In the Philippines, the CIA Has Found a Second Home

<i> Stanley Karnow's new book, "In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines" (Random House), is companion to a three-part PBS television series beginning Monday)</i>

Col. James (Nick) Rowe, a U. S. adviser to the Philippine army, was assassinated by communist terrorists near Manila last month. His death dramatized a historic fact: America is still present in the former colony it ruled for 46 years. But it also raised a question: Should the United States continue to bear a responsibility for that faraway Asian land?

“No doubt about it. We were on the side of the angels.” So insisted Joseph Burkholder Smith as he recently recalled his days during the late 1950s, when his job as a clandestine Central Intelligence Agency operative in the Philippines was to finance and guide local politicians. There is considerable truth to his claim.

The CIA is notorious for covert plots to overthrow and even murder foreign leaders deemed to be anathema to the United States. Several years ago, for example, a Senate committee revealed agency plans to liquidate Cuba’s Fidel Castro. The CIA has also pursued such other unsavory schemes as fomenting rebellion in Indonesia and training the brutal secret police that served the Shah of Iran. With some exceptions, however, its activities in the Philippines have been relatively benign.


Moreover, Filipinos have traditionally welcomed U.S. intervention, largely to advertise themselves as American proteges, an emblem of distinction.

Their quest for U.S. approval has roots in America’s colonial rule, from the turn of the century until the island nation gained sovereignty in 1946. During those decades, Filipino public figures could not succeed without U.S. validation, and they continued after independence to clamor for American money and support, usually funneled through CIA agents.

“My people like to see me with Americans,” said Ramon Magsaysay, the Philippine president back in the 1950s, brushing off warnings that his close CIA connections tarnished his nationalist image. The agency funded President Diosdado Macapagal as well as Raul Manglapus, now foreign secretary in President Corazon Aquino’s Cabinet, and Emmanuel Pelaez, a former vice president and the current Philippine ambassador to Washington. Mrs. Aquino’s late husband Benigno was proud of his CIA affiliations--though he spoke of having worked “with” rather than “for” the agency.

American officials reveled in this receptivity to their direction, which afforded them the opportunity to manage the Filipinos to suit their own purposes. But more often than not, the CIA sought to promote honest, effective government.

Founded in 1947, the agency began to play a crucial role in the Philippines three years later when the country was shaken by the communist-led Hukbalahap rebellion that seemed to threaten America’s position in the Pacific. The president at the time, Elpidio Quirino, was conspicuously inept, frustrating U.S. officials in Washington and Manila. The task of locating an alternative to him fell to Lt. Col. Edward G. Lansdale, a U.S. Air Force officer on loan to the CIA--and he performed brilliantly.

Lansdale, a legend before his death in 1987, was exalted by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick in “The Ugly American” as Col. Edwin Hillendale, whose harmonica won “hearts and minds” for the U.S. crusade against communism. Graham Greene, by contrast, caricatured Lansdale in “The Quiet American” as Pyle, the naive U.S. official out to convert the world to democracy. Imbued with America’s mission, Lansdale wrote of himself, “I took my American beliefs into these Asian struggles.”


The son of a Los Angeles car-parts dealer, he had quit college to enter a San Francisco advertising firm, and the experience molded him. He was convinced that insurgencies could be fought with the same gimmicks that sold soap, an approach dignified as “psychological warfare.” But he probably would have failed in the Philippines without the collaboration of Magsaysay, a dynamic young politician with a remarkable common touch.

Also a college dropout, Magsaysay had been steered into politics by U.S. Army officers following the American liberation of the Philippines in World War II. Lansdale first met him in Washington in early 1950 and concluded that he was the man to lead the fight against the Hukbalahap rebels. The CIA then subsidized Magsaysay in exchange for his agreement to act as America’s surrogate.

Lansdale moved to Manila, where he exerted pressure on Quirino to make Magsaysay his defense secretary. Under Lansdale’s tutelage, Magsaysay revamped the Philippine army and intensified the drive against the insurrection. Ever the ad man, Lansdale invented new tactics, including tales that demons would assault the rebels, since the insurgents were just as superstitious as other Filipinos. He and Magsaysay also subverted the guerrillas with reforms that deprived them of peasant support. Even so, the insurgency failed largely because of blunders by its own leaders who, among other errors, prematurely escalated their military operations.

In 1953, Lansdale propelled Magsaysay to the presidency in an American-style campaign. Devising the slogan “Magsaysay Is My Guy,” he manipulated the U.S. press into using labels like the “Eisenhower of the Pacific.” Magsaysay won a record vote, earning Lansdale the moniker of “Col. Landslide.”

Though Lansdale later claimed credit for manufacturing Magsaysay, he had not been alone. His team included a former New York lawyer posing as representative of the Committee for Free Asia and a foreign correspondent from a national U.S. newspaper.

The CIA was not always devoted to democratic practices, however. Its agents smeared Claro Recto, a nationalist politician critical of the United States, as a communist, and even conspired to have him poisoned. The idea was eventually dropped “for pragmatic considerations.”


Lansdale subsequently went to South Vietnam, where his efforts to bolster President Ngo Dinh Diem were less successful. Meanwhile, in March, 1957, Magsaysay died in an accidental airplane crash. He was supplanted by Carlos P. Garcia, a corrupt politician. Burkholder Smith, a CIA veteran of Southeast Asia, was sent to Manila with orders to “find another Magsaysay” who could topple Garcia.

Disguised as a civilian U.S. Air Force employee, Smith assembled a group of political aspirants who asked him how much CIA support they could expect. “Substantial,” Smith replied prudently. They dubbed him “Mr. Substantial Support.”

Smith’s $250,000 budget could not match Garcia’s millions, and his legislative candidates in the 1959 election lost badly. Two years later, however, Macapagal did win the presidency with partial CIA backing.

One Filipino politician who succeeded without the CIA was Ferdinand E. Marcos, whose rich cronies furnished him with ample money. Marcos also knew how to maneuver U.S. leaders into granting fat aid packages. Soon after his election as president in 1965, Marcos promised Lyndon B. Johnson that he would send troops to Vietnam if America would foot the bill. Johnson, eager to have Asians on the U.S. side, agreed. Marcos deployed only a token unit and then used most of the aid for political purposes at home.

Similarly, Marcos extracted assistance from Richard M. Nixon in bargaining over the American bases in the Philippines. And, in September, 1972, Nixon acquiesced when Marcos imposed martial law as a way of seizing absolute power. The CIA station in Manila consistently cautioned against Marcos’ autocratic ways but the White House ignored its warnings.

As his corrupt regime began to crumble during the 1980s, Marcos counted on two friends in Washington--President Ronald Reagan and the late William J. Casey, then CIA director. Casey, haunted by the fate of Iran following the fall of the shah, maintained that discarding Marcos would spell chaos. But his agents in the Philippines defied him. They detailed Marcos’ frauds in his campaign against Corazon Aquino in 1986 and, among other ploys, covertly spread rumors designed to help her.


At a decisive meeting at the home of then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz, one strong voice for dumping Marcos belonged to Robert Gates, the deputy CIA director. Casey, absent from that session, remained silent at a later White House meeting with Reagan. He had ceased trying to save Marcos.

Filipinos attribute nearly every political event in the islands to U.S. machinations. They see the hand of the CIA everywhere. As a result, they suspect American journalists, businessmen, professors and Peace Corps volunteers of working for the agency. The notion is absurd, but even if it were true they would probably concede that, on balance, the CIA has been a progressive force--though, contrary to Smith’s thesis, not always angelic.