Today marks the 52nd anniversary of the Manila Hotel demonstration of October 24. The protest was a turning point in Philippine politics. To commemorate the event I am making available a portion of a draft chapter from my rewriting of my dissertation for publication as a book. This is still a work in progress. Sources are available in my dissertation itself [Crisis of Revolutionary Leadership: Martial Law and the Communist Parties of the Philippines, 1959-1974]
The great currents of the past year — the blood-dimmed tides of war and dictatorship and the turbid undertow of social unrest — met in awful confluence on October 24 1966. The sediment of social resentment, deposited over the course of a half decade of declining living standards, social inequality, and political rot, was dislodged by the Vietnam war and brought to the surface by Johnson’s visit in an upwelling gyre of outrage. It remained as yet a particulate anger, its banners and placards diffuse, but it was strident and growing. The Manila Summit demonstration marked a sea-change in Philippine history.
The immensity of Washington’s war in Vietnam, the rapidity of its growth, and the brutality of its conduct were breathtaking. By December 1965 the United States had already deployed 185,000 soldiers to the former French colony, yet commanding General William Westmoreland stated that at least 443,000 combat troops would be needed by the end of 1966. Operation Rolling Thunder unleashed an incessant rain of death on North Vietnam, dropping over 250,000 tons in its first nine months, including the widespread use of napalm. In June, B-52s began taking off from Guam to carry out the saturation bombing of South Vietnam and within a year they had carried out 350 raids and dropped 70,000 tons of explosives. These numbers only increased in 1966 and by December, 637,000 tons of bombs had fallen on Vietnam, almost equal to the total tonnage dropped in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. Explosives were not the only payload, however; by the end of 1966, the aerial spraying of Agent Orange had produced a million acres of poisoned desert. The violence spilled into Laos as Washington launched a secret campaign that left the country the most heavily bombed per capita in history. An implacable escalatory logic governed the imperialist war. In the middle of the year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff insistently informed Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that an invasion of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia needed to be prepared and that it might require the use of nuclear weapons against southern China.
The bloodshed required political cover. Johnson cast Washington’s war as part of a broad international response to the needs of a stable democratic government in South Vietnam, and to shore up the pretense turned to the regimes in Seoul, Bangkok, and Manila, cobbling together the best regional support that money could buy. As early as the middle of 1964, before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the White House was already in an advanced stage of negotiations with both the Macapagal and Park Chung-hee governments for the deployment of forces to South Vietnam. Significant sums of money were on offer and Macapagal moved with alacrity to supply Filipino troops. Then Senate President Ferdinand Marcos derailed Macapagal’s support for Washington in 1965, and secured the support of the PKP and its new youth wing, the KM, in harnessing the popular outrage over the war to his bid for Malacañang. Thus, as Marcos took office at the beginning of 1966, two thousand South Korean troops arrived in South Vietnam while Manila had not yet commited any Filipino forces to Johnson’s manufactured multilateralism.
Marcos had no interest in defying the United States but he was politically savvy. Having brokered his opposition to the deployment of troops into a presidential election victory, he now sought to truck his support for the highest possible price. US Vice President Hubert Humphrey attended the inauguration, feeling out Washington’s new man in Manila, and on December 31 he sent an eyes-only despatch to Johnson, then in Texas for the holidays, stating that “Marcos’ response on discussion additional commitments South Vietnam strongly encouraging. … However, Marcos obviously has ticklish Parliamentary situation …” Jack Valenti, then special assistant to the President, was traveling with Humphrey and, upon playing a round of golf with Marcos, wrote a memo to Johnson on January 4.
We need Asians to take the lead in Asian affairs. Best asset to US is strong Asian leader … Suggest we bet on Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines … Let Asians take up the burden we have been carrying … Equip two or more Korean divisions, and send them to Vietnam. They could easily take the place of 30–40,000 Americans … The price we pay for this is cheap … I suspect [Marcos] wants to be a great president, and is willing to do unpalatable things in order to achieve that greatness … Marcos has the gifts of brain and courage to do those things that need to be done, but which need an Asian cover to be done.
Johnson followed Humphrey’s advice, and on February 25 secretly sent a personal invitation to Marcos to visit Washington, routing the letter as eyes-only traffic through Ambassador Blair in Manila. Marcos negotiated, seeking arms to suppress the central Luzon Huk rivals of his ally Sumulong; funding to supply ten domestic engineering batallions; and payment for the costs of the Filipino troops deployed to Vietnam. The money, he insisted, should not be earmarked but sent in a direct and unaccountable fashion as he intended to place a significant chunk of it in his increasingly capacious pockets. Throughout the summer of ’66 Washington and Manila haggled over the price of Filipino mercenaries. In the end, the White House spent as much as was necessary to fabricate a guise for its war. As Marcos pushed through the PHILCAG legislation and prepared to visit Washington, Special Assistant for National Security Affairs Walt Rostow summed up the perspective of the Johnson administration, “… Marcos has really put his political neck on the block in backing our Vietnam position and in sending military forces there. But he did it.” Johnson commmitted to supply Marcos’ engineering batallions and to pay $39 million in discretionary money to the Philippine President from the US Department of Defense budget, thus circumventing legislative oversight of the deal. Marcos’ tour of the United States was turned into an ego trip. At his request, Marcos was granted an honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan and spoke before the joint House of Congress.
They bartered in backrooms and paid under the table. The true character of the deployment of Filipino troops to Vietnam — that PHILCAG was the mercenary hireling of Manila’s former colonial master — only emerged during the inquiries conducted by the Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee under Stuart Symington in 1969. The White House posed its actors in a geopolitical tableau sharply at odds with reality: South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines all shared Washington’s desire to provide aid to the embattled, democratic government in Saigon. The props purchased and the blocking well-rehearsed, all that lacked was an Asian proscenium. On September 21, during the midst of Marcos’ state visit, the Johnson administration drafted its proposal to hold a summit in Manila in late October. In a display of imperial hubris, Johnson invited Harold Holt and Keith Holyoake, the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand, and only upon securing their agreement did he inform the Philippine President of the impending gathering he was expected to host. The theme of the drama was multilateralism, however, and the idea was thus presented to journalists as having originated with Marcos. The Philippines Free Press accurately summed up the whole staged affair, “the entire firepower of the American delegation during the Summit was concentrated on changing the complexion of the war in Vietnam from an American war to a war of, by and for Asians.”
On October 23, in the grande dame of American colonialism, the Manila Hotel, on the Dewey Boulevard waterfront — of late made over as Roxas — Johnson assembled his Summit. That morning an American freighter, insisting on its right of way, collided amidships with a Philippine passenger vessel, the Pioneer Leyte, off the breakwaters of Manila Bay. The Leyte, a American Freight and Supply vessel sold as surplus at the end of the Second World War, foundered and sank in five minutes. Scores of dead bodies, including pregnant women and children, floated for days in the bay outside the floor-to-ceiling windows of Johnson’s MacArthur Suite. A coterie of State Department grey men and RAND corporation drones stalked the hallways, supervising the event. Holt and Holyoake quietly staged their cameos while the gathered Asian leadership adopted a pose of regional concern. Nguyen Cao Ky, given to openly fascistic sympathies and installed as Prime Minister by military coup; Park Chung-hee, put in office by a military junta in 1961; Thanom Kittikachorn, military dictator of Thailand; and Ferdinand Marcos, the only democratically elected figure in the bunch — all fixed their signatures to a joint declaration of support for South Vietnam which Johnson had drawn up for the occasion. The vast Texan shadow of the American president — shrewd, vulgar, and utterly dominant — loomed over the gathering. The evening before the summit, he met privately with the Vietnamese delegation and coached Ky, “lean as far away as you can from the ‘imperialist’ Johnson, from the hard-liner Rusk, and that fellow with stars on his shoulders, Westmoreland. You just hold the Bible in your hand tomorrow. You be a man of good will; love your neighbor.” As the summit opened the next morning, Johnson praised Marcos’ work in preparing the event and, to the Philippine President’s enduring embarrassment, described him as his “right-hand in Asia.” The summit closed on October 25 with the signing of a joint communiqué committing the assembled powers to the military defense of Saigon, and a “Declaration of Peace and Progress in Asia.” That evening Westmoreland contacted Johnson through Rostow calling for dramatically expanding the bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson ordered the US Navy to begin shelling the Vietnamese coastline. Between late October and the end of 1966, the US military launched more than 500,000 shells at the Vietnamese people, a number which exceeded the total it had fired during the entirety of the Second World War. The joint declaration of peace in his pocket, Johnson departed the next morning for Cam Ranh Bay, where he reviewed the troops.
The Manila Summit was quickly forgotten, its posturing and declarations were at best a historical footnote, crêpe flooring over a widening quagmire. The developments immediately outside the Manila Hotel were of far greater significance.
A week before Johnson arrived, Voltaire Garcia chaired a “tumultuous meeting” of the UP Student Council, securing by a narrow margin a resolution to stage a protest of the Manila Summit.
Manila Chief of Police Ricardo Papa refused to grant a permit for the protest, so Ignacio Lacsina appealed to Manila Mayor Villegas and was issued a permit for a protest to be held in front of the US Embassy, several blocks removed from the Manila Hotel. UP students traveled in eighteen buses from Diliman toward the arranged meeting point of Agrifina Circle where students from UE, Lyceum, and members of LM were already gathered, but police stopped the UP buses at the Quezon City-Manila border in Sta. Mesa and demanded to see the students’ protest permit. Garcia or Violeta Calvo, at the head of the student delegation, explained that the protest permit was with the advance group already at the circle. The police refused to allow the buses to enter Manila and the students walked the remaining five kilometers. Bored with waiting, the protestors at Agrifina circle broke out a guitar and began singing “folk-songs” in a circle and “[t]he spirit of a hootenanny took away some of the boredom.” When the UP contingent arrived, the rally marched from Agrifina Circle to the Embassy, where they demonstrated for an hour. Each speaker stood on top of a jeep to address the crowd: Voltaire Garcia and Orly Mercado spoke on behalf of the UP Student Council and Lacsina on behalf of LM, distributing copies of his statement to news crews.
At this point accounts conflict. According to Ninotchka Rosca, the idea to move the rally from the Embassy to the Manila Hotel arose spontaneously from the crowd, and added that “an officer suggested that the leader’s jeep follow the crowd to pacify them and Carlos del Rosario, secretary of the Kabataang Makabayan, agreed to this.” Violeta Calvo testified that it was Ignacio Lacsina who instructed the students to go to the Hotel rather than remain at the Embassy. Contemporary accounts record that there were two thousand protestors present, but in 2004, with her usual sense of inflation, Rosca claimed that five thousand marched to the Manila Hotel, apparently forgetting that in 1966 she had estimated that the protest involved “2,000-odd workers and students.” When the protestors arrived at the Manila Hotel, Manila Deputy Chief of Police, Major James Barbers, instructed them to disperse because their permit was for the Embassy not the Hotel.
Tensions mounted as the protestors refused to disperse in the face of the riot-gear clad police. A number of contemporary reports state that Americans in suits were standing behind and circulating among the Manila police; the police attacked the protestors when an American shouted “Go get ’em!” The protestors fled in the face of the violent dispersal. The police beat students with rattan batons and fired shots in the air. At some point during the dispersal, a police officer aimed and fired at a fleeing student named Prudencio Tan, shooting him in the neck. Rosca reported that “doctors had to open a hole at the base of his neck to enable him to breathe: his windpipe had been punctured.” As the police attacked the protestors, members of the foreign press were also injured and reporters and cameramen for UPI, Washington Post, CBC and ABC were hurt in the dispersal. The police arrested and filed charges against five people.
Blood darkened the Manila Hotel pavement. The youths of October 24 marched against war, colliding with the state and its bodies of armed men. With earnest voices and hand-drawn placards they strained forward against the police line but behind the rattan shields was a gaze blank and pitiless. They were shot, beaten, and arrested. Outrage rapidly displaced shock, and the conduct of Manila’s police became the focus of all ire.[continue reading…]