Like the typical American, I knew little of the ruling Filipino pair except some breathless news items years ago about Imelda’s scandalous shoe collection, and fragments about the couple’s downfall. When I saw this book for sale for less than two dollars, I wondered whether I wanted to take my historical knowledge in this direction. Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about the Philippines, carrying with me some childhood impressions of English-speaking Filipinos in Thailand and recent understanding that the Spanish had somehow been tied up with the country. But a sincere Amazon review said that the writer was very good, so I decided I could risk two dollars on this.
Sterling Seagrave is an outstanding story teller. However, be prepared, because he a curmudgeon extraordinaire. Reading his work is like sitting across the table from a wry, cynical man who nonetheless is intent on delivering his eloquent narrative. The story pours forth from him, and no player in it comes out looking good. Seagrave is brutal, not just on the Marcos couple, as the title suggests, but on the Americans, the workings of American and Filipino political systems, and on MacArthur. If Seagrave is right, MacArthur might just be the most avaricious, ambitious actor in the whole story.
I am not quite a third of the way through what turns out to be a thick volume, but I have already encountered a great deal of history that I never knew. I’m taking the author’s perspective with some skepticism–not only because he’s harsh toward Americans while fair-minded, even sympathetic, toward the Japanese–but also because he does not reject conspiratorial-flavored stories to explain events. Since he doesn’t provide documentation, I don’t know what his sources are. On the other hand, he is so fluent in layers of historical detail, and such an able communicator, that I gamely go with him in his exploration.
He is possibly too detailed in his approach to the era, so we take some historical side trips into events such as Japanese treasure-hoarding, another phenomenon that was new to me. However, I can’t say that any of this is dull. The side details are what I come for in these historical works–there are always startling bits of background information that recreate my understanding of history. This volume does not disappoint in that respect. I have to admit that before I read this, I had no idea that the US wrested the Philippines from Spain and then managed the islands in a manner not unlike a colonial possession.
If Seagrave is right, the US didn’t help much with the level of corruption from the ruling class–in fact, US political dealing complicated matters that were already negative. There was a landed, privileged class indirectly left over from Spanish rule (it’s complicated, and included Chinese clans) and underhanded ways of getting things done, with leading families who got by on their connections. There were also criminal bosses who liked to run affairs their way. After World War II, money and power continued to drive politics. War time plunder did nothing to help this dynamic, and individuals could win for themselves ridiculous accumulations of wealth. All along, according to Seagrave, the US pursued a dishonest and self-seeking political agenda. And far from the brave hero we learned about in our history books, Douglas MacArthur ambitiously sought wealth and position to the detriment of the country, while maintaining excellent PR staff.
It was from this milieu that Ferdinand and Imelda emerged. The author follows the couple as they were shaped by historical events, Ferdinand involving himself in a number of dubious endeavors in World War II that he later characterized as unlikely heroic feats. Already, only partway into the book, the identity of this couple and their trajectory of wealth accumulation, self-glorification, corruption, and ruin is becoming clear.
I recently talked to an acquaintance who settled here from the Philippines, thinking that her outlook would be along the lines of this book. Did our country take political advantage of hers? Was MacArthur a scoundrel? Was the Philippines best left independent after the Spanish? But no–she said that she had grown up with a positive view of the United States. MacArthur was a hero. The US was a place they could dream of moving to for a better life. Our country was a friend. Perhaps we are, in the long view. But when studied under a magnifying glass, history is always messier than what we first learned.