Philippine president Ferdinand Edralin Marcos (1917-1989) began his career in politics with the murder of Julio Nalundasan in 1935, and ended it with the murder of Benigno Aquino, Jr., in 1983. Some believe his entire life was based on fraud, deceit, and plunder, and his two decades as president have come to epitomize the worst excesses of autocratic rule.
Ferdinand Marcos was born in Sarrat, Ilocos North, on September 11, 1917, to Josefa Edralin and Mariano Marcos, both teachers. Mariano was later a two-term congressman and during World War II, a collaborator with the Japanese. Subsequently he was tied to four water buffalo by Filipino guerrillas and pulled apart. Marcos' real father, a man Marcos claimed was his "godfather," was a wealthy Chinese named Ferdinand Chua. He was a well-connected municipal judge who was responsible for much of Marcos' unusually good luck. Among other things, Chua paid for young Marcos' schooling and managed to influence the Philippine Supreme Court to throw out the solid testimony which in 1939 had convicted Marcos of murder.
Marcos did well in school, as he had an extraordinary memory which allowed him to quickly memorize complicated texts and recite them forwards or backwards. In college, Marcos' principal interest was the .22-caliber college pistol team. On September 20, 1935, Julio Nalundasan was at home celebrating that day's Congressional election victory over Mariano Marcos when he was shot and killed with a .22-caliber bullet fired by the 18-year-old Marcos. Three years later, the honors student who was in his senior year of law school, was arrested for Nalundasan's murder. A year later, now a law school graduate, he was found guilty "beyond any reasonable doubt." Jailed, Marcos spent six months writing his own 830-page appeal. He also took the Philippine bar exam and passed with scores so high he was accused of cheating. Upon an oral re-examination by the Supreme Court, Marcos scored even higher with his remarkable memory. When the Supreme Court finally took up Marcos's appeal in 1940, the judge in charge (allegedly influenced by Judge Chua) was disposed to simply throw the case out. Marcos was a free man. The next day, he returned to the Supreme Court where he was administered his oath as a lawyer.
Marcos emerged from World War II with the reputation of being the greatest Filipino resistance leader of the war and the most decorated soldier in the U.S. Armed forces. (Marcos served in the U.S. Army at the beginning and the end of the war as a "third lieutenant" on clerical duty, for a time in 1944 he was a U.S. prisoner of war under a death sentence) The Army investigated these claims after the war and found them to be false and "criminal." In fact, Marcos seems to have spent the war on both sides, and at various times, was in hospitals with fevers and stomach pains, possibly from the onset of lupus, the degenerative disease that ultimately ruined his health. In early 1943 in Manila, Marcos concocted a "secret" resistance organization called Ang Mga Maharlika ("Noble Studs") which he claimed consisted of spies, saboteurs and assassins, but in fact consisted of many forgers, pickpockets, gunmen and racketeers, united by an interest in black market operations.
At the war's end, as a deputy to the U.S. Army judge advocate general in northern Luzon, Marcos was involved in choosing friends and relatives to fill minor civil service jobs, passing out favors to be redeemed later. After, he resumed his law practice, often filing false claims in Washington on behalf of Filipino veterans seeking back pay and benefits. Emboldened by his success, he filed a $595,000 claim on his own behalf, stating that the U.S. Army had commandeered over 2,000 head of brahmin cattle from Mariano Marcos's wholly imaginary ranch in Mindinao. Washington concluded that the cattle had never existed. Marcos also tried to get recognition and benefits for his resistance force, the Ang Mga Maharlika; army investigators concluded that Marcos's unit was fraudulent.
In December, 1948, after a luncheon meeting with Marcos, a magazine editor published four articles on Marcos's extraordinary war exploits, including the history of the Maharlika just after the army's findings of fraud. Marcos' reputation grew. In 1949, campaigning on promises to get veterans' benefits for 2 million more "unrecognized" Filipinos, Marcos ran on the Liberal Party ticket for a seat in the Philippine House of Representatives and won astonishingly, with 70 percent of the vote. In less than a year he was worth a million dollars and owned a Cadillac convertible, mostly because of his American tobacco subsidies, a colossal cigarette smuggling operation, and his practice of extorting commissions from Chinese businesses. In 1954 he formally met Imelda Romualdez and married her.
Marcos was reelected twice, and in 1959 was elected to the Philippine Senate. He was also the Liberal Party's vice-president from 1954-1961, when he successfully managed Diosdado Macapagal's campaign for the Philippine presidency. As part of the deal, Macapagal was supposed to step aside after one term to allow Marcos to run for the presidency, but when Macapagal reneged, Marcos joined the opposition Nationalist Party and became their candidate in the 1965 election against Macapagal, which Marcos won handily strongly helped by Hartzell Spence's biography, called For Every Tear A Victory.
In 1969, Marcos became the first Philippine president to win a second term; the month following produced the most violent and bloody public demonstrations so far in the history of the country. Three years later, facing growing student unrest and a crumbling economy, Marcos declared martial law, using as his excuse the growing rebel presence of the Communist New People's Army. During the nine years of martial law, he tripled the armed forces to some 200,000 troops, guaranteeing his grip on government, and when martial law was lifted in 1981, he kept all the power he had been granted by himself. Bled to death, the economy continued to crumble as Ferdinand and Imelda became "arguably the richest couple on the planet." Marcos's health began to fail, the United States cooled off, and political opposition took hold in the Philippine middle class.
The Marcos regime began its accelerated collapse after the August 1983 assassination of Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., gunned down at the Manila airport upon his return after a self-imposed three-year exile. The killing enraged Filipinos, as did the official story that the murder was the work of a single assassin. A year later, a civilian investigation brought indictments against a number of soldiers and government officials, but by 1985 they all had been acquitted. In a surprising blunder, Marcos, thinking to regain control of the situation, called for a "snap election" to be held early in 1986. The election was marred by violence and charges of fraud; his opponent was the martyred Aquino's widow, Corazon. When the Philippine National Assembly announced that Marcos was the winner, a military rebellion, supported by hundreds of thousands of Filipinos marching in the streets, forced the Marcos to flee the country. Marcos' plea to the Americans for help produced nothing more than a U.S. Air Force jet, which flew him and Imelda to Hawaii. He remained there until his death in 1989. They took with them some 300 crates of prized possessions and more than 28 million cash, in Philippine currency. President Aquino's administration said this was only a small part of the Marcos's five to ten billion of illegally acquired wealth; Ferdinand's frozen bank accounts in Switzerland were said to have $475 million. In 1995, the government was able to auction off three jewelry collections worth $13 million.
Further Reading on Ferdinand Marcos
The official biography of Marcos is Hartzell Spence, For Every Tear a Victory: The Story of Ferdinand E. Marcos (1964), expanded and reissued as Marcos of the Philippines: A Biography (1969), an interesting but uncritical journalistic work which created and perpetuated many of the myths about Marcos. This article is based on Sterling Seagrave, The Marcos Dynasty (1988). Other works readers should consult are Herie Rotea, Marcos' Lovey Dovie (1984); Raymond Bonner, Waltzing With A Dictator: The Marcoses and The Making of American Policy (1988); Lewis E, Gleek, Jr., President Marcos and the Philippine Political Culture (1988); Beth Day Romulo, Inside the Palace: The Rise and Fall of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos (1987); William C. Rempel, Delusions of a Dictator: The Mind of Marcos As Revealed in His Secret Diaries (1993); Mark R. Thompson, The Anti-Marcos Struggle: Personalistic Rule and Democratic Transition in the Philippines (1996); Albert F. Cerloza, Ferdinand Marcos and The Philippines: The Political Economy of Authoritarianism (1997).