Waltzing with a Dictator

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Raymond Bonner has made a career of practicing his moral idealism. After graduating from Stanford Law School and serving three years in the Marine Corps, he worked for Ralph Nader and Consumers Union. In 1979, he began a five-year phase as a journalist in Central America, enraging the Bolivian regime by exposing its army’s drug trafficking and brutality, later offending The New York Times’s managing editor by filing dispatches from Nicaragua that the editor regarded as too pro-Sandinista. In 1985, his first book, Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador (1984), won the Robert F. Kennedy Award. Waltzing with a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy is his second work, and its thesis and tone are consistent with Bonner’s deeply ingrained liberalism: He is outraged that five American administrations allowed the conjugal tyranny of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to impose martial law on the Philippine archipelago, emasculate their country’s democratic institutions, demoralize the vast majority of Filipinos, brutalize peasants, workers, and small shopkeepers, and loot the land’s economy by stealing between $5 and $10 billion for their personal enrichment. Bonner’s central concern is that America’s myopic support for the Marcoses and their kind invites precisely the hard-left reaction—or revolution—by desperately oppressed people that the “law and order” repression of rightist dictators seeks to prevent.

Bonner devotes only a dozen of his nearly five hundred pages to a discussion of Philippine-United States relations before the 1950’s. In that decade, the legendary Colonel Edward Lansdale created a brilliant Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) counterinsurgency strategy against the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Huk) Communist-agrarian rebellion. Ramón Magsaysay became “America’s boy,” with Lansdale his chief adviser as Magsaysay beat the incompetent Elpidio Quirino in the 1953 presidential campaign. Magsaysay proved himself an enormously effective and popular democratic leader, yet Bonner spends less than two pages on his administration, tragically truncated when he was killed in a helicopter crash in 1957. Since Corazon Aquino frequently mentioned Magsaysay in her 1986 campaign speeches as her model president, Bonner’s short shrift for such an admired predecessor is puzzling.

In the 1961 presidential election, the CIA helped to engineer the triumph of Diosdado Macapagal. By 1965, however, the agency had decided to discontinue its pressure in behalf of Macapagal, who had proved unpredictably mercurial in office. Thus the CIA remained neutral during that year’s campaign, which was easily won by a brilliant orator—Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos was already a skilled fighter in the Philippines’ political mazes. In 1938, when only twenty-one, he had been convicted of murder, but the sentence had then been set aside by the Philippine Supreme Court, with Marcos, though still in law school, eloquently arguing his own case. In 1949, at thirty-two, he had become the youngest member of the national House of Representatives. In 1959, he had easily won a Senate seat. In 1954, he had married the beautiful Imelda Romualdez, whose cousin, a powerful politician, had introduced the couple. Interestingly, Imelda had previously dated Benigno (“Ninoy”) Aquino, Jr., who then married, also in 1954, an heiress to a large fortune, Corazon (“Cory”) Cojuangco.

The Marcos-Aquino duel was to last more than...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)