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The strangest dictator, 1942

The strangest dictator
by Fritz Marquardt

Taken from his book, Before Bataan and After (1942)

FOR Manuel Luis Quezon y Molina, small, explosive, tubercular President of the Philippines, life came full cycle during the Battle of Bataan. From the rocky eminences of Corregidor, when there were no air raids or artillery bombardments going on, he could look out onto the blood-drenched peninsula where he himself had been a sick, battle-weary soldier fighting against impossible odds. That had been forty years earlier, and he had finally surrendered to an American soldier named Roy Squires and Bingham. But the fight never went out of Quezon, in 1901 or in 1942. After the first defeat he rose to be the undisputed leader of his people in their struggle for independence, and after the second defeat to see his country given all the honors and prerogatives of an independent nation.

When his doctors finally told him that his health could not bear up much longer under the strain of living in the foul air of Corregidor’s tunnels, he went down to Cebu and finally slipped through the Japs’ hands and reached Mindanao, after a fearsome night ride in one of Lieutenant John Bulkeley’s P-T boats. From Mindanao he flew to Australia, and then went on to the United States to establish something utterly new under the sun, an American-sponsored government in exile.

The war robbed Quezon of his home and made him a president without a country, but it gave him the one thing he had fought for all his life—recognition of the Philippines as an independent nation. All possible military honors were bestowed upon him when he landed in San Francisco, and a special train carried him across the country.

In Washington he was the object of reception that must have thrilled him to the core, for down at the station to meet him were President Roosevelt and every former Governor General and High Commissioner available, including Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Major General Dwight F. Davis, Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy, Manpower Administrator Paul V. McNutt, and High Commissioner Francis B. Sayre. It was a splendid tribute to Don Manuel, and an even finer one to the Filipinos who had fought so well on Bataan.

Perhaps an even greater day for Quezon and the Filipinos occurred a few weeks later, for the independence of the Philippines as a political entity was virtually recognized when Quezon signed the United Nations agreement and became a member of the Pacific War Council.

Terrible as the war had been, it had given him one pledge which he could never have secured without it. As Manila was about to die, President Roosevelt broadcast a speech to the Philippines in which he said, “I give to the freedom will be redeemed and their independence established and protected. The entire resources in men and materials of the United States stand behind that pledge.” Other presidents had promised that the Philippines would eventually be given their independence, but never before had a responsible American official gone so far as to promise that independence would be “protected.” This pledge was the capstone of a life which Quezon had dedicated to fighting for Philippine independence—and to having a swell time.

Before the war Quezon never had a good press in the United States. Most American reporters looked at his loud neckties and colored shirts, counted up the size of the retinue with which he invariably traveled, heard him issue some peremptory orders to his attendant, and concluded he was a petty dictator on the Latin American plan. John Gunther helped build up the dictatorship tradition by a magazine article for which Quezon was determined to sue for libel, until Roy Howard pointed out how futile that would be.

I watched Quezon at work for thirteen years, and if he was a dictator, then certainly he was the world’s strangest.

In the Philippine elections held a month before Pearl Harbor, Quezon was re-elected President of the Philippines without having delivered a single campaign speech in his own behalf. Four out of every five votes were cast for him, and the elections were honestly run. Ballot-box stuffing was something beneath his dignity—and something which he never had any need to resort to, which can’t be said for most dictators.

The press of the Philippines was at least ninety-five percent pro-Quezon in the years before the Japanese invasion. And it was all a voluntary support of the President. There was no censorship, direct or indirect, and I can testify that far less pressure on the press was brought by “the interests” than is the case in the United States. The editor of a Philippine newspaper could say what he liked, subject only to the customary laws of libel.

Even when the biggest Manila broadcasting company was supported by the government Quezon’s political foes were given free time to air their views. For Quezon was one dictator who wanted an enlightened public opinion. He had no false modesty about his ability. He was so sure of himself that he used to think he would get all the votes, instead of a mere eighty percent, if the electorate had all the facts.

There was complete freedom of speech in the Philippines. Quezon’s critics attacked his personal honesty, his private morals and his government record with absolute impunity. There was no Gestapo in his government, and “protective custody” was unheard of. Arrests were made by the police or Constabulary, and trials were held in the regular courts. The Philippine Supreme Court always had the power to declare any of Quezon’s pet laws unconstitutional.

Why, then, did most Americans consider him a dictator? If there were honest elections, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary, how could it reasonably be charged that the Commonwealth government was dictatorship?

The answer is to be found in the complex character of Manuel Quezon, a political genius who knew what sort of government would work best in his own country, a practical politician who never allowed visionary theories to interfere with the immediate task of ruling sixteen million people in one of the world’s most critical danger spots. No matter how much he believed in democratic principles, he would never allow them to tie hands in dealing with a specific problem.

Like almost everything else about the man, Quezon’s belief in the necessity of a strongly centralized government was not consistent. When Leonard Wood was governor general of the Philippines, and attempted to concentrate power in the hands of the executive, Quezon fought him bitterly all the way down the line on the theory that the legislative leaders—including Quezon—should be supreme over the executive. However, when Quezon became the chief executive, it didn’t take him long to reduce the legislative branch to a completely subordinate position. “I shall not be so remiss in my duties to the nation,” he said at a press conference, “as to admit that a Filipino President is as unworthy of great power as an American Governor General was.”

In 1922 Quezon fought his great and good friend Sergio Osmeña on the sole issue of whether the Nationalist Party would have “unipersonalista,” or single leadership. Quezon insisted that it shouldn’t, and won the fight. But he later assumed the single leadership of the party himself, apparently without the slightest idea that he was being inconsistent. Or possibly he had read Emerson, and agreed that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Quezon bossed the Filipinos with an iron hand. After his election as President he brought all the important politicians into his own party, offering them good jobs if they joined up with him, threatening them with a political Siberia if they refused. So powerful was his party in the last elections that it elected all of the Senators and ninety percent of the Representatives to the new Congress, the one which never had a chance to meet because its inaugural was scheduled for the day before Manila fell.

Yet it is doubtful if this unusual dictator followed the one-party line of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin merely for self-aggrandizement. Even in the days when there were two political parties of relatively equal strength in the Philippines, Quezon was always the Head Man. He gloried in a political fight, and liked nothing better than to tackle a tough opponent. And the creation of one dominating party made all of the prominent politicians, instead of just a majority of them, eligible for the limited patronage available.

No, I think Quezon built a monolithic party structure in the Philippines because he felt that the ten-year transition period leading to independence was no time for party rivalry. He figured—and quite rightly—that the Philippines needed all its able men in office, not half in and half out as there would have been with two parties of nearly equal strength. Quezon himself held no brief for the one-party system, he had set up, apparently considering it a temporary expedient. Once, in fact, he expressed an offhand opinion that there should be a “no party” system, in which candidates would be elected to office on their merits, not on the strength of their political affiliations or the size of their party’s campaign fund.

One of the things for which Quezon was the most bitterly criticized was the national defense plan, including the hiring of General MacArthur as his military adviser, and the inauguration in the peaceful days of 1936 of compulsory military training. Almost immediately charges of “dictator” were hurled at his head. I recall a press conference at his Pasay home, shortly before the Commonwealth was established, to which a group of visiting American newspapermen were invited. Over and over the “visiting firemen” wanted to know why Quezon needed an army, and what purpose he had in mind in instituting compulsory training. Was he interested in defending the Philippines from external aggression, or did he plan to use this great military force to put down domestic uprisings? A little later, in New York, Quezon was subjected to the same line of questioning when he was the guest of honor at a Civil Liberties banquet presided over by Oswald Garrison Villard. For years pacifists called him a warmonger, and liberals insisted he was building an army to keep himself in power after the United States forces left the Philippines. But the fact remains that there was a reservoir of one hundred fifty thousand trained men in the Philippines when war came. And no one was happier to have them there than the very elements which had criticized Quezon so vigorously a few years earlier.

Charges of dictatorship were heard again after the fall of France, when Quezon secured sweeping emergency powers from the National Assembly, including the right to take over industries and to move entire populations from one province to another. He never used the powers, as it turned out, but the fact that he had them strengthened his hand in dealing with problems of defense as they arose.

In fact, a good case can be made out against Quezon because he didn’t act more like a dictator in the months before the war started. For a long time he couldn’t bring himself to believe that Japan would dare attack the United States—a lot of other people made the same mistake—and when he finally came to the conclusion that war was certain he delivered a speech which sounded almost hysterical. Bombs might soon be falling in Manila, he shouted, and no one was prepared because the High Commissioner hadn’t allowed preparations to be made.

This was a great change in tune from the press conference which I attended in the late summer of 1940, during which Quezon had laughed off the possibility of any bombs falling on Manila. We had asked him what preparations were being made against the possibility of air attacks, pointing out that Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Batavia and every important city in the Far East, with the exception of Manila, had been practicing blackouts and getting ready for the worst.

Laughing heartily, Quezon said he had no fear of war in the Pacific, and that anyway the Filipinos liked picnics. If Manila should be bombed the people could all go out in the country for a fiesta, or they could spend their time at the favorite picnic ground of Montalban, where there were some famous caves.

There was, undoubtedly, some friction between President Quezon and High Commissioner Sayre regarding the organization of civilian defense. Quezon apparently pointed out that, under the Tydings-McDuffie Law, the United States was responsible for the defense of the Philippines. That, obviously, included civilian defense. Sayre probably answered that the Tydings-McDuffie Act contemplated only military defense. He also had the eminently sound argument on his side that his overburdened office, with a staff of twenty men, was not physically able to organize civilian defense. If anyone was going to do it, the Commonwealth government would have to.

One thing is fairly certain. If Quezon had plunged in with a large-scale civilian defense plan fourteen or fifteen months before the war began, on the strength of his emergency powers, there would have been a cry of “Dictator!” which would have resounded through every newspaper in the United States.

When Quezon had the Constitution amended so he could be re-elected President—the original provision was for a single, six-year term—critics in the Philippines and the United States called him a “tyrant” and cynics at the University of the Philippines formed a “Quezon-for-King” club. But when January 1, 1942, rolled around and Quezon grimly took his oath of office in a Corregidor tunnel, everyone was glad that a new President was not being inducted into office.

Temperamental, mercurial, unpredictable, Quezon never bore a grudge long. I have seen him give a subordinate a tongue-lashing which would make a Chinese coolie cringe, and then throw his arm over the poor devil’s shoulders and call him “Amigo.” Some of the men who attacked him most viciously in the past were holding down responsible government positions before the Japanese came in, including a particularly irresponsible newspaper editor who had repeatedly cast reflections upon Quezon’s private life.

One reason for Quezon’s unparalleled hold on the people was his constant support of the underdog. He established minimum wages for government laborers, put an eight-hour working day into effect, soaked the rich with higher taxes. Once his advisers recommended that he veto, on the grounds of economy, a law giving public-school teachers full pay while on maternity leave. I’ll sign that bill if it bankrupts the treasury,” said Quezon, reaching for a pen.

One of his most celebrated battles for an “underprivileged” was set off by an innocent question which I asked him at a press conference. It involved a laborer whose name was Cuevas and big contractor named Barredo. The contractor was working on a bridge across the Pasig River, and one of his crews was unloading logs. The river was swollen as a result of the heavy rains, and one of the logs got away from the men and started down the river. A foreman on the job saw the log going and yelled at the laborer Cuevas, “Get that log or you’ll have to pay for it.” Cuevas, whose pay probably was seventy-five cents (American money) a day, plunged in after the log but was drowned in his unsuccessful attempt. When Cuevas’ family claimed workingman’s compensation the contractor Barredo refused to pay, on the ground that the laborer had taken a foolish risk and the employer was not to blame.

Through some stupid miscarriage of justice, a judge in the court of first instance upheld the contractor and ruled that Cuevas’ dependents were not entitled to collect. We ran a blistering editorial on the case in the Philippines Free Press, and demanded that the decision be appealed—which was permissible under Philippine law. As a matter of fact, the Attorney General’s office was as incensed over the case as the Free Press, and had already determined to push it through to the Supreme Court if need be.

In the course of a regular press interview at Malacañan I asked Quezon if he had read the judge’s decision in the Cuevas-Barredo case? Thereupon the peppery President literally exploded. “That’s seventeenth-century justice,” he yelled. “I was dumfounded to think that any judge in this day and age could hand down such a decision.” And he went on at that pace for fifteen minutes.

A little later, after the conference was over and one of his staff members pointed out that the case was pending final decision, Quezon issued a statement saying he hadn’t realized the matter was sub judice but expressing his confidence that the members of the Supreme Court would not allow his remarks to influence their decision. Needless to say, they decided in favor of Cuevas’ heirs. The judge who had made the original decision retired from the bench for good, and Barredo went out of the contracting business.

“The Quezon dictatorship,” explained the razor-minded Manila publisher Carlos P. Romulo, “is like the Roosevelt dictatorship. You call it the New Deal. We call it Social Justice.”

But Quezon knew how to crack down on labor, as well as how to help it secure its rights. Any strike called before the workers had resorted to government machinery for mediation got scant consideration. When employees of the government-owned Manila Hotel went on strike on Quezon ordered them locked out. “There will be no strike against this government,” he said.

Quezon’s relations with the Catholic Church have been as inconstant as most of the rest of his life. When his father brought him over the mountains from Baler to obtain an education in Manila he worked as a houseboy for a priest at San Juan de Letran College, in order to get food and lodging. Later, when his father’s small amount of money had given out, the Dominican fathers made it possible for him to study law at Santo Tomas University.

But as young man Quezon fell away from the church and became a Mason, thus joining an organization which archenemy in the Philippines.

In 1918, when he married his first cousin, Aurora Aragon, in Hong Kong, the ceremony was a civil one, performed at the American Legation. But three days later the vows were repeated before the Archbishop of Hong Kong.

Quezon continued his active interest in Masonry until 1928, when tuberculosis forced him to spend several months in bed at the Monrovia Sanitorium in California. “I felt that I was going to die—just like an animal, without any spiritual consolation or hope,” he recalled later. For several years after leaving Monrovia he studied Catholicism, largely at his wife’s behest, and finally on one of the Empress liners sailing from Vancouver to Manila he attended a special mass said by Archbishop Michael J. O’Doherty of Manila, thus signalizing his return to his childhood faith.

He told us the story once, when he was in an expansive mood, how he had come to return to the Catholic fold. “When my wife and children kept asking me why I was not a churchgoer, I decided I had better do something about it,” he said. “So I asked Father Vilallonga, an old Spanish Jesuit friend of mine, if he would care to give me some religious instruction in the hopes that I would be reconverted.

“The father was glad to help, and after a long talk he left some books with me to read. One of these books, describing the church in the Philippines during Spanish times, told of image which disappeared from its church in Manila and was found some time later in a chapel in Cavite. Since the skirts of the saint were covered with dust, the church authorities concluded that the image had walked from Manila to Cavite.

“Well, that was too much for me. ‘For goodness’ sake,’ I said to myself, ‘how can they expect anyone to believe that the wooden image of saint could walk from Manila to Cavite?’ So I just gave up the whole idea.

“But a little while later I was talking to Archbishop O’Doherty and he asked me why I didn’t return to the church in which I had worshiped as a small boy. I told him I would be glad to get religious instruction, but I didn’t want any more of that stuff about wooden images walking thirty miles over a dusty road. The Archbishop laughed and said he didn’t believe that story himself. So I began to study with him, finally I decided to re-enter the church.”

Quezon’s return to Catholicism apparently was entirely a matter of conscience. Not even the most anti-Catholic person in the Philippines ever accused him of favoring the church. Quite to the contrary, when the Commonwealth Legislature passed a bill which would allow Catholic priests and lay teachers to give religious instruction in the public schools during regular schools hours, President Quezon promptly vetoed the bill on the ground that he believed firmly in the separation of church and state. Once, during the civil War in Spain from 1936 to 1938, Quezon was the guest of honor at a banquet given by his old friends, the Dominican fathers at the University of Santo Tomas. When he entered the hall a band struck up Franco’s National Anthem. When it came his turn to speak Quezon rebuked the Dominicans scathingly, telling them that they could take sides in the Spanish war if they wanted to, but that they could not use him even covertly to secure public sympathy for Franco.

One reason why so many people have called Quezon a dictator is because he invariably surrounds himself with a big retinue. Even on Corregidor, where he was instructed to take as few people along as possible, he had his usual complement of doctors, servants and aides. He always had a large number of advisers, but he frequently ignored their advice. He felt himself competent to decide any question personally. In legal problems, national policies, educational matters, public works—all the ramifications of government—he was the final arbiter. Even in the fields of art and architecture, which he had never seriously studied, he did not hesitate to set aside the recommendation of experts. Once he noticed that it was a long walk from one entrance of Manila’s city hall to the other entrance, and ordered that a new door be opened in the building, regardless of what it did to the architecture. He must have forgotten his order the next day, because the door was never cut. Against the recommendation of every city planner whom Quezon imported from the United States—and he had some of the best—the new government center was moved from Manila to nearby Quezon city.

Before the war tension rose to fever heat, plans were being laid to hold a great international exposition in the Philippines in November 1941, to coincide with the completion of Quezon’s first term in office. The committee appointed to make the arrangements wanted the exposition held in Manila, where it would be close to the great population centers. Quezon wanted it held in barren Quezon city, then rising out of the rice paddies ten miles northeast of Manila. Finally the committee chairman wrote a long report, listing all the reasons why the exposition should be held in Manila, and took it himself to Malacañang Palace. President Quezon received the report and read it through very carefully.

“That’s a fine report,” the President said to the chairman. “I’ll be honest with you. I can’t answer a single one of the arguments you have advanced for holding the exposition in Manila.” He thought for a moment, and his nose began to quiver as it does when he gets angry.

“No,” Quezon repeated, “I can’t answer your arguments. But there is one thing I can do. I can appoint a new committee to take charge of the exposition.” This is exactly what he did. As things turned out, the fair was never held. But if it had been, you may be sure it would have been held at Quezon City.

To all great men, sooner or later, comes the desire to see their names projected down the corridors of time. Just as Russia named towns, cities, dams, buildings and highways after Josef Stalin, so did the Philippines acquire a Quezon City, a Quezon Bridge, a Quezon Boulevard, a Quezon Avenue, a Quezon Sanitarium and a Quezon Preventorium. The object of this last-named institution was to prevent tuberculosis from developing among the children of tubercular parents. There was even a Quezon Society, dedicated to the collecting of biographical material, data and information about its namesake. Mrs. Quezon came in for her share of unsought but welcome glory, by allowing a dozen towns in different provinces to be named Aurora.

President Quezon was the sort of official who didn’t know one minute what he would be doing the next. His plans were always subject to change, and whoever was in charge of a Quezon itinerary needed infinite patience. I once collected a day-by-day series of headlines for two weeks before his departure from Manila on one of his numerous trips to the United States. It ran something like this:

Quezon Will Take President Taft Monday
President Cancels Passage
Quezon Definitely Going Wednesday on Empress Boat
Malacañang Announces Trip Off
President Sailing Saturday on Hoover
Quezon Sailing Postponed
Big Crowd To See Quezon Party Off Tuesday

And so it went, until finally, much to everyone’s amazement and relief, he got away.

On his provincial trips he used to keep thousands of his admirers waiting hours to see him visit an isolated town, and then change his itinerary at the last minute. On occasion, when he reversed his route, towns had to switch the “Welcome, Quezon” and “Good-by, Mr. President” signs, to be sure the right one would greet him when he entered the town.

Once the National Assembly passed a daylight-saving law and Quezon signed it. Not long after the law went into effect, he arose at 5:30 in the morning while it was still dark. After stumbling downstairs, because he couldn’t find the light switch, he ordered the restoration of standard time!

Judged by Wall Street standards, or compared with Oriental princes, Quezon was never rich. For a long time there were rumors that he had salted away a fortune in pounds sterling in the Bank of England. If he did, he probably regretted it when the pound skidded in value, and the government placed restrictions on the withdrawal of money. The bulk of his fortune was in land, with an assessed valuation in the neighborhood of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. But Quezon never needed millions. He lived in a palace more elaborate than the White House, and had a summer mansion in Baguio. He had a yacht and a fleet of high-powered limousines at his command. Across the Pasig River from Malacañan he had a “pleasure dome decreed,” a fairyland of beautiful gardens and sumptuous guest houses and elaborate pavilions.

But for all his imperious and regal habits Quezon was always essentially human, with a charm of manner that instantly won friends. Years ago, when he lived in Washington as Resident Commissioner, his fellow Congressmen insisted that he was an Irishman, because of his wit and his love of a fight, and they called him Casey, which they said was the proper translation of the Tagalog word “Quezon.”

I believe that it was at his first press conference after assuming the presidency that Quezon told us, “I’m going to have a human government here. We may make mistakes, but our hearts will be in the right place.”

One of his ways of being human was to go to Bilibid prison and walk down a line of prisoners asking them what they were in for.

“How long do you still have to serve?” he once asked a cochero, or rig driver, he found in the line-up.

“A month,” answered the cochero.

“What for?” asked Quezon.

Somewhat sheepishly the rig driver answered, “Well, sir, I had to answer the call of nature and I didn’t dare go back in the bushes because my horse would run away. So I relieved myself in public.”

“Get that man out of here,” Quezon roared. “Turn him free. What kind of government are we running here anyway? That man should never have been arrested, let alone sentenced to jail.”

The apologetic prison warden mumbled something about releasing the prisoner just as soon as the pardon papers were signed and delivered to him.

“Never mind about the pardon papers. I’ll sign them tomorrow. But you get that fellow out of here right now. I never heard of such a thing.”

The cochero was immediately turned loose, and the legal niceties were attended to later.

Mrs. Quezon also had a way of deciding moot questions of law without any nonsense.

When the eight-hour law went into effect a delegation of private nurses visited her and said they would prefer to work the same twelve-hour shifts they had been working, since a sick person would obviously not want to pay any more for three nurses working eight hours a day than he was already paying for two nurses working twelve hours a day. And the nurses didn’t want to take a cut in pay.

“All right,” said Mr. Quezon. “You go ahead working as you have been, and don’t say anything about it. It will be all right.”

Quezon’s people loved him for his impulsive humanity. It used to be seriously argued that half of the people in Manila would walk out to the end of Pier 7 and jump into the bay, if Quezon told them to.

That is why Quezon was, and continues to be, of such vital importance to the United States and to the United Nations. Not only does he keep the spirit of opposition to Japan alive in the Philippines, but his voice carries weight among all the enslaved peoples of Asia.

Before the war started he said, “We owe loyalty to America and we are bound to her, placing at her disposal all our man power and material resources to help her in achieving victory, for the cause for which America fights is our cause.”

Why should a dictator call America’s cause his cause, and throw his country’s weight into the struggle on the side of democracy? Simply because Manuel Quezon was not a dictator by choice. That was proved by his refusal to tamper with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary and other basic rights guaranteed by a democratic constitution. No one doubts that he ruled the Philippines with an iron hand. But that was necessity. The Filipinos had had less than fifty years of firsthand experience with democratic institutions, as against centuries of acquaintance with despotism.

Yet even then it was only by Anglo-Saxon standards that Philippine democracy could be weighed and found wanting. To hundreds of millions of politically disenfranchised Asiatics, the Philippines was an oasis of freedom in a desert of oppression. Nowhere in the Far East did the beacon light of political liberty glow so brightly as in the Philippines. Quezon was a symbol of democracy at work.

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3 Comments

  1. […] The Strangest Dictator, and Quezon and the Church, by Fritz Marquardt. […]

  2. rollchan says:

    haaa… I’m tired of Presidents… their stories and anything… What we need is an Executive council, just like in Switzerland. But… would it be possible here?

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