The Philippines: Marcos v. Aquino

In the developing world, budding democracies can retain some authoritarian aspects. In the early 1980s, this was certainly true of the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos was a staunch U.S. ally and President Reagan valued him as such. Marcos was also anti-communist, which aligned with U.S.’s strategic interests. But Secretary of State George Shultz was uneasy about placing too much faith in Marcos.

“He was a shrewd politician who ruled like a monarch in the trappings of democracy,” recalls Shultz in his book Turmoil and Triumph. “He ended martial law in 1981 but retained most of the powers that it had provided him. He had established himself as staunchly pro-American and anti-Communist.” (T&T, p. 608-609)

Shultz’s discomfort with Marcos created tension between himself and President Reagan. While Marco’s authoritarian streak was not exactly in keeping with the American ideals Reagan so loved, the Soviet menace and concerns about communist proxy states were still justifiably widespread in 1982. Reagan’s Realpolitik meant keeping Marcos close, at least for a time.

Ferdinand Marcos with George Shultz

But Shultz was concerned. He saw three primary problems with the Philippines, problems which were not apparent to Reagan. First, a communist insurgency was growing; second, Marcos was running the Philippine economy poorly; and third, Marcos was in poor health and his wife Imelda had begun jockeying for a more powerful political position. But what should be done?

Shultz’s solution was to strengthen institutions within the Philippines while simultaneously putting pressure on Marcos to adopt more democratic reforms.

In September 1982, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos came to the White House for a State visit. This visit did not assuage Shultz’s concerns about the Philippine situation, he recalls: “Such occasions are opportunities for important exchanges and are also full of pomp and circumstance…But I was uncomfortable. I had been concerned about the Philippines since I had come into office as secretary of state and worried about what seemed to be a rapidly deteriorating economic and political situation over the past two years.” (T&T, p. 608)

The essence of Shultz’s concerns stemmed from his belief that Marcos would not easily take to institutional reforms: “While Marcos, his family, and his political intimates prospered, his economic policies and political dominance had a debilitating effect on the people of the Philippines. He seemed to have lost the distinction between public and private: between what belonged to the government and what belonged to him.” (T&T, p. 610) And yet, Shultz knew that the Philippines hosted key U.S. bases in Asia. He also knew that President Reagan would be loyal to a fault.


Then something happened. Popular Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated. The U.S. Department of State and Shultz immediately condemned the assassination. But who was responsible? President Marcos put together a half-hearted investigation—but Shultz and his team were not buying it. The five-person Philippine investigative group was eventually disbanded and replaced. With the new investigation, General Ver, a top military official and close ally of Marcos, was implicated in the assassination. Yet Marcos was unwilling to distance himself from Ver.

Reagan’s loyalty to Marcos during this time was strained, but not broken. He put his position on display during the 1984 presidential debates with Walter Mondale. In response to criticisms about the president’s continued support for Marcos, Reagan said: “I know there are things there in the Philippines that do not look good to us from the standpoint of democratic rights. But what is the alternative? It is a large Communist movement to take over the Philippines. I think that we’re better off trying to retain our friendship and help them right the wrongs we see rather than throwing them to the wolves and then facing a Communist power in the Pacific.” (T&T, p. 611) Reagan’s position was not just about loyalty to an ally, memories of the Vietnam War and the Iranian Revolution were still fresh in Reagan’s mind, and he was anxious not to lose more sympathetic and strategic allies.

The Philippine opposition did not react well to Reagan’s comments. They argued that Marcos was not the only alternative to communism. The State Department issued a statement following the debate that indicated the extent of differences emerging between Shultz and Reagan. “A State Department spokesman clarified to the Associated Press that the president did not mean to suggest the only alternative to communism was Marcos: ‘I don’t think that the President was narrowing the situation that far. I think there is certainly recognition on everybody’s part that there are other forces working for democratic change in the Philippines.’” (T&T, p. 612)

The Rise of Cory

November 1985. Marcos called for a snap election. In a surprising twist, the opposition ran Benigno Aquino’s widow, Corazon, as their candidate. Corazon “Cory” Aquino turned out to have considerable popular support. But some within the White House saw her as little more than a political joke:

“When Abe Rosenthal came to Washington in mid-January, he reported firsthand. ‘That empty-headed housewife has no positions,’ he told me. ‘She is a dazed, vacant woman.” He was distressed at the idea she might replace Marcos. He passed the same assessment along to President Reagan and Nancy, and Don Regan, at a White House dinner. His words made a deep and lasting impact on them.” (T&T, p. 617)

In December 1985, General Ver was acquitted of conspiracy charges in the death of Aquino. With serious concerns about the impartiality of the investigation and judgment, voices in the U.S. Congress called on the White House to shut off military aid to the Philippines as long as Ver remained in power. (T&T, p. 617) Fearful of what might happen to U.S. military bases the White House remained cautious.

Soon unsavory rumors about the campaign began to circulate. One rumor said that Marcos’ people might try to abduct Aquino. And concerns about a fair election were rife among observers. Aquino asks for U.S. protection, but Secretary Shultz denied her request, fearing that more harm might result than good:

“I told [Ambassador] Bosworth to tell Mrs. Aquino, ‘We are prepared to work with you and other to find a safe Philippine environment.’ I did not want to damage her by the symbolism that would be generated by U.S. protection, or to turn her into the U.S. candidate. At the same time, I wanted to do what was possible to prevent harm to her during the volatile time…. Should something happen to her, I knew, we could never forgive ourselves for not ensuring her safety. I decided that we should encourage her to find ‘a Philippine solution.’ We would stay in close touch, I ordered, and we would be ready to provide a safe haven as a last resort—but we wouldn’t tell her that.” (T&T, p. 620)

During the election, Marcos ended up rejecting Bosworth, the U.S. ambassador, saying that Bosworth did not speak for Reagan. In turn, Reagan sent a ‘special envoy,’ Senator Laxalt, to encourage Marcos to work with the U.S. on reform. As a “close, personal” friend of Reagan, Laxalt attempted to engage Marcos on reform. Marcos returned with insinuations that the U.S. might be overstaying its welcome with military bases in the country. Secretary Shultz viewed this chilly signal from Marcos as a pretext to exert even more pressure for reform—especially given the possibility that Marcos would eventually turn his back on the U.S.

During Laxalt’s visit, Marcos sent a personal letter to Reagan, the contents of which made Shultz seriously unhappy:

“’The letter Marcos gave Laxalt for you,’ I told President Reagan, ‘is a disappointing response to your serious effort, as a friend and ally, to persuade him to face up to the reforms he must make if he is to turn back the Communist insurgent challenge that directly affects the future of the Philippines and our bases in that country.’ The president was clearly quite uncomfortable with my harsh assessment. In his head, he knew as I did that Marcos was blundering badly, yet he felt an instinctive loyalty to Marcos and flashed to me a giant warning of caution.” (T&T, p. 615)

It was clear Reagan had not yet given up on Marcos. Shultz would have to wait for democracy to take its course.

The Philippine Election

In the end, the Philippine election involved clear and widespread voter fraud. The consensus from the international community was that Aquino would have won were it not for the fraud perpetrated by the Marcos government. Marcos refused to acknowledge an Aquino victory and threatened violent suppression. The calculation of Realpolitik had changed for Reagan. In a cable from Ambassador Bosworth, the administration learns:

“The bottom line conclusion is inescapable: Mrs. Aquino would have won if there had been an even minimally fair count…This election has effectively cost Ferdinand Marcos most of his remaining political legitimacy and credibility both in the Philippines and in the U.S… Our over-riding policy objective is to massage our way into the post-Marcos era.” (T&T, p. 627-628)

Reagan finally realized that Marcos must give up power, but he was not happy about the situation. The president did not want to have to abandon an ally. It had been all too clear that the U.S.’s failure to support the Shah in Iran had resulted in the Iranian leader’s ouster, (which led to the establishment of a Shiite Islamist state that remains hostile to U.S. interests to this day). Shultz remained sensitive to Reagan’s feelings and decided to adopt a more hands-off approach, letting events in the Philippines speak for themselves: “The president does not want to push Marcos over the brink. We have to wait for events to happen; we cannot move the president under present circumstances. The Filipino people will have to throw Marcos out. Ronald Reagan will not push out a friend.” (T&T, p. 629)

Finally, the unrest reached a critical point in the Philippines. The situation became so severe that the White House had to officially recognize the voter fraud. On February 15, the White House issued a statement: “It has already become evident, sadly, that the elections were marred by widespread fraud and violence perpetrated largely by the ruling party. It was so extreme that the election’s credibility has been called into question…” (T&T, p. 630) Corazon Aquino claimed victory the following day. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos took to the streets. Shultz called it “an overwhelming human presence, a living, breathing river of humanity moving through the capital.” (T&T, p. 630) Yet Marcos was not ready to give up power.

Almost immediately, Marcos’s allies abandoned him. Without U.S. interference, his government crumbled around him. He threatened to use military force against opponents (including former close allies). Fearing what Marcos could do, Secretary Shultz and a number of other advisors presented a united front to Reagan, urging him to send Marcos a message to leave. Shultz recalls:

“President Reagan listened carefully. Then he turned the corner: he authorized a message to Marcos in response to threats of the use of force urging Marcos ‘to avoid an attack against other elements of the Philippines Armed Forces,’ and continued, saying that the United States ‘cannot continue our existing military assistance if the government uses that aid against other elements of the Philippine military which enjoy substantial popular backing.” (T&T, p. 636)

At 6:45 on Sunday night, President Reagan approved a second message to Marcos: it was time for Marcos to make the transition from power.” (T&T, p. 636)

Despite the president’s having sent the messages, Shultz felt Reagan had not yet turned an emotional corner with Marcos. Marcos, meanwhile, rejected the message from Reagan and continued his preparations to fight the opposition, calling for his supporters to come in from the countryside armed.

Eventually, Marcos called Special Envoy Laxalt—wanting to bargain. He hoped to broker a power-sharing deal with the new government. “No” came Reagan’s terse reply and Reagan, via Laxalt, instructed Marcos to “cut and cut clean.” (T&T, p. 637) Finally accepting he no longer had a place in the Philippines or the backing of the U.S. government, Marcos made arrangements to leave on a U.S. Air Force plane. Ferdinand and Imelda were given safe haven in Hawaii.


How would the U.S. recognize Aquino? Shultz wanted to portray the situation as a triumph of democracy and to do so immediately. Shultz announced from the White House pressroom that the U.S. would recognize Mrs. Aquino’s government.

This difference of opinion between Reagan and Shultz would create a distance between them, one that would take some time to shrink.

“I knew that my relations with the president and the White House had been badly strained by the turn of events in the Philippines and my role in them. No one could argue that the result was wrong… The president had signed off personally on every stop we took. Nevertheless, in his gut, Ronald Reagan felt aggrieved that his former friend and ally had gone down the drain.” (T&T, p. 639)

Shultz reflects on the implications of Aquino’s election for U.S. foreign policy:

“The rise to power of Corazon Aquino and the fall of Ferdinand Marcos marked an important shift in American official thinking: support for authoritarian governments that opposed communism could not be taken for granted. The United States supported people who were themselves standing up for freedom and democracy, whether against communism or against another form of repressive government.” (T&T, p. 642)
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