The US-Marcos Coup of 1972

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[1] The Gardener’s Tale of the Origins of Martial Law

Remembering the thoughts of those times
(Part I)

Martial Law’s “Quadragesimo Anno”this week provoked the Gardener to join scores of others to remember: what were the thoughts of those years?

He had littered the country and the world with his reports and essays of protests as he went “underground” and into exile, and acquired multiple identities giving him mobility and the consequent capacity for various alliances within that one focus of fast toppling down the “US-Marcos Martial Law Regime.” 

 But was that phrase meaningful at all or a mere empty slogan?

Important Backgrounder
Before Marcos


There was a President, Carlos P. Garcia, successor of the popular Ramon Magsaysay, who allied himself with Filipino manufacturing sectors that raised the slogan of “Filipino First.” They fought for controls that gave them some protection from the tidal wave of foreign competition. Meager as these controls were, they threatened the powerful members of the American Chamber of Commerce. In concert with the local bridgeheads of transnational capital, the wealthy Americans secured the defeat of Garcia in 1961.

The new President, Diosdado Macapagal, abolished the controls in 1962. He hadMacapagal been assured of “stabilization loans” from trilateral banks and the International Monetary Fund. Of course a price had to be paid for these loans: the Philippine peso was devalued from its P2 to $1 exchange to a ratio of P3.9 to $1, ostensibly to encourage exports.

As predicted by the nationalists, however, decontrol and devaluation had disastrous results. The dollar-carrying foreign companies took over Filipino enterprises more easily.

The real wages of labor took a dive.

With greater dependence on expensive imports, including rice and wheat, the prices of prime commodities took a steep climb.

The Filipino electorate saw their staple bread, the “pan de sal,” become more expensive while it shrank to almost half its original size.


In 1964, cursed by the phenomenon of the “shrinking pan de sal”, Macapagal took a beating at the polls. Unfortunately, however, for the protesting Filipino people their protest vote that elected Ferdinand Edralin Marcos did not translate into a better government.  So, in the next elections, 1969, they were ready to protest again.


In these 1969 elections, however, Marcos did a first by staging the dirtiest, most violent, and most expensive political campaign in the nation’s history to escape the protest votes of the people and thus win re-election. The daily papers estimated expenditures to have run up to $150-million of the national treasury which they said Marcos used to buy, threaten and coerce voters. The immediate result of this insane election spending was the second drastic devaluation of the Philippine peso, from P3.9 to $1, to a floating rate averaging P7 to $1. The rate of inflation also doubled over the average of the preceding decade.

Thus in 1971 when Marcos made himself and his “performance” in office the principal issue of the national senatorial elections, he could hardly believe that despite all the money that he had again spent in the campaign, his candidates awfully lost by a 6 to 2 ratio. The charismatic Ninoy Aquino, informal leader of the opposition at this time, had convinced the people to have nothing more to do with a President whose greatest performance, Ninoy effectively averred, was the amassing of tremendous personal wealth at the cost of mass impoverishment.
The Infrastructure of Authoritarianism 

Throughout the quarter century of the Philippine Republic’s existence as a limited democracy, institutional arrangements like JUSMAG (Joint US Military Advisory Group) had facilitated the massive flows of American equipment and large numbers of “advisers” for dealing with internal unrest that might destabilize the American-oriented status quo. The euphemism of “civic action” as a “new mission” for the military was but a local application of the new American anti-guerilla warfare strategies.

By the time of the second Marcos administration, as noted by a University of Hawaii professor (Robert Stauffer), enough had been established to permit Marcos the propaganda claim of being a “performer” (cum large kickbacks, Ninoy charged). In one newspaper advertisement after another, Marcos boasted of more roads, bridges, schools and other infrastructure built than the combined total of his five presidential predecessors.

What was not sufficiently publicized was the military’s deep involvement in the civilian jobs of rapidly expanding the development programs. Marcos had learned fast to use the central command structure of the military to give himself a framework for reaching the barrios directly, over the heads of traditional politicians and civilian administrative structures.

In 1966, American concerns with controlling urban demonstrators spilled over into the Philippines through the U.S. AID’S Office of Public Safety. Big numbers of Philippine police were trained both in the Philippines and the International Police Academy in Washington, DC. Courses emphasized riot control, control of civil disturbance, and counter-insurgency training.

Intelligence networks were established, communications systems constructed, and suburban-urban police system integrated. By the time the “parliament of the streets” became almost routine and strong enough to voice demands for change, the US had already gained much time in “professionalizing” the urban police as a tool of repression.

The International Elite 

Also in the 1960s, the process of building a corps of young, Western-educated technocrats into a team identified with the Office of the President started.  They would function mainly as certified managers of dependent development.  Over the signatures of these Philippine technocrats who had close working relations with international development experts, specific funding requests were easily approved by international agencies. They sought to project the image of being “clean, efficient, apolitical managers.” They would be responsible for rule making, or establishing “frameworks of rules, standards and procedures.”

They would not have a single colonial master. Old-style colonialism was long gone. Now they would have to serve many new masters: Western governments (especially the US), global corporations, banking consortiums, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They would piously talk of the need to appreciate “the reality of interdependence” and warn against “the new aspirations of Third World nations” (cf. Brzesinski), which “pose a very major threat to the nature of the international system.”


These “new aspirations” were nothing more than the old, unrealized dreams of nationalist movements. Of course, the new technocratic elite expected crises to arise as a result of “reciprocity imbalance” (euphemism for “injustice” or “unequal exchange”). Therefore they studied ways to handle these crises, to maintain “stability”. Samuel P. Huntington recommended that, “For the government interested in the maintenance of political stability, the appropriate response to middle class radicalism is repression, not reform.”

Thus the “value-free” strategy of dependent development masked an authoritarian polity. Marcos of the Philippines most creatively named it “Constitutional Authoritarianism.”

Needing each other: the US-Marcos collaboration 

The early seventies saw the Philippines fast deviating from liberal democratic patterns. During a major political rally in Plaza Miranda, grenades were hurled at the rostrum where the majority of national opposition leaders were sitting. Marcos subsequently suspended civil liberties as a method for “rounding up agitators.” 

Alongside the use of violence to hurt the opposition was the calculated use of money to buy off the other members of the national political elite, using the powers over the release of pork barrel funds for local projects.

He had earlier captured US government backing by sending a Philippine “civic action” battalion to South Vietnam and his consistent willingness to trade small American concessions for large Filipino ones.

However, the biggest concession the Americans wanted from Marcos was not in his power to give so long as there was some semblance of democracy in the republic. The American Chamber of Commerce wanted the government to clarify what would be the treatment of American property and marketing rights under the special condition of the Parity Amendment once it terminated in 1974. They urged that “pre-expiration rights and privileges must be protected and preserved thereafter.” In short, they wanted him to deal a pre-emptive strike against a loose but vociferous nationalist movement.  

Even the Philippine Congress, which certainly was not dominated by progressive leaders, became increasingly nationalist at least in mood if not yet in deed. “Filipinization” bills of many kinds were debated left and right.

However, in an on-going Constitutional Convention, progressive delegates were succeeding in enshrining a concept of nationalist direction and social ownership as key provisions that would be part of the fundamental charter of the Philippines. Also, reforms of the electoral system that sought the opening up of the formal political struggle to popular forces in the city streets and the barrios were likewise pushed through.

But American interests were not in the mood for retreat either. The oin organil oligopoly repeatedly demanded price increases and a confrontation was imminent with the nationalist movement which meanwhile had become more sophisticated in both research-oriented pressures and pressure-oriented research.

The three-year-old armed struggle conducted in the fields of Central Luzon by the Communist New People’s Army fired the imagination of various nationalist student groups in Manila, including the KM, the Movement for a Democratic Philippines, the SDK, and others. The intransigence of American corporate interests provided so much grist for the communist mills.

The parallel success of noncommunist student and youth groups like the KASAPI, the Lakasdiwa, the NUSP, the Young Christian Socialists, the Hasik Kalayaan, and other social democratic youth groups in organizing taxi and jeepney drivers, and mobilizing community organizations against the oil oligopoly’s demands for price increases created some euphoria among the progressive minority in the Constitutional Convention.

The peasant movement’s capacity to move from frustrating court battles to more effective direct actions involving physical take-over of lands and mass refusal to pay feudal rents was enhanced by its growing capacity to bring peasants themselves to the metropolis for marathon strikes and demonstrations as in Agrifina 1969, Department of Justice 1970 and Congress of the Philippines 1971.

All in all, the early seventies saw the parliament of the streets and direct actions in the barrios become a new institution that could not be ignored. A basic split obtained in the Philippine polity: the Marcos-military-technocratic-American alliance on then one hand, and a diverse and loose nationalist alliance on the other side.

In August 1972, 

The nationalist side scored a landmark victory in the highest tribunal of the land; the Supreme Court declared: (1) that all property purchased by American citizens or corporations since Philippine independence had been acquired illegally, and (2) any corporation falling within categories limited to majority Filipino participation could not employ foreigners, even though a company had sizable foreign equity in it.

The response of the anti-nationalist camp was swift. The US-backed Marcos Coup took place within a month after the Supreme Court decisions. It was a putsch designed to silence populist opposition not only in the barrios and the urban streets and the mass media but also in all government institutions.

As proof of its wholehearted participation in the new authoritarian polity, the US government immediately increased the levels of military and economic aid, both directly and through multilateral agencies.

The total of all US aid to Marcos during 4 years immediately prior to martial law was $967.8-million, or an average of $241.9-million per year.

The total of all aid from the same source during 4 years immediately after the Coup was $2,760.8-million, or an average of $690.2-million per year. The strict military aspects of aid increased by 106%, to underscore the US-Marcos expectation of increased armed resistance.

The American Chamber of Commerce was the first to congratulate Marcos publicly on martial law and to pledge full cooperation.

There could not be any doubt about it: the ambitions of Marcos only coincided rather neatly with the external dictates of the larger transnational system that made authoritarianism an essential requirement for the continued dependent development of the Philippines.FINIS of PART I.

(Next Blog Includes: Shedding the Liberal Mask, Climate of Fear, Authoritarianism’s Conveyor Belts, the Winners, the Losers, Losers All?)

[1] I am borrowing heavily from my previous writings, particularly in Chapter III of The Philippine Struggle ( Filipino Information Service, Manila and Honolulu, 1973).

Charles Avila – The Gardener