them.

It was not to be the only time God had to decide the fate of Filipinos, and God had evidently told McKinley that morality and Realpolitik were the same thing. It led to a peculiarly American conundrum: the US was an imperialist power preaching against imperialism. And this in turn led to a Filipino conundrum: they became anti-imperialists basking in the embrace of the American empire. Two famous sayings by Manuel Quezon, president during the Commonwealth period in the 1930s, illustrate this perfectly: “Better a government run like hell by Filipinos than one run like heaven by Americans” and “Damn the Americans! Why don’t they tyrannize us more?”

Things had not changed very much in 1972, when Marcos declared martial law. Marcos understood the psychology of the Fil-American relationship better than his American counterparts. He manipulated Filipino nationalism and American interests like a grand master. How did the American government define its interests in the Philippines in 1972, when the Vietnam War had turned into a disaster? It was to have “stability” there and to maintain its military bases in good order. No matter how devious his methods, Marcos could guarantee both. Martial law might have strangled democracy, but it did restore at least the appearance of order in a very disorderly society, and Marcos even managed to convince a large number of his compatriots that it was for the best, that the New Society heralded a truly new age. Highly respectable politicians such as Vicente Paterno, now a senator, served in the government during the early years of martial law. Even Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, according to Reuben Canoy—who held three positions in the Marcos government before joining the opposition in 1976—“had vowed to declare martial law if elected.”2

One of the most highly praised revelations in Bonner’s book is that Richard Nixon knew martial law was coming, because Marcos had hinted at it in a telephone conversation. Nixon has denied this. But if we assume that Nixon did know, could we reasonably have expected him to intervene? And would it have helped? As to the latter, we shall of course never know. As to the first, Bonner thinks he should have:

If Washington had wanted to defend democracy in the Philippines, it could have sent a very strong message to Marcos that martial law would not be tolerated, that there would be a cutoff of aid, or some other step taken, if he usurped democracy.

This is strong language, entirely in the spirit of the anti-imperialist imperialist teacher of democracy. Is it really up to America to decide how an independent country should run its politics? Here we get into the special nature of the Fil-American relationship. For, as Filipino nationalists like to point out, the Philippines is not entirely independent—not until Filipinos stop looking to Washington for approval, or until Washington stops interfering in Philippine affairs. To be fair to Nixon, at least he did not interfere.

At times Bonner appears as uncertain about what to do about the Philippines as President McKinley was. He strongly disapproves of the American interference, mostly through the legendary CIA man Edward G. Lansdale, in the election of the highly popular Ramón Magsaysay in 1953. He is equally critical of American involvement in the election of Diosdado Macapagal in 1961: “The intervention reflected the same arrogance that marked American involvement in the election in 1986, the belief that it was justified…’in order to change their country for the better.’ “3 I do not disagree. So what is Bonner’s argument for Nixon intervening before or after martial law?

Regardless of the level of support for martial law by the people, should the United States remain silent in the face of an assault on democracy just because the citizens of the country might acquiesce to it? The answer would be yes if the U.S. adhered to a policy of noninterference in another country’s domestic affairs. But it does not. Surely, if a left-wing government had usurped democracy, the United States would protest, regardless of the enthusiasm for the new form of government (as, for example, in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas).

  1. 1

    Jimmy Carter, Why Not the Best? (Broadman, 1975).

  2. 2

    The Counterfeit Revolution: The Philippines from Martial Law to the Aquino Assassination (Manila: Philippine Editions, 1981). Bonner cites this book as “probably the best on the martial law and the period about which [Canoy] writes.”

  3. 3

    Bonner quotes Joseph Smith, who refers to the 1959 Senatorial elections in his book, Portrait of a Cold Warrior (Ballantine Books, 1976).

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