Philippines: Promising American Ally

With its Catholic Spanish heritage, the Philippines is unique among the countries of Southeast Asia and charted its own path in the period 1960-1975.   Overrun by the Japanese during World War II, liberated by the United States in 1945, she was granted independence on July 4, 1946.  The central problem of the new Filipino government was authority, for which a remedy did not come until the 1960s.

The Philippines started after the war as a gangland of different groups, including police, which became lawmakers unto themselves. Prominent among these groups were the Hukbalahaps (“Huks”), who emerged as communist resistance fighters of the Japanese, opposed established governments in Manila and, as in Malaysia, took many years to defeat. While the Huk rebels operated on the island of Luzon, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started an insurgency bent on full independence for its Muslim adherents on the southern island of Mindanao that continues to this day.

The issue of wartime collaborators, Japanese reparations, competent leadership, economic disfunction, and the presence of armed groups throughout the country combined to distract the Philippines in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Between 1953 and 1965, however, the emergence of Ramon Magsaysay and Diosdado Macapagal as presidents gave the Philippines new direction and optimism. Magsaysay broke the Huk rebellion, restored esprit de corps to the army, and trust in government.

President Magsaysay was a close friend and supporter of the United States. As a vocal opponent of communism, he was alarmed at the prospect of North Vietnam winning over the South after the French withdrawal in 1954. To prevent the spread of totalitarianism throughout the region, Magsaysay was a founder of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) that same year, which was originally called the Manila Pact. On his watch, the Huks formally surrendered; and he broke with many attendees at the Bandung Conference in 1955 such as Nehru of India and Nasser of Egypt who extolled the virtues of neutralism and non-alliance in the Cold War – instead taking the side of democracy and the West. Trade and industry flourished as he renegotiated agreements made before independence that improved trade terms for Philippine businesses while maintaining open markets with the Americans. Magsaysay’s was considered one of the most open, honest, and able administrations in Philippine history, cut tragically short by his death in a plane crash in 1957.

IRRI scientists Peter R. Jennings and Henry “Hank” M. Beachell join IRRI director Robert Chandler, Philippine president Ferdinand E. Marcos, and U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson in a field of IR8 rice plants (left to right), Los Baños, Philippines. 1966.

The momentum of Magsaysay continued under Macapagal. In the years 1961-65, land reform started by Magsaysay, broadened, and the Philippines became a center for agriculture science, with the establishment of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos. Macapagal committed the Philippines to economic development not by government “pump-priming” but by free and private enterprise. With IMF support, he cut the peso free from controls in 1962, a sign of confidence in the Philippine economy. The reforms to 1965 saw substantial business growth with multinationals entering the Philippines in large numbers fueled by world prosperity after World War II and the momentum of the American economy. At this time, for example, the new shining city of Makati – a symbol of modern commerce – arose outside Manila under the entrepreneurial management of the Zobel family.

The Philippines saw 5-6% growth rates during these years, and with prosperity came confidence to range. It was Macapagal who challenged Malaysia’s claim to Sabah on the western fringe of the Sulu Sea and enlisted American support. Macapagal also committed troops to South Vietnam under Lyndon Johnson’s “More Flags” program of April 1964. Indeed, the American military facilities from the colonial period – the army base at Clark Field and the naval facility at Subic Bay – expanded enormously because of the Vietnam War, and provided economic support for the Philippine economy throughout the 1960s as well as shaped US-Philippine relations until the leases expired in 1991.


Macapagal’s successor was an ambitious Filipino senator named Ferdinand Marcos who won the presidency in 1965. Marcos was elected as a reformer but became preoccupied with attempts to retain the presidency beyond the constitutional term and enrich himself and his family. His platform was “Rice and Roads” and he provided both, and the first Marcos years were prosperous with support from the business community for massive spending on infrastructure and from the United States for the stability he provided American operations in Vietnam. People compared the youthful-looking Marcos to Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Suharto of Indonesia; and with his glamorous wife, Imelda, he seemed like a Philippine version of the Kennedys.

Appearances aside, Marcos chose order and control. Just after winning reelection in 1969, Marcos declared martial law for ten years. He claimed a serious threat from Maoist communists in the form of student protests, suspended basic rights of expression in speech and print, and arrested thousands. He gave new prominence to the army – tripling its size – and issued a new constitution which gave him transcendent power no matter what laws were passed which he called “constitutional authoritarianism. At first, stability benefited tourism, was supported by the business sector, and the economy boomed in the 1970s with a 400% growth in GDP. But this was to prove to be hollow growth since it was artificially swelled by foreign borrowing on a massive scale which went into few investments that were genuinely productive, and the Philippines remained a commodity-based export economy of coconuts, timber, and sugar.

In 1966-72, the Philippines went from a very favorable position in the region to falling badly behind countries such as Thailand and Indonesia. By the end of the 1970s, corruption riddled the Marcos regime which lavished favors on friends with moneys from the Treasury and who was represented most vividly by the First Lady, Imelda Marcos, who chaired no fewer than twenty-three government councils, agencies, and corporations. By the late 1970s, the Marcos regime resorted to all means to retain power, including assassinations, and Filipinos fled to the Persian Gulf, Europe, Canada, and the United States for opportunities not available in their home country in a diaspora that deprived the Philippines of brains and money and caused the country’s financial system to collapse in 1983. Marcos left three years later.

Today, the Philippines is doing so well that it is a so-called “Tiger Cub” economy, along with Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. But the 1960s sowed the seeds of despair in the Marcos regime, which dashed a decade of promise, and from which the Philippines only recovered in the 1990s.

The Philippines was one of the countries of Southeast Asia to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. The other founding members were Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The aim of the organization was to attack poverty, disease and other social ills; and increase the economic significance of the region in the world. It was not a military alliance, though an underlying motive for the formation of this large grouping of nations was that it might curb the capacity of Indonesia to overawe the area since Indonesia contained about half of ASEAN’s population – a motive not unlike that of enmeshing Germany in a wider Europe through the formation of NATO in 1949.

ASEAN in 1967 was not the region’s first try at co-operation in the 1960s. Various countries planned other groupings in 1961 and 1963 for example. Yet only after the departure of the restless Sukarno from the Indonesian scene did the region find broad cooperation. A separate British announcement in 1967 of its withdrawal from Malaysia and Singapore prompted these two states to conclude with Australia, New Zealand, and Britain a new agreement in 1970 – the Five Power Defense Arrangement – that set up a consulting group for mutual defense. The pullout of the United States from Vietnam after 1973 forced further regional shuffling since each Southeast Asian country had had a different relationship with the Vietnam War. For ASEAN, President Nixon’s rapprochement with China was a still further destabilizer – a disquieting sequel to the United States’ failure in Vietnam since it gave China a chance to fill a void left after American withdrawal. In 1972, Vietnam’s treaty with a major outside power – the USSR – made it ineligible for ASEAN, and the region’s powers did not know who the prime enemy was – communist China or communist Vietnam, which seemed bent on expansion with the Americans gone.

As the 1960s came to a close, the situation in the United Nations illustrated just how divided Southeast Asia was over the issue of China. In 1970 Malaysia and Singapore voted to give the Chinese seat on the Security Council to the communist regime in Beijing. Indonesia and Thailand abstained. The Philippines, true to Taiwan was orphaned from the United Nations, and China’s incursion into northern Vietnam in 1979 was a sinister omen unknowable whether it was just a “one-off” event or the start of a Chinese drift southward with malign intent.

Leave a Reply