The ‘Yellow Revolution’: Its Mixed Historical Legacy (Excerpt)

The “Yellow Revolution”: Its Mixed Historical Legacy
by Theodore Friend

(Note: footnotes have been omitted; corrections have been made in brackets.)


The American colonial presence apparently required a one-party system as a nationalistic rallying point. Quezon’s success in keeping that party together, and in exploiting nationalistic issues, helps explain his twenty-one years of power from 1922 until his death in 194[4]. Postwar devolution of sovereignty, however, led to a series of one-term presidents, 1945-65: Roxas, Quirino, Magsaysay, Garcia, and Macapagal. All were chosen through close elections in a fluid-two party system, plastic, factional, and personalistic.

Ferdinand Marcos snapped the string. Elected in 1965 over Macapagal, he won again in 1969 to become the first twice-elected President of the Philippines*. Two terms, however, were the limit constitutionally allowed. So Marcos in 1972 yanked the cord on martial law, and changed the rules to perpetuate his regime. Other essays and historians tell what followed, until Marco’s presidency ended.

Marcos’ twenty-year primacy in Philippine politics (1966-86) nearly equalled that of Quezon (1922-4[4]) in duration, and probably exceeded it in impact. Attempts have already begun to link and liken their periods of rule; to analogize them in style as spendthrift autocrats. Some would imply that the “U.S.-Marcos Dictatorship” was prefigured in what could be called the “U.S.-Ouezon Puppet Show.” In this view, America held the strings in the Commonwealth Period and pulled them when necessary for American interests, but they were basically indifferent to Quezon’s enforcement of an extravagant power-appetite upon a subdued people.

Forty years later, the political wires that animated and controlled from above were simply replaced by economic lifelines that sustained from abroad. America would succor Marcos while Marcos suckered America.

That picture, however, is grossly overdrawn. An eminent Filipino, a cultural critic and public servant who lived through both regimes, says, “Quezon and Marcos? They were as different as noon and darkness.” Quezon he found clear and open in style (the commentator pointed to his heart as he talked); but Marcos was obscure, manipulative, calculating (he pointed to his head while frowning and narrowing his eyes).

The dramatic difference in style is important. Allied to it are basic differences in values and procedure. Quezon’s lineage was Mabiniesque, in that authoritarianism coexisted with romantic nationalism. But both remained under authentic discipline of law. Marcos, however, used the law tactically, without conviction as to its historic and social value. As a result his style approached Aguinaldo’s in the dictatorial, but dextrous where Aguinaldo was awkward. At the same time he found an allure in the magic personalism of some neighboring potentates, and in monuments and dynasticism far exceeding anything expressed by Quezon. Basic distinctions drawn, it is revealing to pursue the thoughts of the two leaders.


Among leaders of colonized peoples before the Great Pacific War, Quezon was the only man styled as a president, and receiving a nineteen-gun salute. As he looked forward to twenty-one guns, he gave thought to the future shape of the Philippine polity and its leadership. In 1940 three speeches laid out a rough “Theory of a Partyless Democracy.” Quezon was at the height of his powers, and the Japanese threat, while felt, was still sixteen months away from becoming an invasion. In a speech at the University of the Philippines, he criticized dictatorships, including dictatorship of the proletariat, and lauded democracy of the Lincolnian kind, “of, by, and for the people.” This rhetorical opening preceded a series of sallies against old ideas of the scope of governments, which accented too much the sacredness of property and contracts, and recognized too little the social obligations of men living under the same system. Quezon proceeded to attack as “fetishes” the concept of political parties, and the idea that individual liberty must not be restricted, ‘3 while heading towards his conceptual and practical goal: governmental initiatives in behalf of social justice.

Quezon made the metaphorical point that a nation is like a family, in which the father and the children cannot be at cross purposes. Nobody challenged his figure of speech. Quezon did not sound to his audience like a wayward Confucian from Northeast Asia; he was in fact touching the heart of some prominent values in the Philippines which were common to Greater Malaysia.

But nearly everything else Quezon said that day was challenged: by students, professors, journalists, jurists, and the Civil Liberties Union. The latter organization raised fears of a “tyrant.” Quezon, undaunted, reentered the fray with another speech, in which he clarified his principles and stressed his major aim of social justice. The second speech further reveals his attempt to clear theoretical ground so that the Philippines might catch up with the New Deal in the United States, and with the reforms of Miguel Aleman in Mexico; and to ride past the high-handed hacendero mentality which he disliked. He was not of that class: he could get along with it; could seek and get its support in some matters; and could still see its self-indulgence and social hierarchism as dangerous to the Philippines.

To the criticism that he wanted to do away with all “fiscalizers” (critics), Quezon said that nobody feared to speak out in the Philippines. The evidence was that so many had done so against him: “Your Constitution offers you all the checking you need, except the checking of the opposition.” He wished to make the basic point that executive power was required to effect social justice. This, the opposition was trying to block. He would be content, however, to succeed in less: to “show the world that this totalitarian ruler is known enough in the government university for everybody to feel that he can disagree with him, and neither lose his job nor go to jail, that is enough for me.”

Quezon had difficulty only in answering the observation of President Bienvenido Gonzalez of the University of the Philippines, that abolishing political organizations would lead to stronger class consciousness and to political control by a small and well-organized minority: both of which were bigger evils than political organizations as they then existed. Quezon did not effectively refute the point, but restated his belief that a carping opposition was the major obstacle to Philippine progress.

In a third and final speech at Far Eastern University, Quezon carried his themes further. He stressed the great value of a nation of critical individuals, as distinct from opposition parties. Partyless government, he said, presupposes an educated citizenry, an independent and honest press, an “extended radio service that is not controlled either by the government or special interests”; and a community without privileged classes.

Idealized and modernized Athenian democracy was more to the taste of his university audience. But Quezon had to come back to the practical. He acknowledged criticism of the Philippines’ “one-party system” by likening it to the southern states in the U.S.A. or the Irish Free State, where such things existed in ways that were democratic, and certainly not devoid of struggle. He concluded that the direction in which to move was not toward a system of two well-balanced parties, but toward a system in
which parties were unnecessary. Far more education of the public would be required, however, to approach that desirable point. Quezon concluded more than a month of public debate by admitting that “it would seem to be rash to try and experiment now with a partyless government.” By this public admission, Quezon displayed his talent for acknowledging frustration without admitting defeat. Even when his ideas created shivers of apprehension, his candor in advocacy and openness in debate could serve actually to enhance public trust in him.

An earlier speech shows how deep Quezon’s concerns actually went–to the deepest levels of a national character. “The Filipino of today is soft, easy-going… He is uninclined to sustained strenuous effort… Face-saving is the dominant note in the confused symphony of his existence. His sense of righteousness is often dulled by the desire of personal gain. His norm of conduct is generally prompted by expediency rather than by principle…” Apologizing for the severity of what he was saying, he called upon memories of the heroes of the past, Bonifacio, both del Pilars, Mabini. Luna, and above all Rizal. Why wait for an emergency to awaken the flame of their spirit? To endow the Filipino with optimism and valor, refashion the culture and character is an urgent “task of national spiritual reconstruction.” To insure its accomplishments, “we shall formulate and adopt a social code–a code of ethics and personal conduct–a written Bushido–that can be explained in the schools, preached from the pulpits, and taught in the streets and plazas… We shall indoctrinate every man, woman, and child in its precepts…

“Every official of the government will cooperate, and ignorance of, or failure to live up to, the rules of conduct established, will be a bar to public office. There will be some superficial men, those who claim and believe that they know it all, who would brand this as the first step toward totalitarianism. Let them bark at the moon.”

An astonishingly candid speech, defiant of ordinary political prudence. What does it signify? Certainly it shows some of the inner operations and colorings of Quezon’s mind. His deep comprehension of the national character, usually expressed in compassionate patience, or voluble frustration, or humor, here takes the shape of imagining complete “spiritual reconstruction” once and for all. Such visions are not livable by whole peoples, or practicable by realistic leaders. Quezon’s utterances here, particularly the reference to a “written Bushido,” show his apprehension over the encroaching energies of Japan. And indeed, within four years, Laurel would be at the president’s desk, uttering similar thought with Japanese advisors at his shoulder. But Quezon apparently did not dare initiate his program of Philippine social Bushido. When he did nerve himself up to pursue an unpopular message, it took the form of criticism of what he saw as the irresponsible and fruitless carping of the opposition parties. And he backed down gracefully with himself in the limelight.

The first Filipino steps toward totalitarianism were not taken by Manuel Quezon. They were taken by Ferdinand Marcos, a full generation afterwards.


From declaring martial law to ruling by presidential decree went rather smoothly for Marcos. There was a splutter of protest at the beginning. But many misgivings gave way to relief, and, en masse, to passivity. “The President was able to paralyze Congress in 1972, and then pulverize it in 1973, and finally resurrect it in canonized form in 1976.” The Supreme Court, unable to stand alone against an assertive presidency, bowed before it until the assassination of Aquino, when it began to yield rights to demonstrators.

The resulting government was authoritarian by anybody’s definition– autocratic in its initiative, cronyistic in its preferments, and oppressive in its impact. Where did it come from? It came, inescapably, from Philippine history and character. It could also be said to borrow, in part, from Madison Avenue for its PR techniques, from Sukarno for its verbalism and glib Third Worldism, from Suharto for its reliance on the military and on police surveillance and censorship. But it surely did not come in inspiration or example from Manuel Quezon.

By the time the ruling theories of Ferdinand Marcos (or his staff writers’ redactions of them) had ripened, he was dismissive of pre-World War II democracy in the Philippines. He rejected the era and never mentioned Quezon by name. One who knew and adhered to the 1935 constitution and kept his distance from Marcos does not recall Marcos ever using Quezon’s theores or stances as arguments or precedents for himself. Marcos swept on by Quezon, the constitution, everything. He once described his intention to former Senators Pelaez, Padilla, and Sumulong, to “subvert” Philippine society. That he corrupted it instead should not obscure the fact that social justice was still at that time one of his objectives.

Quezon helped popularize the term “social justice” in Philippine political parlance, and welcomed its introduction in the Constitution of 1935. He was largely frustrated, however, in achieving significant steps toward it by oligarchic skepticism, a caretaker colonial adminitration, and lack of allies. He spoke more sympathetically of the Communist leaders, Cristanto Evangelist and Guillermo Capadocia, than he did of Filipino plutocrats and oppositionist lawyer-politicians. But they could not help him. And he had neither the power, nor in the end, the time to do much for the vast classes of the Filipino needy.

Marcos, in the martial law period, pictured himself almost as a frustrated Marxist. He said he wished to take governing beyond “a political game played by the economic and intellectual elite.” But he could not take it to the masses, because 70 percent of the population only knew consciousness of oppression and demonstrated loyalty to particular leaders. They would take up arms for or against a personalized enemy, but not against the system. Marcos concluded that “there cannot be any genuine class revolution in this country.”

There must, therefore, be a government-led revolution. Precisely what it would be for, and who would get what and who could give up what, were best left out of an ideology. But Marcos did declare that “Democracy is the formulation of a national consensus on basic guiding policies born of free and responsible discussion.” In that there is a tinny echo of Sukarno and his stress on musyawaralmufakat in Indonesia.

There is also a loud contradiction. What is meant by free and responsible discussion in circumstances that Marcos had already defined as “a rapacious oligarchy and an electorate, enfeebled by poverty, open to corruption”? Discussion under such conditions became leader-dominated. Deliberation (musyawara) is initiated and structured by the leader. Consensus (mufakat) is determined and announced by the leader. The process could conceivably, under a wise leader, produce fresh ideas, broad support, and social advances. But Marcos appears to have pursued his own instinct, and the promptings of his own cunning, to his own ends.

Marcos proudly stated that his constitution had advanced beyond that of 1935 regarding social justice: from it “should be the concern of the state” to the state “shall promote social justice.” The pride was no doubt real. But what were the accomplishments? His “ideology” was discredited as blatantly insincere, the palaver of a consummate tactician. The people felt police repressiveness of a brutality not seen since the Japanese Kempeitai, in the service of ordained ideas and regulated discussion not seen since the days of the Spanish, and for the first time combined in the Philippines with modern electronic modes of surveillance.


In explaining how the Philippines brought Ferdinand Marcos on itself, it is tempting to look for a previous “dictator” in Manuel Quezon, and to say that the groundwork was laid before. But that would be grossly misleading as to basic processes. Quezon’s theory of partyless democracy clearly shows that he would have liked to head toward a no-party state. To the credit of his common sense, however, he backed off. After weeks of the freest possible kind of public criticism he concluded that the time was not ripe. What Quezon had going during the Commonwealth, in fact, was a one-party system, with an abundance of ill-organized fiscalizers.” They stung and annoyed him. But he could not and would not jail or silence them. Meanwhile, they could and did restrain him in his moments of ambitious imagination.

What would have been the outcome had not there still been an American colonial presence as critic and counterweight to Quezon? Would he have overridden constitutional precepts or evaded his own wiser principles? Something different, no doubt, would have emerged, and less libertarian. But two points need to be firmly lodged in order to proceed to comparison with Marcos. First: the United States was there, as a guarantor of a due process state and of civil liberties. Second: along with his abundant flaws, Quezon did have scruples. He rejoiced in winning open political combat through eloquence, flair, agility, fervor. He would summon money for victory whenever he needed. But he was not a liar. And he was not a killer.

The system that Ferdinand Marcos introduced under martial law could be called a “one-party dominant” system, replacing the two-party system of 1945-72, and superficially resembling what took shape in Quezon’s prewar presidency, 1935-41. The potential of one-party dominance for stability against coups has been shown to be greater than two-party systems. The KBL could conceivably have worked better for the Philippines than the alternating currents and personalities of the Nationalists and Liberal parties.

But the key is to consider what is given up for stability. A quick answer for the Philippines, to be reassessed in the light of time and further research, is that martial law may have yielded the Philippines some developmental advantages through 1975 or 1976, after which the ex- change of liberty for order and welfare began to become a poor trade. By the early 1980s, not only had liberties been lost, but well-being too; and even order was beginning to unravel.

Marcos’ “ideology for Filipinos” in retrospect looks like sham, and a cover for corruption of power. Quezon’s “theory of partyless democracy,” however, appears at worst to have been a trial balloon. The political winds were against him, not to mention a good deal of buckshot. He drew back. In that simple sequence one may visualize functioning democracy in the late American period. It was a one-party-against-the-colonists system, with occasional splintered secondary parties. Quezon led it with panache and success. That success may be attributed not only to his own skill, but to America’s stabilizing presence, and its political utility to him as a benign adversary. The American presence also gave courage to his opponents and silently inhibited him from authoritarian experiments that he imagined in moments of frustration.

Marcos took the Philippines into a new world. It was not a bright one. To preserve his power, he invoked martial law, ruled by presidential fiat, and availed of a supine legislature through one prevailing party held together by patronage ties. He allowed or licensed favorites into what became unchecked debauchery of the economy. He diverted government funds to preferred individuals as well as making them concessionaires. The “compadre colonialism” of Quezon’s era was perhaps a sloppy cultural adjustment on both sides. But the “crony capitalism” of Marcos time became rampantly erosive of the finances and institutions of the Philippines.

Repairs of the damage of the Marcos era will take a long time. Most of the Aquino government apparently secks to proceed in a style combining open politics with NAMFREL free enterprise and a modern Catholic religious spirit. As it does so, it faces severe malnutrition, underemployment, debt, and insurgency all at once. Totalitarians in the cordillera and in the outer islands, Marcos loyalists in the streets and the Manila Hotel: together they make a difficult beginning for the new government. It proceeds with divided views but with hope and apparent integrity of spirit.

Americans, in mid-1988, still tend to be jubilant at the renewal of what they conceive of as the best of the heritage that they offered to the Philippines. And Filipinos of many kinds–business, professional, ecclesiastics, educators, ordinary middle class, humble working class– rejoice in their own courageous overthrow of Marcos’ armed autocracy. At the very same time, however, their Southeast Asian neighbors ask the Filipinos, “Why can’t you make authoritarianism work?”

The question is chilling, but ignores the unique variety of alternatives latent in Philippine history. They include, without beginning to exhaust possibilities: militaristic dictatorship, whether Aguinaldo-clumsy or Marcos-adroit; romantic and authoritarian constitutionalism, whether derived from European traditions (Mabini) or Asian ones (Laurel); and guided democracy, Philippine style, whether finely tempered by American sense of due process, as in Quezon’s years, or in some new indigenous form that Corazon Aquino and her counselors might evolve. Out of a full stock of possibilities, it is only clear that they must evolve something credible, distinct, and effective.

*Note: This is factually incorrect; Quezon was reelected in 1941. Marcos was the first to be elected to a full second term, in contrast to Quezon’s, which was a partial second term .

Theodore Friend
Author: Theodore Friend

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