Waltzing With a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy <i> by Raymond Bonner (Times Books: $19.95; 452 pp.)</i>

Share via
Seid is a Times editorial writer

Ferdinand E. Marcos, as a CIA station chief in Manila once remarked, was a very bright man, but he had two great flaws: “He can’t avoid stealing everything in sight, and he can’t control his wife.”

For 20 years, Marcos, with the grotesquely avaricious Imelda his constant goad and helpmate, ruled the Philippines, first as its elected president, later with dictatorial powers under martial law. The Marcoses believed in doing nothing in moderation when excess was an available alternative. Five American Presidents, from Johnson through Reagan, held office while the Marcoses reigned and steadily looted the Philippines. None made any serious effort to curb the larceny or inhibit mounting abuses of human rights. Only at the end, as the Marcoses’ ship of state was visibly sinking, did the United States act to help rock their boat.

This is the story, by turns bizarre and disheartening, that Raymond Bonner tells with rich detail and documentation. During the first two decades of the Philippines’ independence, the United States secretly but sometimes boldly intervened in its internal affairs, using money, advice and--says Bonner--on one occasion even drugged drinks to influence its electoral politics.


With Marcos in office, however, Washington’s policy essentially became one of benign indifference. Partly this reflected an assumption that Filipinos would remain pro-American no matter how badly they were governed. The greater reason, though, was concern that nothing be done to jeopardize the major U.S. military bases in the Philippines. Marcos shrewdly manipulated that concern, exacting ever-greater aid and favors for extending the agreement on the bases, sending Imelda on frequent trips to Moscow as a hint that he could always turn to other powerful friends. Even Jimmy Carter, for all his talk about human rights, found it expedient to avoid irritating Marcos.

The man that successive U.S. Administrations treated as a friend and on occasion hailed with revolting praise--”We love you,” Vice President George Bush toasted with a straight face, “for your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process”--was neither the war hero nor the friend of the poor that he claimed to be. When Marcos invoked martial law in 1972, it was without any protest from the United States and perhaps, Bonner suggests with President Nixon’s foreknowledge and tacit approval. (In a letter to The Times, Nixon’s office claims that the public record refutes this suggestion.) At that time, Marcos promised that he would break up the feudal power of the landed oligarchy. Instead, he and his cronies escalated their economic rape of the country, deepening its impoverishment and intensifying popular discontent.

By the mid-1970s, seven out of 10 Filipinos were worse off than they had been before martial law. By 1976, per-capita caloric intake had fallen below what it had been in 1960, with 40% of all deaths coming from malnutrition. In 1976, Imelda spent $500 million of public money to build luxury hotels in Manila. The government’s budget for public housing came to just $13.3 million. Marcos’ creation of grossly inefficient government monopolies did not deter international lenders. In 1972, the Philippines’ foreign debt was $2 billion. By 1986, it had soared to $26 billion.

Most Filipinos knew, if only in their bellies, what was going on. So did the professionals at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, many of whose reports Bonner obtained under the Freedom of Information Act along with other revealing documents.

But these careful studies and analyses had only slight impact at the policy-making level in Washington. It was, says Bonner, an old story. Dictators who profess pro-Americanism, particularly dictators who can point to an internal Communist threat, can expect friendly treatment. The Communist threat that Marcos cited certainly existed, and exists. Its growth, if not its origin, can fairly be attributed to Marcos’ own ruthless economic depredations and human rights violations. In 1972, when he invoked martial law, there were no more than 1,000 active guerrillas of the New People’s Army. By the mid-1980s, that number had grown at least 15-fold.

The beginning of the end for Marcos, and the beginning of the end for the U.S. policy of indifference, came in August, 1983, when Marcos’ supporters murdered his longtime political foe Benigno Aquino Jr. at Manila airport. But shifting policy at the White House level proved far from easy. Bonner’s most gripping chapter describes in detail how Ronald Reagan, long a Marcos friend and admirer, was slowly and grudgingly brought around to the view that American interests would best be served by a change in power in the Philippines.


This subtle lobbying campaign was conducted against considerable odds. Confident of his ability to steal yet another election, Marcos again ran for president in February, 1986, this time with Corazon Aquino as his opponent. The reports of independent observers and the U.S. Embassy made it clear that Marcos’ claimed victory at the polls was a fraud.

Reagan was reluctant to believe it. Perhaps to buy time as much as anything else, he sent the respected diplomat Philip C. Habib to Manila for yet another assessment. Habib quickly concluded that Marcos was finished, and that the United States should move swiftly to give Aquino its support. Meanwhile, Imelda was burning up the international phone lines, pleading her case with old friend Nancy Reagan. Habib, still in Manila, recognized the problem he faced in getting his message through to the President.

“I see him once a week,” Bonner quotes him as saying. “She (Nancy) sees him every night.”

Ultimately, the message did get through, though it came appallingly late for the well-being of Filipinos. Marcos’ legacy to his countrymen is that he took power when things were bad, and finally was deposed only after he had made everything infinitely worse.