Ferdinand Marcos visits the White House, 16 September 1982
On the morning of September 16, 1982, on the South Lawn of the White House, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan welcomed Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to the United States capital. Ferdinand Marcos, along with his wife Imelda, had presided over the Philippines since 1965. Though democratically elected in 1965 and 1969, Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and changed the constitution in 1973, which allowed him to continue in power until the People Power mobilizations of 1986. This particular state welcome to the Philippine leader operated as a show of support to the beleaguered President of the Philippines. Filipino opposition media outlets and political leaders increasingly opposed the Marcoses in public. Rumors of Marcos’s ill-health had triggered succession controversies, and the regime had been repeatedly challenged in the international sphere for corruption and human rights abuses. As the national anthems for the United States and the Philippines played in the background, Ferdinand Marcos – attired in a Philippine barong – made small talk with the U.S. President on stage, suggesting an air of camaraderie between the two state leaders. Indeed, Marcos and Reagan were friendly on a personal level. However, this friendly banter also functioned to publicly reinforce the closeness of the two nations. The State Department had placed a high priority on establishing a strong personal rapport with the Philippine leader during this visit. A public display of intimacy between Reagan and Marcos would appease an important ally and help uphold foreign policy aims of stability in the region.
By the time of this state visit, Marcos’s authoritarian hold on the Philippines was somewhat weakening. For Marcos, a state visit and a warm welcome by the President of the United States would do much to help him maintain a position of strength against the rising political opposition in the Philippines. It was also not lost on Marcos that many of his political opponents, chief among them Benigno Aquino, Jr., were, at the time, located in the United States and openly critical of his regime. To counter these challenges, Marcos had attempted to bolster his own image in American public opinion through public relations moves such as an attempted endowed chair at Tufts University (Marcos eventually withdrew much of his pledge amidst protests and the refusal of many experts to fill the endowed position). He also sought out ways to suppress international criticism, having recently negotiated an extradition treaty with the United States to potentially have U.S.-based Marcos opponents sent back to the Philippines.
For the United States government, the decision to support Marcos in the Philippines was largely explained in terms of regional security. Marcos was “America’s Boy” in the eyes of successive U.S. administrations. He was seen as both supporting U.S. infrastructure investment in the archipelago and defending against the spread of Communism in the region. Though very much aware of Marcos’s undemocratic practices in the Philippines, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter — and now Reagan — either openly or subtly supported the continuance of Marcos’s hold on power. In agreeing to host the Marcoses in an official capacity, the Reagan government understood this event as an opportunity to support its ally in Southeast Asia.
The frequent condemnations of the Marcos regime demanded an equally strong response, one that in its imagery and its content would leave no doubt of the U.S.-Philippine relationship. As such, Reagan crafted his speech to defend Marcos from the opposition attacks against him. Following the recommendations of the State Department, Reagan made sure to reference Marcos’s wartime heroism. The State Department recommendations were a reaction to the fact that Marcos had recently been publicly embarrassed by the revelation that his wartime exploits had been greatly exaggerated. They understood the importance of this vote of confidence for Marcos. Given that Marcos cronies controlled all of the major television and press outlets in the Philippines, the visit would certainly be aired on Philippine airwaves and covered in Philippine newsprint. The image of Ferdinand and Imelda rubbing elbows with the Reagans would undoubtedly signal to both opponents and supporters that the Marcoses were still firmly in power in the archipelago.
As groups like Amnesty International circulated information about abuses in the Philippines, Reagan also addressed human rights in his attempt to defend Marcos. In his welcome, Reagan highlighted the humanitarian work undertaken by the Philippine government through the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC), which helped refugees – many as a result of the Vietnam War and its aftermath – prepare for permanent resettlement. Reagan continued to highlight Marcos’s achievements in uplifting the Philippines, lauding Marcos’s role in development. Each of the “achievements” referred to the supposed fruits of collaborations between the Philippines and either the U.S. or the World Bank, further underscoring the importance of the U.S.-Philippine relationship.
With his public comments, Marcos vocalized an unequivocal devotion to the government that was the key supporter of his rule in the Philippines. Ultimately, this welcome was one of the strongest public demonstrations of United States support for the Marcos regime in the Philippines, coming at a time when that very regime was losing its hold on power. Similar to the public statements of his political opponents – in interviews, films, and in speeches – Marcos sought a public venue to visually affirm the closeness between his government and that of the United States. As a political performance of alliance, it was significant both for the bond between states that it demonstrated as well as the carefully crafted language utilized by both leaders.
Amnesty International. “Report of an Amnesty International Mission to the Republic of the Philippines, 11-28 November 1981.” London, 1982.
Bello, Walden, and Severina Rivera, eds. The Logistics of Repression and Other Essays. Washington D.C.: Friends of the Filipino People, 1977.
Bonner, Raymond. Waltzing with a Dictator. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Espiritu, Taliatha. Passionate Revolutions: The Media and the Rise and Fall of the Marcos Regime. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2017.
Hamilton-Paterson, James. America’s Boy: A Century of United States Colonialism in the Philippines. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1999.
Thompson, Mark R. The Anti-Marcos Struggle: Personalistic Rule and Democratic Transition in the Philippines. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.