The big lie
Memory is a tricky thing.
Marcos, clever man that he was, left behind a smokescreen to confuse future generations. He once told a convention of historians that he actually signed the martial law proclamation on September 17. But he was lying to the historians. How do we know this? We know it from Marcos himself.
A bit of background. He first floated the idea of martial law in 1969, in a speech at the Philippine Military Academy. In his own diaries, he started mentioning the need for martial law in 1970, and started detailed planning for it, by his own reckoning, in 1971.
Marcos gave the military a pep talk on September 14 to fill them in on what the senior generals already knew, since they had helped in the planning of martial law. By September 17, Marcos had sent his children abroad for safety. Marcos claimed in his diary, plans were finalized on September 18. On September 20, he complained he couldn’t sign the necessary papers because they had to be re-typed. He also mentioned he asked Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor to submit a report on his views on the plans for martial law.
Then came September 21. What happened on that day? Not martial law. Four things prove this.
First, Congress remained open, and in fac, opposition Senator Ninoy Aquino gave a speech in the Senate—his last—warning that martial law was coming within 48 hours.
Second, a big rally was held in Plaza Miranda. It was organized by the Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties.
Third, in his diary, Marcos recounted that he met with the Northern bloc of congressmen worried about Ninoy’s speech. He told them what he intended to do. Fourth, Marcos then met the US Ambassador to confirm his plans for martial law. All the US Ambassador said was he hoped it could be postponed until after the US presidential elections in November.
So there was no martial law on September 21. It was, instead, the last day of freedom when people could say they went about their business normally.
To be sure, Marcos had planned to impose martial law on September 21, 1972. But something had gotten in the way. Congress was that thing. It was scheduled to go on recess on that date. This was important because Marcos wanted to make sure Congress was on vacation to reduce the risk senators and congressmen might try to oppose martial law.
But Congress didn’t go on recess on September 21. A joint committee of the House and Senate wasn’t finished arguing over the Tariff and Customs Code. Congressional leaders told Marcos they expected to adjourn on the 23rd, if the joint committee finished its work on the night of the 22nd.
This left Marcos in a bind and it explains what happened after midnight as September 22 gave way to September 23. Having gotten so far in planning martial law, but having had to delay it, Marcos and his generals feared they’d lose the initiative and more details would leak out since Ninoy apparently had sources of information. Marcos quickly had to find an excuse to impose it. That excuse was the supposed assassination attempt on Juan Ponce Enrile in the Wack-Wack subdivision, around eight o’clock in the evening of September 22.
Things moved quickly after that. Shortly before, or shortly after midnight, the joint committee on the customs tariff was interrupted when soldiers arrived to arrest Ninoy. Five trucks of soldiers had been sent to do the job. Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, PLDT, the airport, were shut down in the early hours of September 23. Media, political, and other personalities and activists were rounded up also in the early morning hours.
This is why martial law was announced with silence: people woke up to discover that TV and radio stations were off the air. Later in the day, some stations started playing easy listening music and some stations aired cartoons. But Marcos’ speechwriters were slow, then the teleprompter broke down, and the speech had to be hand-written on kartolina. So it wasn’t until dinnertime that Marcos finally appeared on TV and the country found out martial law was in place.
So, why do so many people who actually lived through martial law, misremember when it was proclaimed?
Marcos once said that the people would accept anything so long as it was legal. Marcos said he’d imposed martial law on September 21. We know this wasn’t true, because the document itself was co-signed, not by Alejandro Melchor, his executive secretary, but by a presidential assistant. This was because Melchor had left for abroad before Marcos actually signed the martial law proclamation sometime between the evening and early morning of September 22 to 23.
Marcos went further to wipe the public’s memory clean. He later proclaimed September 21 as Thanksgiving Day. And in every speech, every documentary, every poster, September 21 was the date enshrined as the birth of the New Society. So much so that the public forgot what it had actually lived through. This is the power of propaganda. By altering the date, Marcos helped erase not only September 21 as the last day of freedom, but also how that freedom was lost between September 22 and 23. His lawyerly piece of paper, his Proclamation 1081, became the ultimate instrument for national amnesia.
So, remember September 21 by all means. Not as the fake news date Marcos wanted you to remember, but for the things he wanted you to forget: a still-independent Senate, freedom of assembly, and a free press. But remember what he wanted you to forget: that it was on September 23 that the nation woke up to discover all these things were suddenly gone. And that the next day, the last institution standing, the Supreme Court, received the warning: play ball, or be abolished. They played ball.