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).

This is a questionable argument, on both the level of morality and of Realpolitik. As far as the latter is concerned, it makes some sense to distinguish American allies from governments that are hostile to American interests. The question is how seriously American interests are threatened. As for morality, if intervention is arrogant and bad per se, does the fact that Washington would “surely” protest against communist takeovers make it suddenly all right to intervene in the Philippines? Bonner’s wishy-washiness shows up the danger in trying to match moral absolutes to Realpolitik.

I would argue that stability is a better yardstick to base a foreign policy on than morality. Stability in a society presupposes a broad consensus in that country that the status quo is beneficial. Certainly determining whether such a consensus exists may be difficult, especially in countries where people are not free to express themselves. But it is sometimes the case that authoritarian regimes (Park Chung Hee in Korea, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan) create stable conditions for high economic growth and thus an expanding middle class, which then becomes too sophisticated to be ruled any longer by military disciplinarians. This leads to a very tricky situation in which the US is often caught in the middle. Deliberately destabilizing such governments is as dangerous as being too intimately entangled with them. The only real choice may be to discreetly encourage the building of democratic institutions, so more liberal governments can succeed. Openly backing opposition politicians could cast them in the role of America’s puppets. Even though, while speaking out against the imposition of martial law, the US did not take sides during the recent crisis in South Korea, the more radical students were still convinced that the outcome was part of a US plot to keep South Korea under the imperial thumb.

The Philippines in 1972 was nowhere near as prosperous as Korea today. As Ninoy Aquino—who, by the way, admired such redneck sheriffs as Park and Lee—once observed, the primary failing of Marcos was not that he was an authoritarian leader but that he was an ineffective authoritarian leader. Although the early years of martial law were marked by economic growth, Marcos ended up looting his economy instead of strengthening it. In a word, Marcos was a thief.

Bonner makes a convincing argument that Washington should have taken note of this a long time ago. It is also hard to disagree with him that Marcos, though beneficial to American interests in the short term, was a potential threat to those interests in the long term, when his excessive greed and sheer irresponsibility would destabilize the Philippines. It is true, I think, that Washington always took the Philippines too much for granted. Bonner is right to point out the lack of Philippine experts in the foreign policy establishment. And he is right to be astonished that Henry Kissinger does not make even one reference to the Philippines in his memoirs. The other problem, by no means confined to the Fil-American relationship, is the lack of a qualified and more or less permanent foreign policy establishment in Washington that can take long-term interests into account. The American system itself, with the large number of temporary political appointees and the transitory bureaucracy, works against having a consistent foreign policy with long-term aims.

Once this is said, it is not entirely clear exactly when Marcos became a serious threat to American interests. Bonner spends a great many pages recounting the evil princess’s shopping sprees, telling us precisely how much everything cost, and more pages describing her parties, with entire guest lists. It adds little to what we already knew about her extraordinary crassness, the vulgarity of her binges, the ghastliness of her guests. But personal excesses alone do not bring an economy down. Bernardo Villegas, a Filipino economist now close to the Aquino government, argues that Marcos made some economic progress in the first few years of martial law.4 He boosted export industries, improved the long-neglected agriculture (the Philippines began to export rice for the first time), encouraged foreign investment, and reduced the country’s dependence on imported oil by building alternative sources of energy. Villegas also maintains that “the land reform program of President Marcos was a success.” This is open to doubt. It benefited some rice farmers in Luzon, but not at all the workers on sugar or coconut plantations.

Bonner makes heavy weather about martial law benefiting American business interests. Multinationals and American business have become such buzz words of moral awfulness to some people, including Bonner, that anything good for, say, Mobil Oil, must be bad for the people. But this is not necessarily so. The multinational oil companies saved the Philippines considerable grief during the first oil shock, because, according to Villegas, they “provided the Philippines with much-needed oil supplies while the neophyte Philippine National Oil Company was just beginning to learn the ropes in direct government-to-government trade.” Moreover, American business interests in the Philippines have been exaggerated. The Philippines specialist Theodore Friend worked it out that “American investment in the Philippines increased more in dollar terms in the 1960s than under martial law, and has been steadily declining as a percentage of an American global sum for over twenty years.” According to Friend, American investment in 1977 represented only 2.4 percent of Philippine capital stock. While American business went down in the Philippines during martial law, it increased sharply in other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan.5

It may be morally satisfying to read (not to mention to write) a sentence like: “In 1986 old women and teenage girls worked alongside weathered men and small boys, toiling in the merciless sun for a dollar a day, in sugarcane, cotton, and rice fields owned by a few immensely rich and powerful families and American corporations,” but it is wrong. Rich and powerful families, certainly. But American corporations? Not very likely. Moreover, cotton is hardly grown at all in the Philippines. It is a small thing, but typical of the emotional “Yankee Go Home” rhetoric throughout the book.

Oil, of course, was an important reason why the Pentagon during the Carter years decided it needed Subic Bay and Clark Field, respectively the naval and air bases in the Philippines, more than ever. The Middle East was in turmoil, the oil supplies to the Pacific needed to be protected, and the Philippine bases were a vital link between the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. The other reason why Washington was very reluctant to move the Philippine bases, apart from the sheer cost of such an exercise, was that it would have seemed a complete abdication of US interests in East Asia. The Vietnam debacle made Asian allies anxious enough. To move out of Subic and Clark, just as the Soviet Union had the chance to move into Camranh Bay, would have been, in the view of most of the Asian allies, disastrous. It is telling that Bonner appears to look positively upon Carter’s hastily aborted plan to bring the boys in South Korea back home. In fact it caused a major crisis in Japan. The problem, not often appreciated in the US, about withdrawing American troops from Asia, is that Japan would be the only country powerful enough to take over as the region’s military policeman, something many Japanese, and even more fellow Asians, would abhor.

Curiously but rather typically, Bonner only mentions Camranh Bay once in his chapter on the bases issue, and then only to make the highly contradictory point that Peking wanted the Americans to keep their Philippine bases as a check on the Soviets, but also in the hope that the American presence would provoke a revolution in the Philippines (from which the Soviets, rather than the Chinese, would be likely to profit).

Still, Bonner is right about one thing: the bases were more important to Washington than the restoration of Philippine democracy. And to say that the bases muddle an already highly muddled Fil-American relationship is almost a truism. Eisenhower saw it coming in 1946. As army chief of staff he recommended that all US forces be withdrawn from the Philippines because future good relations with Manila were more important than the strategic value of the bases. Bonner cites George Kennan’s opinion that the bases had to go in 1977. And he quotes a cable sent to Richard Holbrooke in 1977 by the American ambassador in Malaysia:

Our relations with the Philippines can never be normal while our bases remain. For the Filipinos they [the bases] create contradictions and strains which twist and warp every aspect of their attitudes toward us. On the one hand the bases symbolize the “special relationship” with us…. On the other hand the bases are also regarded as an affront to Philippine national pride, and a symbol of imperfect independence and continuing dependency.

Quite correct. But could the bases be moved in the 1970s, without an enormous cost, both financially—estimated at $8 billion in 1986—and strategically? Can they now? Bonner does not tell us how or who would pick up the bill.

To Filipino politicians the bases have always been useful as a financial milk cow and a nationalist platform. The traditional thing to do—Manuel Quezon did it in 1935—is to denounce political opponents for being too soft on the Americans, for being “Amboys” (American boys), and then to make a lucrative deal oneself. Marcos wanted to renegotiate the status of the bases as early as 1966, to show his domestic critics that he was a nationalist (after sending Filipino troops to help the US in Vietnam), and by 1976 was asking for sovereignty over the bases. This is when Holbrooke entered the scene, wanting a deal as badly as Marcos. Bonner accuses Holbrooke of selling out human rights. He argues that Washington should have used the bases as leverage to force Marcos to restore democracy. But how? If Washington clearly wished to secure the bases, how could they have forced Marcos to do anything much? Bonner talks about poker games, aces, and full houses, but he does not come up with an answer. This is the greatest disappointment of the book, for it should have been central to his entire thesis, that moral principles (human rights, democracy) always can be matched with Realpolitik.

It was toward the end of the Carter years that things were clearly turning sour in the Philippines. Marcos had always been a thief, and the evil princess had been jetting to foreign countries for years, but it was around 1979 that the thievery and the jet-setting got seriously out of hand, and battered by a second oil shock the Philippine economy came crashing down. Crony capitalism—which Bonner correctly identifies as anti-capitalist—was a disaster. The monopolies, originally conceived as the Philippine answer to the Japanese zaibatsu, turned into a huge mafia operation creating enormous wealth for a few incompetent gangsters. It was around 1979 that radicalized students took to the hills and the NPA began to grow seriously. The deep rot in Philippine society had reached the urban middle class, which had not done too badly until then. (Hi-fi sets, TVs, and other modern gadgets in Manila homes are often of 1979 vintage.) And it was of course the Manila middle class, not the Americans and not the NPA, that finally brought Marcos down.

The story of how the Reagan administration dealt with the last Marcos years is one of inconsistency, ignorance, dogmatism, and dangerous fumbling at the end. Bonner’s style of investigation, like that of Seymour Hersh, obsessed with detail and persistent as a hunting dog, lends itself well to accounts of bureaucratic battles. His description of the rifts between the State Department and the White House, and even within the White House itself, is fascinating. One of my most vivid memories of Manila in February 1986, a few weeks before the Miracle, is of various Philippine experts rushed out from Washington offering accounts of what was going on in the White House. Reagan’s men (not to mention his women) had to be persuaded one by one that Marcos was no longer the solution to the problem; he was the problem. Meanwhile Manila was boiling over. It was a terrifying thought that the fate of an entire nation might have hinged on whether the message got through to the mind of one old man, befuddled by nostalgia for the old times, by obligations for old favors, and bewitched by old anecdotes based on ignorance and dogma. He almost screwed it up.

Nonetheless, after the February Revolt, Richard Holbrooke, of all people, felt the need to say that “everyone loves to cheer a winner and this time we have both Ronald Reagan and Corazon Aquino to applaud.”6 It was both absurd and arrogant. It is of course true that Americans meddled in the hastily called elections in a way almost unthinkable in any other sovereign nation. American money was poured into NAMFREL (or so Bonner says; NAMFREL denies it), a citizens’ organization to monitor the elections, led by José Concepción, a pro-Aquino businessman, who is now a cabinet minister. The American press and television reporters took over Manila. American congressmen huffed and puffed like pompous schoolmasters. And Paul Laxalt finally spoke the now legendary words: “Cut and cut cleanly. The time has come.”

Bonner is critical of all this belated interference, which seems a trifle odd after more than four hundred pages of castigating American governments for not having interfered with Marcos enough, but his point is probably that had Marcos not been embraced by Washington for so long, the Miracle need never have taken place. While it is true that since the late 1970s Washington could and should have kept more distance from Marcos than it did, and that American banks and international lending agencies should have been more careful about throwing money at patently absurd projects, I think Bonner falls into a familiar trap, namely the belief in American omnipotence. Public humiliation by canceling state visits, holding back on loans, and so forth would not have got rid of Marcos or forced him to restore democracy when he was at the height of his power. What brought him down in the end was a combination of factors, of which Washington was only one, and a rather blundering one at that.

After 1983, when Ninoy Aquino was killed, Marcos lost most of the pillars upon which power in the Philippines rests: the urban middle class, the Catholic Church, and important, elements in the army. Reading Bonner’s account of the 1986 events, I was reminded of a small but significant episode. In the week after the election Cardinal Sin appeared for mass in a packed cathedral. He wore yellow robes (the color of the Aquino campaign) and for the first time he put the moral force of the Church clearly behind the little woman in yellow, whose speech was drowned in wild cheering. It was the central event of the week. And where was the American press? Not in the church but at a press conference given by Senator Richard Lugar. They were barking up the wrong tree, an activity of which Raymond Bonner is too often guilty as well.

This Issue

August 13, 1987