(Part of an occasional series on US diplomats and their relationships with the Philippines)
Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino’s death on 21 August 1983 on the apron of what is now the airport named after him, lit the fuse to the overthrow of the notoriously corrupt dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986. It led to the presidency of Corazon Aquino, and the controversial incumbency of Rodrigo Duterte, son of Ferdinand Marco’s former executive secretary, whose mother was a bitter opponent of Marcos.
The striking of the match that lit the fuse may have come as early as 1972 when Marcos made a strategic error – he arrested Ninoy Aquino.
Ambassador Frank E. Maestrone, who died in 2007, served as US Consular Officer from 1971 and was interviewed by the late Hank Zivetz for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, in 1989. He had a front-row seat.
He gives us a sense of the complexities underlying the road to Martial Law – violence on the streets, a weak central government unable to bring provincial war-lords to heel.
Among the surprises, perhaps, is that Ninoy Aquino would have supported Martial Law as a temporary measure. However, Marcos’s first step was to arrest the opposition, eliminating the moderate opposition entirely, which strengthened the Communist insurgency and leading to a quintupling of recruitment into the NPA.
Maestrone’s interview is given here without comment.
Q: Let’s move back a little bit to 1971 when you were consular of embassy for political
affairs in Manila. Was Ferdinand Marcos in charge at that time in Manila?
MAESTRONE: Oh, absolutely, he was president and, in actual fact, at that time his
presidency, particularly his first term—he had been elected for a second term—was
considered to have been a rather good era in Philippine relations and development,
since Marcos had had a pretty good administration. Obviously there was corruption, but
corruption is pretty much endemic throughout that area, not to mention other areas as well,
including, maybe, the United States. But his terms in office were considered to be rather
However, the political situation in the Philippines had begun to deteriorate considerably
because of the antics of the various political powers throughout the Philippines. Each one
In his particular area had his stronghold. Although they were supporters of Marcos, he
was not really able to control them as much as he would have liked. They did support his
policies when they were in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. But when they
were operating in their own areas, they carried on somewhat independently. Their actions,
particularly during various elections, were especially reprehensible. When candidates
looked like they might have a chance of upsetting some of their favorite people, they were
eliminated by ambushes, shooting, what have you, and this solved the political problem for
Also there was a great deal of shooting going on in the cities; everybody carried guns.
So it was really getting quite dangerous if you were caught in a cross-fire. There were a
number of incidents that happened in Manila while I was there. In view of this deteriorating
situation, it was expected that Marcos would declare martial law to reestablish control in
the Philippines. In fact, I had lunch—I think it was on a Wednesday—with Benigno Aquino,
in which we discussed this situation, during which he said that if the president declares
martial law, he would support him. However, he was one of his major opposition leaders.
What actually happened was that martial law was declared at midnight on Friday. The first
man that was arrested under martial law was Benigno Aquino, so he never got a chance to
support Ferdinand Marcos in this respect.
Q: Are you suggesting that the martial law was used to squelch the opposition, rather than
to clean up the abuses?
MAESTRONE: No, I am not suggesting that, although it was also used for that reason.
But the primary reason for martial law was to try to bring order back into the country.
The military took control of various areas. In fact, an order was issued that all Filipinos
had to turn in their weapons, not just assault weapons, but all kinds of weapons. Indeed,
they turned in hundreds of thousands of weapons, because they were required to do
so. At least, it was estimated that, maybe, half the weapons were turned in. There was
still half outstanding, but these went from pistols all the way up to, I think, a governor in
some remote province had a small tank that he had someone build for his forces down in
that area. The situation improved, absolutely immediately. I mean, no longer did you see
people carrying guns around or anything like that. The shooting stopped. Indeed, Marcos’
action was certainly approved by the majority of the people. There was no doubt about
it. Even some of the politicians I knew who were in opposition to Marcos approved of his
What happened later, of course, was a different story. Initially, it started all right. The
Filipinos did not expect it to continue. They thought it was a temporary measure.
Q: Now are you saying that martial law was continued even after some kind of stability was
MAESTRONE: Oh, yes, it was years, yes.
Q: Yes, and perverted in that period, too.
MAESTRONE: Oh, yes.
Q: Did you have a chance to meet Marcos and Imelda in that period?
MAESTRONE: Oh, yes.
Q: What was your impression of these people?
MAESTRONE: Marcos was one of the most articulate men I’ve ever met, particularly, in
English. I recall, as a matter of fact, when martial law was instituted—as I say, it was at
midnight Friday—Saturday afternoon he gave a speech which was televised, in which
he spoke for three hours detailing all the reasons why this had taken place and what he
planned to do, etc., without notes, and never repeated himself once in completely fluent
English, with a few peculiar pronunciations, which are peculiar to the Filipinos, anyway. He
was a rather impressive fellow, quite intelligent, sharp. Imelda I never really got to know
very well. I met her on numerous occasions, but she was a very cold person, in personality
terms, and one of the things that put me off immediately was that sort of limp handshake,
something like grabbing onto a cold fish. I just never cared for her very much.
Q: What was the official American position toward Marcos in that period?
MAESTRONE: We had a very close relationship with Marcos, although we did not approve
of martial law, in fact. Although I personally considered that had it been continued only for
a short period until order was gotten back to the Philippines, it was probably a good thing.
But we never approved of the continuation of martial law. We had an Ambassador Hank
Byroade, who had an especially good relationship with Marcos, which he developed over
the years prior to martial law. Marcos would consult with Byroade on a variety of matters,
although he did not consult him on the martial law, for instance.
Q: There was an insurrection in the Philippines at that time. Was this strictly a religious or
Muslim insurrection, or was there a communist element involved there?
MAESTRONE: There were two insurrections going on. One was the continuation of the
original Huk insurrection, which became the New People’s Army and was led by the—
continued to be led by the communists, which continues today—which, indeed, under the
extended period of Marcos’ rule gained strength throughout the country.
The other occurred at the time I was there and was a Muslim insurrection, which was
designed to obtain more autonomy for the governing of certain of the southern areas,
particularly, in the Sulu Islands and the province of Cotabato. Where the Muslims were, in
the case of the Sulus a majority, and in Cotabato, I think, they probably had at least fifty
percent of the population. This started up. It was a very difficult matter for the Philippine
army to deal with because a lot of it took place in these tropical forests and what have you,
where there was plenty of opportunity for concealment. Also, the Sulu Islands stretched
out toward the island of Borneo, where there was the state of Sabah, where many of the
Sulu islanders had relatives and they received support and military supplies and so on
from them. So it was a difficult thing for the Philippine armed forces to deal with.
Q: Well, when you were there, did the United States supply arms to the Philippine military
in order to put down these rebellions?
MAESTRONE: No, we didn’t supply arms for them to put down the rebellions. Well,
perhaps we did with respect to the communists, the New People’s Army rebellion, but not
with respect to the Muslim rebellion. But then how could you distinguish between them?
We had a regular military assistance program going. We had a large one in connection
with all of our arrangements with respect to the major bases we have there, Clark Air
Force Base and Subic Naval Base.
Q: Was there agitation, at that time, for Americans to get out of the bases in the
MAESTRONE: Only from a very small radical fringe. Otherwise, the Americans had
a great deal of support. In fact, during my time there, there was a movement by one
politician to have the Philippines become the 51st American state. It was surprising the
amount of support, indeed, embarrassing to Marcos, the amount of support he was able to
generate. He, of course, tried to tamp this down as much as he could.