‘Killing’ MacArthur, reviving Marcos
LOS ANGELES—On Nov. 15, 1988, vandals blasted with dynamite the statue of American Gen. Douglas MacArthur in my hometown of Palo, Leyte. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos—already into their third year of exile in Hawaii—blamed the communists and then President Corazon Aquino. The conjugal dictators saw in the bombing a development which they could exploit in their bid to return to power.
Today, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is eager to use the same playbook that his parents used 30 years ago—Red-tagging and lying—to fulfill his dream of following in his father’s footsteps in becoming the next president of the Philippines.
But that bombing of MacArthur’s statue—happening a few days after the United States elected George H. W. Bush as its 41st president—sent a signal to US leaders that everything was not “business as usual” in their former colony.
The MacArthur bombing, which occurred three years before the Philippines would end nearly a century of hosting American military bases, made headlines around the world and the story was one of my best scoops as a provincial reporter for this newspaper in the 1980s.
I remember my editor Federico Pascual instructing me to take the last flight from Tacloban to Manila as I brought with me the precious negatives of the damaged statue.
The next day, the nation woke up to see the armless bronze and granite statue of MacArthur only in the front page of the Inquirer.
The competition never knew what hit them. And Mr. Pascual gave me a token bonus for my efforts.
The bombing shocked the small village of Candahug where the five-hectare memorial park constructed in 1977 on orders of Mrs. Marcos is considered hallowed ground for a certain generation of Filipinos.
That generation survived more than three years of cruel Japanese occupation and they considered MacArthur as their demigod worthy of worship.
“He was so tall and handsome. I saw him up close,” centenarian Luz Montejo Sevilla told me last Sunday over FaceTime.
She was a 41-year-old matron in Palo when she gave MacArthur, then 82, a garland of “kalachuchi” during his return visit to Leyte on July 8, 1961, in what was called his “sentimental journey” as witnessed by over a million Filipinos.
MacArthur died three years later at the age of 84.
“He was our hero, our savior,” added Sevilla, a 101-year-old great grandmother. She was a young lady of 24 when the Leyte landing happened.
Not everyone has fond memories of MacArthur as the great liberator. Some historians in Leyte blame him for the unreported carnage in Dulag town where the carpet-bombing by US warplanes on Oct. 8, 1944, killed more than 3,000 civilians.
In his 2015 book “Heroes, Brigands, Spies: The Untold Story of the Guerrilla Movement in Leyte,” writer Emil Justimbaste blamed guerrilla leader Ruperto Kangleon and his failure to communicate properly with MacArthur.
“The Dulag tragedy remains one of the bitterest ironies of the war in Leyte,” wrote Justimbaste.
Many books have been written denigrating MacArthur, the most revealing of which were the writings by American historian Carol Morris Petillo, who exposed in 1981 a $500,000 payoff by President Manuel Quezon to MacArthur.
Petillo also shed much light on MacArthur’s affair with Filipino-American actress Isabel Rosario Cooper, who killed herself in this city on June 29, 1960, after MacArthur left her.
But all these are small blots on the revered general’s escutcheon. Even in the face of cancel culture sweeping America, MacArthur’s place in history is probably secure for now.
The Marcoses used this halo of greatness around MacArthur to serve their political ends. In 1961, they visited MacArthur at his suite in New York. Then a senator, Marcos claimed MacArthur gave him a medal of sorts.
John Sharkey of the Washington Post interviewed MacArthur’s widow Jean in 1983 and she denied that her husband gave a medal.
As she prepares to campaign for her son in next year’s presidential election, Mrs. Marcos still goes around telling tall tales of how she hid in MacArthur’s limousine in 1945 in Tacloban and of how renowned composer Irving Berlin wrote “Heaven Watch the Philippines” to the tune of “God Bless America” for her.
This was debunked by Berlin himself after she told this story in an interview with Playboy magazine.
Still smarting from how the American media destroyed her late husband’s claim at being a war hero before the pivotal 1986 elections that ended their 20-year rule, Mrs. Marcos seems ready to do anything to get her son elected this time.
With her eye on redemption, she wants to erase this caricature of greed and excess with which the world had associated her.
And with a dubious den of distortionists in her son’s propaganda campaign corner, Mrs. Marcos is willing to blur fact and fiction—as she well did in the past—to win the media war this time.
“The gun can kill you up to the grave. But the media can kill you beyond the grave and up to infinity,” Mrs. Marcos told filmmaker Lauren Greenfield in 2015.
And at 92, the dictator’s widow who still thinks the world had wronged her is facing life’s long shadow in front of her. —CONTRIBUTED INQ
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