A Lesson in "Good News” Reporting

Seated during the Clark Air Force Base turnover ceremonies are
from left to right, Foreign Minister of the Philippines, Carlos P. Romulo;
US Ambassador Richard W. Murphy;
Philippine President and Mrs. Ferdinand Marcos;
and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David C. Jones.
DOD Photo: 3/14/1979

Nicholas Kralev reported recently on U.S. embassies discouraging or suppressing negative reports to Washington about U.S. allies. Some 37 years ago this month, a dictatorship was born in a distant country. Would “bad news” reporting have made a difference in this case? Who knows? But from the records published in the FRUS series, one gets a sense that our reporting officials did not get this one right. Was it a simple matter of faulty analysis and interpretation? Or was it because there was a prevailing notion subscribed to by the mission that precluded a better reading of the situation on the ground? Not that it matters anymore. Most of the principal players in this game, except Imelda are dead. But given our country’s involvement in Central Asia, an area populated by tyrants and dictators, the Philippines provide a lesson in history.

Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos served as President of the Philippines from 1965-1986. He declared martial law on September 21, 1972, and by virtue of a presidential proclamation curtailed press freedom and other civil liberties, closed down Congress and media establishments, and ordered the arrest of opposition leaders and militant activists, including some of his staunchest critics like Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr.

In February 25, 1986 during the
People Power Revolution, Ferdinand Marcos fled the country after 20 years of rule; Corazon Aquino became the first Filipino woman president. By 1991 when the Philippine Senate formally rejected the military base pact with the US, the bases became the most visible symbols not only of colonial legacy but also of America’s long-term support of a dictator and a kleptocrat.

Read the excerpts below, all taken from the FRUS series unless otherwise noted:

Excerpt from a Memorandum of Conversation with President Nixon, Henry A. Byroade, American Ambassador to the Philippines and John H. Holdridge discussing developments in the Philippines
Washington, January 15, 1971

Ambassador Byroade then declared that he had a very sensitive matter to lay before the President at Marcos’ request. At the end of his predeparture conversation with Marcos, Marcos had warned him that he might find it necessary to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and establish martial law in the city of Manila—unprecedented steps which had not been taken by any Philippine President since the late 40’s during the hukbalahap movement. What Marcos wanted to know was: in the event that he found it necessary to declare martial law in Manila, would the United States back him up, or would it work against him? Ambassador Byroade noted that he had promised Marcos he would bring back the President’s personal reply.

The President declared that we would “absolutely” back Marcos up, and “to the hilt” so long as what he was doing was to preserve the system against those who would destroy it in the name of liberty. The President indicated that he had telephoned Trudeau of Canada to express this same position. We would not support anyone who was trying to set himself up as a military dictator, but we would do everything we could to back a man who was trying to make the system work and to preserve order.

Excerpt from an
Airgram From the Embassy in the Philippines to the Department of State | Discussion with Filipino Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., LP Secretary General)
Manila, August 20, 1971

Aquino said that Marcos was becoming more and more of a dictator and was gaining control of the government and the country in line with his alleged intentions of continuing to stay in power beyond the end of his second term in 1973. Thus Marcos’ present actions and future ambitions, Aquino argued, were creating a revolutionary situation for the Philippines. While Aquino said he could not predict with precision when a revolution would occur, he said that one of the key factors that any revolutionary must consider and which at present was unclear was the position the United States would take in a revolutionary situation in the Philippines.

Comment: Senator Aquino can be prone to exaggeration, and his remarks on the possibility of revolution and the role that he might play as one of its leaders seemed quite farfetched. Aquino, who is a longtime and prominent critic of Marcos, has no political ideology beyond his own personal ambitions. In this respect, his discussion of revolution can be interpreted as meaning that, if the Philippine political system has been changed to the extent that his political clique cannot alternate in power with the Marcoses by democratic means, then it will become necessary to resort to violent revolution as the means of gaining power. Although Aquino is believed to maintain regular contact with the Huks and the NPA, the jump from being a potential Liberal Party candidate for the 1973 Presidential election to leading a revolution in the hills may be a bit too much for the “boy wonder of Tarlac” to make.

Excerpt from a Telegram From the Embassy in the Philippines to the Department of State | Ambassador reporting about meeting with President Marcos and wife, Imelda
Manila, September 3, 1971, 0937Z

4. Later on as I was sitting down with the President, Imelda asked to see him before his talk with me. When I later joined the President in his private library, he said that I had left the First Lady quite agitated and worried, with her worry centering on my remarks in the quotes above. Marcos said I must know that he had not suspended the writ solely on the Plaza Miranda incident, as he had stated publicly, that this was only the last straw. He said he was determined, during the period of the suspension of the writ, to break the back of Communist-led insurgency in the Philippines, even though this might take some time. He assured me that he would not misuse the suspension for political purposes, or against personal enemies. Interestingly, he said that it would not be difficult to have the constitutional convention extend his tenure of office, but that he was not going to do that. He said he would retire in 1973 unless at the time the country seemed in such a condition that he could not conscientiously leave the office of the President.

Excerpt from a Telegram From the Embassy in the Philippines to the Department of State | Ambassador reporting about meeting with Marcos
Manila, September 21, 1972, 1011Z.

8. I reminded him again that it was terribly important that he understands that it was only I, a friend, talking to him personally and privately. In that context, I said I wanted to talk to him about the type of things that cause me to pace the floor. He said he understood completely and I should go ahead without hesitation. I then reminded him that we are in the wind-up phase of an extremely important election campaign in our own country. I said I thought McGovern would seize on anything like a military takeover in the Philippines in an effort to use it as the final proof of his charge that the foreign policies of Nixon, particularly in the Asian area, were a total failure. I said I thought he would scream that “even the Philippines” had been so badly messed up that the very form of government which we instituted here was now in the hands of military dictatorship, supplied by our equipment. He would probably try to make a major thing of it, proving that this was the beginning of another Vietnam “even in the Philippines.” I said I know Nixon pretty well, and I thought he would be greatly upset if the Philippines gave the appearance of blowing up in his face at a time like this. I returned to the idea that our hands could become so tied up that as a practical fact we couldn’t do any of the things we really wanted to do for the Philippines.

9. Marcos said he had made no decision to move towards martial law, and he had never considered anything beyond that, such as military rule. He did admit, however, that planning for martial law was at an advanced state. He said that under any conditions he could foresee he would not consider any extra-constitutional moves in the Philippines. We then got into a discussion as to what type of events had to happen under the Philippine Constitution wherein it would be constitutional to declare martial law. He concluded that words might have a different meaning for us and the Philippine Constitution was perhaps broader in this respect than our own.

11. Marcos told me at one point that guns were not the answer. He said he did not mean that over the long haul that the Philippines did not need adequate military forces. He then went into quite a brilliant description of the state of things in the Philippines and the absolute necessity for social reform. He said after all of his years in government, including seven in the Presidency, that he did indeed question the ability of the Philippines to achieve adequate reforms in time under the present system. His descriptions of its evils, and graft and corruption, of the impossibility of getting adequate legislation, and adequate resources for desperately needed reforms could hardly have been equalled by any harsh critic of this country. It is hard to escape [garble] that he thinks that his place in history might be made if he had the power of drastic reform. He might even see at this point this is his only route to regain his popularity even to the point where he could win handily in a future election, although he made no reference to either of these thoughts.

Excerpt from a Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon
Washington, September 23, 1972

President Marcos imposed martial law throughout the Philippines at midnight September 22. He proclaimed it officially at mid-day September 23, according to press reports, saying that it did not involve military rule and that civilian government would continue. We do not yet have the text of the proclamation, and thus do not at this point know its specifics, particularly as to whether Marcos suspended the Congress.

Patricia H. Kushlis writing in Whirled View: “[S]kewed, feel-good reporting from an Embassy too often helps to produce skewed, bad analysis that can result in skewed and hence bad policy decisions.”

It turned out that Aquino was more prescient about Marcos’ ambition and his warning of Marcos becoming a dictator was not an exaggeration. The day before martial law was imposed the US Ambassador sent a cable talking about economic issues in the host country. An embassy cable dated on the day martial law was declared states “Marcos said he had made no decision to move towards martial law.” It was a bad reading of the local situation, for sure; either that or one has to admit that the US Embassy at that time had been played exceptionally well by somebody with a more deft hand.

The text from Ambassador Henry Byroade‘s oral history interview talking about his stint in the Philippines can be accessed through the Truman Library here. If you read it with this FRUS series, you get quite a good picture in full colors.