The second congressional election of the four-year Philippine Republic was held on November 8, 1949. Ramon Magsaysay was the incumbent congressman, not the upstart challenger, being challenged by five other candidates. As such he had decided advantages. He had given innumerable favors and some jobs to his followers and constituents. His public works record wa struly impressive. His one-time strongest political opponent, Cesar Miraflor, was now behind him, thus augmenting support from the northern towns. His local personal popularity was at its peak, partly because of his success in obtaining the Rogers Hospitalization Act and his award as one of the ten best congressmen in his first term.
Moreover, his innate insecurity would not allow him to take his advantages for granted. By conducting a re-election campaign as intensive as the first one, he demonstrated anew his vigor and earnestness as a leader.
When the counting of ballots was over, Ramon Magsaysay got 17,473 votes, which was 58 percent of the 30,105 valid votes cast, or 16 percent more than the combined votes of his five opponents. Magsaysay won in all the towns except one, Subic-Olongapo, the bailiwick of Enrique Corpuz, former TRY-TRAN lawyer, who earned 1,400 votes.
Nacionalista Party candidate Enrique Corpuz finished second with 9,997 total votes, former Board Member Jose Arbizo garnered 2,144 votes, followed by ex-governor Francisco Anonas who only got 379 votes.Two other candidates were declared plain nuisance candidates.
Immediately after the counting of ballots in Zambales, Enrique Corpuz filed a formal protest against Magsaysay’s victory at the polls. He alleged “fraud, terrorism, coercion, intimidation, threats, violence, corrupt and vile practces”were allegedly employed by Magsaysay with the aid of the Philippine Constabulary soldiers, civilian guards and municipal mayors in all the municipalities.
Corpuz said he was also denied the right to hold meetings in public plazas, supposedly because Magsaysay campaigners had already reserved their use earlier. Magsaysay denied the allegations and dismissed them as “face-saving allegations to hide a shameful defeat.”
The most telling evidence of Magsaysay’s political strength was that all the eight (Quirino-Liberal) senatorial candidates whom he supported won in Zambales. The group included: Quintin Paredes (Abra), Esteban Abada (Negros Occidental), Tomas Cabili (Lanao), Lorenzo Sumulong (Rizal), Enrique Magalona (Negros Occidental), Macario Peralta (Tarlac), Justiniano Montano (Cavite) and Teodoro de Vera (Camarines Sur).
President Elpidio Quirino and his vice-presidential candidate, Iloilo sugar planter Fernando Lopez, also won in Zambales with a substantial lead over their respective rivals – wartime President Jose P. Laurel and former Supreme Court Justice Manuel Briones. The other losers were suspended Senator Jose Avelino and Senator Vicente Francisco of the Avelino-Liberal Wing.
Despite the victory of President Elpidio Quirino at the polls, however, the 1949 elections turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the Liberals. It marked the begining of their end. The off-year senatorial election in 1951 would give them a foretaste of their virtual extinction in 1953.
Despite his earlier proclamation as poll winnner, Enrique Corpuz’ protests against Magsaysay were heard sometime in March1950. By this time, Magsaysay was already being considered for the post of Secretary of National Defense, as replacement of the incumbent Secretary Ruperto Kangleon of Leyte. In fact, President Elpidio Quirino had actually offered him the defense post at the start of his second term as congressman of Zambales after he was retained as the Chairman of the House National Defense Committee. Still, the President had reservations about the gentleman’s capability. He shared this with certain leaders of the Liberal Party.
Towards the middle of 1950, however, rumors spread that President Quirino was also eyeing his provincemate, Congressman Floro Crisologo of Ilocos Sur, as replacement of Secretary Kangleon.
Alarmed, Magsaysay went to see Speaker Eugenio Perez and asked him bluntly: “Is it true that the President is changing his mind about my appointment?” Speaker Perez went straight to Malacañang to set the truth straight. He pressed Quirino for an answer: “Mr. President, if you don’t appoint Magsaysay, I’m just sorry. All congressmen will boycott your appropriations. We will not approve what you recommend. If you don’t appoint him, don’t blame us if your recomendee for National Defense will flop.”
By this time, Quirino was already touched by Magsaysay’s earnestness and sincerity in asking for a chance to solve the grave peace and order situation in the country. He then gave the congressman one week to prepare a plan of action.
Magsaysay’s submitted plan, however, did not particularly impress Quirino who read it cursorily and then sent it to JUSMAG. The agency chief reported that the plan was good and workable. Quirino re-read it and was, indeed, impressed by it.
More Huk raids
On August 26 and 27, 1950, in a morbid celebration of the “Cry of Balintawak,” the Huks raided selected points over a wide area in Luzon. The rebels held the capitals of Tarlac and Laguna for several hours. They also attacked Arayat (Pampanga); Santo Domingo (Nueva Ecija); Pila (Laguna); Casiguran (Quezon); Santiago (Isabela); and Tayug (Pangasinan). In Tarlac, the Huks set the Camp Makabulos on fire, raped the nurses there and massacred them along with the doctors, patients and attendants.
The barbarity of the raids made President Quirino appeal to the nation to form “battalion of peace” to unite and be alert against the enemy around them.
To Defense Secretary Ruperto Kangleon, however, the President was as much to blame as the generals leading the peace drive for the government fiasco in fighting the Huks. On the day of the President’s appeal over a nationwide radio hook-up, Kangleon made no bones about his disgust over the President’s retention of the generals who were in a list of 37 officers recommended for retirement.
The frustrated defense secretary even told newsmen bluntly that dissidence would continue to mount if the generals were not changed, for they were responsible for bungling the anti-Huk campaign. And because of these “deadwood in the army” and the abuses of the PC and PGF, the people had been alienated.
Called over to Malacañang, Kangleon admitted to all the published statements quoting him. After this altercation with President Quirino, he demanded acceptance of his standing courtesy resignation “not later than tomorrow.”
New Defense secretary
Later in the evening, President Quirino and Speaker Perez talked about Ruperto Kangleon’s actuations. On August 31, 1950, Quirino announced his acceptance of Kangleon’s resignaton and Ramon Magsaysay’s appointment asnew Secretary of National Defense.
Coming as it did on August 31, on Magsaysay’s 43rd birthday, the defense post was a wonderful “gift” to him and to his happy family. “I am both humbled and proud,” Magsaysay said. “I am humbled in the face of a heavy assignment and I pray that I shall be equal to it. I am proud that I have been assigned to work with soldiers, with men who know above all the meaning of honor, loyalty and duty.”
With the Defense appointment, the poll protest filed by Eugenio Corpuz against Congressman Magsaysay was dropped. The congressional seat for Zambales became vacant. A special election held was in Zambales. The poll result showed Cesar Miraflor as the eventual winner through the support and blessing of Defense Secretary Magsaysay.
What would Ramon Magsaysay do as Secretary of National Defense? This was uppermost in the minds of the AFP top brass and their counterparts in the JUSMAG. Newsmen on the beat and citizens deeply concerned with the Huk rebellion and Communist subversion were watching for the first sign of Magsaysay’s leadership. The war raging in Korea and the increasing disillusionment with the Quirino administration added to the anxious mood of the nation’s leaders as they viewed the Armed Forces’ image of impotence.
Even Magsaysay’s former colleagues in Congress expected him to tacke his new job with the boundless energy and affecting enthusiasm he brought to his tasks. They were especially pleased that their man had been chosen as a symbol of congressional influence on the Chief Executive, an assurance of cooperation in defense patronage and the sundry services of the far-flung military organization, and a promise that the “old fogies and fatheads” in the AFP would be weeded out.
Magsaysay, the new Secretary was already familiar with theDefense Department. He was no newcomer so to speak. For almost five years, he had met with defense officials and officers in numberless committee hearings, conferences, social functions and veterans conventions, as well as in unexpected places by chance.
He was directly responsible to the Commander-in-Chief in Malacañang Palace for the defense establishment’s sprawling units and vital functions. Symbolic of his new status was the change in his car plate number, from no. 8 to no. 6.
The shift from congressman to defense secretary was personally a happy one in many ways. For one, he had multiplied his patronage and resources for repaying his “debts” to the legislators themselves. Now he could also help local politicians all over the country. And he continued to exercise influence over wide patronage and brought home public works in favor of his “orphaned“ constituents in Zambales.
To start his administation, Magsaysay moved his office to the AFP headquarters at Camp Murphy (now Camp Aguinaldo), in Quezon City. He also gave notice that he meant to realize his message of hope and reform.
In a radio interview, he mentioned two requisites for the solution of the peace and order problem in the country: “(1) full recognition of the magnitude of the problem”; and “(2) a stronger, more courageus civic spirit on the part of the people and the extension by them to our armed forces of a sustained, vigorous cooperation, particularly in their effort to track dissidents down because armed confrontation alone will not give us peace.”
The prospect of a surprise visit from the new defense secretary also kept the soldiers in a state of constant alertness and activity. Military discipline and morale were treated as twin problems. After taking disciplinary action against 20 military officers in diffirent areas, Magsaysay assured his men: “I shall continue to be as firm with any other erring officers and enlisted men.”He also warmed the hearts of the fighting men wherever he went by asking them to tell him their problems and by promising them prompt action.
By responding positively to the new leadership of the Department of National Defense, the officers and men of the AFP were directly responsible for the achievements in the anti-Huk operations. A large share of the credit went to the catalyctic leader who started the impressive chain reaction in the armed forces which, in turn, helped to gain more supportfor the defense program from officialdom to citizenry alike.
As the new Secretary of National Defense, Ramon Magsaysay immediately intensified the campaign against the Hukbalahap guerillas. The resulting success was due in part to the unconventional methods he learned from a former advertising expert and CIA agent, Colonel Edward Lansdale.
In the counter-insurgency program, Magsaysay and Lansdale utilized all deployed soldiers fighting the rebels and, at the same time, distributing relief goods and other forms of aid to outlaying communities in the provinces.
Prior to Magsaysay’s appointment as Defense Secretary, rural citizens perceived the Philippine Army with apathy and distrust. However, Magsaysay’s term enhanced the Army’s image, earning them respect and admiration.
Magsaysay’s personal style also dramatized his public image as “field” Defense Secretary. He seldom wore his double-breasted suits and two-tone shoes and did so only while in Manila. Out in the provinces, he donned his combat fatigues and cap, or the easy open-necked polo shirts often in screaming colors, complete with a buri hat. To cap it all, he regularly sported a .45-caliber pistol or lug a carbine on his shoulder. More and more of his pictures showed him in this action attire and in fighting poses.
In the early 1950s, the insurgency launched by a group of peasant farmers called Hukbalahap (Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon or People’s Anti-Japanese Army) was at its peak.Both the previous and incumbent presidents (Manuel Roxas and Elpidio Quirino) struggled to stop the rebellion: President Roxas banned the organization in 1948 while his successor, President Quirino, was stained with corruption and cronyism which infuriated the Huks even more.
Desperate to stop the Hukbalahap threats from worsening, Quirino made a strategic move: he appointed Ramon Magsaysay – a celebrated WWII guerrilla leader – as the new Secretary of National Defense.
As a new appointee, Magsaysay did what his predecessor failed to do: he identified the root cause of the problem and started from there. With the help of Lieutenant Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, who served as personal advisor, Magsaysay toured the whole country and saw first hand the driving force behind the insurgency. At that point, he realized that most of the Huks were not actually Communists; they were simple peasants who thought that rebellion was the only answer to their sufferings.
In the words of historian Teodoro Agoncillo, the Hukbalahap was the “culmination of centuries of peasant degradation, loss of self-respect, and abject poverty.” Of course, in order for Magsaysay to execute his plans of ending the rebellion, he needed the help of the Armed Forces. But there was a catch: the country’s military arm was also suffering from several issues, most serious of which were poor leadership, corruption and patronage system.
In other words, ending the insurgency wouldn’t be possible without first addressing the serious problems that had plagued the Armed Forces. It was a challenging task, but this is when Ramon Magsaysay showcased his exemplary leadership skills and political prowess.
During Ramon Magsaysay’s stint as Defense Secretary, he was going to Malacañang to have a meeting with President Elpidio Quirino. On board his car were his wife Luz and Kosme, the driver. Suddenly, the car stopped on the road in the middle of the night.
Magsaysay asked the driver:“What happened?”. The driver answered “Nasiraan po yata tayo!” Luz became nervous. “This place is dangerous” she said. Ramon calmed her down. Kosme tried his best to fix the car but cannot start it. “I know how to fix car engines, but I cannot fix this one, sir…” he admitted to Magsaysay.
So Ramon went outside the car, pushed up the sleeves of his barong tagalog and he started fixing the car. “What are you doing?” Luz asked her husband. He answered “What? Don’t you remember? I’m a mechanic! A good one…” “I understand that, Monching. But your clothes will get dirty.” Luz said. “She’s right, sir!” Kosme interjected. “Just tell me how and I’ll do it.” Magsaysay answered, “It’s alright. I’m used to dirt.” Both Luz and Kosme were amazed with what he was doing. He was not shy to do humble things even if he already had a high position in the government. After some moments, the car started. He fixed his clothes and went back inside the car like nothing happened. “Let’s go, Kosme” he said, “The president is waiting.”
Many factors contributed to the increasing success of the military and intelligence phases of the counter-Communist campaigns. To begin with, there were the reorganization and reinforcement of the AFP and its new discipline and morale brought about under Magsaysay’s leadership. Sustained support came from President Quirino, the legislators, JUSMAG, local leaders, and surprisingly, the press.
However, the bigger single factor was the rapid restoration of a political base for the military operations of the government.
Magsaysay, on the other hand, regarded it was the restoration of the people’s faith in the Armed Forces as his first task upon taking over the Defense department which did the miracle. “No matter how efficient in combat, it would be worthless so long as the government were estranged from the masses and did not enjoy the cooperation of the very people they were supposed to protect.”
In time, the people of Huklandia started to become disenchanted with the desperate behavior of the rebels they had obeyed, fed and harbored for many years. The people clearly noticed the new vigor of government troopers and their concern for the welfare of the civilian population. More and more of them saw in Magsaysay a sincere and tireless leader in the government’s efforts to win them back. They saw advantages in keeping away from the Huks who had fanned their grievances, espoused their needs, or coerced them into passive support, and then caused them increasing misery under the mounting crossfires of the daily battles.
Magsaysay also started receiving letters from people hoping to make suggestions on how to finish insurgency. He was sure he was also getting information from Huks themselves telling him who were selling guns to the rebels and other intelligence reports.
To take charge of the flood of lettters and reports, Magsaysay had to create a small staff headed by Colonel Jose VH Banzon, a cousin of his wife Luz. It was he who initiated the sending in of telegraphic reports at ten centavos per message.Through this, the stream of information and complaints from the citizens to the defense department was continuous.
One of the most ticklish situations Ramon Magsaysay had to handle as Defense Secretary involved the arrest by the military of a number of big newspapermen and several known personalities in early 1951. Those arrested and then detained in Camp Murphy were Jose Lansang, editor of Philippine Herald; Macario T. Vicencio of Manila Times; three men from Graphic House; brothers Joaquin and Jesus Po, of Popular Bookstore; and Amado V. Hernandez of the Congress of Labor Organization. Being questioned in their respective houses were I.P. Soliongco and Renato Constantino of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Magsaysay told the press that the men were only invited for questioning and would be released immediately thereafter. No other Filipino received greater praise than Magsaysay in the editorials, columns and articles of the local press, or in the American press since he became Secretary on September 1, 1950. Even President Quirino and Magsaysay’s friends in Congress expressed appreciation of his leadership, in words and in effective support.
The November 13, 1951 election was Magsaysay’y second greatest challenge as a Defense Secretary. It was also his greatest opportunity to liquidate armed dissidence, his primary objective. He saw new opportunity opening up in the wake of the 1951 local polls. With them, quite naturally, came immediate hazards.
Magsaysay faced a dramatic post-election challenge in the bestial mauling and murder of Moises Padilla, ill-starred Nacionalista candidate for mayor of Magallon, Negros Occidental. Court records have it that Padilla, a former guerilla fighter against the Japanese during World War II, declared his bid for candidacy to become the mayor of Magallon (now Moises Padilla) in 1951. Padilla’s opponent was an ally of Governor Rafael Lacson. Because of political alliance, Lacson sent a word to Padilla to renounce his candidacy or else he would die.
Even though he was already warned, Padilla continued his campaign. But he also sought military protection from Secretary Ramon Magsaysay, a co-guerrilla fighter. Padilla eventually lost the mayoralty race. The night after that, Lacson’s uniformed men picked up Padilla and seven of his followers. Later, Padilla was sent into a “town show” where he was beaten and tortured along the road from Magallon, Isabela, and La Castellana. After the torturing, one of Lacson’s men announced in the town plaza that “this is what happens to people who oppose us.” Thereafter, Padilla was thrown into jail. He asked his mother to see Magsaysay in Manila and seek help.
When the news reached Magsaysay that Padilla was being tortured, he flew to Magallon accompanied only by Colonel Jesus Vargas. But it was too late. The bullet-riddled body of Padilla was found laying face down on a wooden bench in the town plaza as Magsaysay entered Magallon.
Before leaving the stricken family, Magsaysay gave all the money he had to the victim’s sister, then gave orders to the soldiers in Negros Occidental for the arrest of the culprits, including Governor Lacson. He also deployed troops in the province under the command of the AFP vice chief of staff. Magsaysay also carried the body of Padilla with his bare hands and brought it to a Manila morgue for autopsy.
This particular event made Magsaysay’s political career brighten up afterward. Padilla’s story was the feature of a Time Magazine story where Magsaysay was printed on its front cover page. Other news clips showed his picture carrying Moises Padilla’s body to the morgue. Magsaysay also called Moises Padilla the “martyr of democracy,” and gave him a hero’s military burial since Padilla was a reserve lieutenant.
Indeed, the Moises Padilla story had all the elements of a powerful drama of political terrorism and the vindication of a democratic process, a drama in which Magsaysay figured as one of the leading men. Under him and Colonel Jesus Vargas (who will become a general and AFP Chief of Staff later on), the Armed Forces restored order among the terrified Negrenses. They also went out of their way to assist the Department of Justice in filing murder charges against Governor Rafael Lacson and his 23 co-accused.
The trial against Governor Lacson started in January 1952. Magsaysay and his men presented their pieces of evidence enough to convict Lacson and his 23 men for the murder of Moises Padilla. In August 1954, the guilty verdict was given by Judge Eduardo Enriquez. The sentence was to put Lacson, his 20 men and three other municipal mayors in Negros Occidental in an electric chair.
Prologue to 1953 presidential polls
The post-mortem of 1951 was the new basis of a partisan positioning for the 1953 presidential election. Liberal leaders spent long hours analyzing with brutal frankness the eclipse of their senatorial and local candidates during the last election. The most convincing conclusion came from Vice President Fernando Lopez who said: “The victory of our rival, the Nacionalsta Party, is the result of the popular demand for better government and there is simply no alibi about it.”
Juan V. Borra of the Commission on Elections added: “The people are mad at us.” Speaker Eugenio Perez also admitted that “”Disunity, sabotage and double-crossing among us, the Liberals, were evident.”
President Elpidio Quirino, the pride of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, cautioned his partymates: “We have not entirely lost. We still have the majority in the House of the Represenntatives and among the municipal mayors.”
In contrast, an atmosphere of hope pervaded the Nacionalista camp.The sweeping victory of the NP senatorial team in 1951 was taken as a popular demand for a change in leadership, especially the cause of the opposition campaign which harped on the corruption and ineptitude of the administration and the weakness of President Quirino. The day-to-day legislative struggle seemed more of a melee than a clear-cut conflict between the Liberals and the Nacionalistas.
In the House, the Liberals had been split into two factions. With Nacionalista’s backing, Congressmen Cornelio T. Villareal and Emmanuel Pelaez left the 32-member Progressive bloc which initiated moves that were really embarrassing to the Quirino administration.
Magsaysay’s non-partisan stance did not shield him from the partisan fights raging around him. However, it was still the safest move as the intended and correct impression that he was making good his public image to pursue in earnest his unfinished task as Secretary of National Defense. The position was also the most advantageous for him to take, whatever his course of action in the near future was. His political potential was steadily growing, and he was now being mentioned speculatively as the possible presidential timber even though many political analysts had already figured that Quirino and Jose P. Laurel Jr. were the ones headed for a return engagement in 1953.
In June 1952, Ramon and Luz Magsaysay made a goodwill tour to the United States and its neighboring country, Mexico. With the blessing of President Quirino, Ramon specifically went to Mexico City to address the Lions Club International Convention.
The trip was cooked up by Manuel “Dindo” Gonzales and Colonel Edward Lansdale who were both determined to promote Magsaysay politically abroad. They thought the Lions convention and the US visit were ideal for solidifying Magsaysay’s international image as a successful anti-communist fighter.
Ramon and his wife Luz were accompanied by Luis Gonzales (Quirino’s son in-law) and his wife, Manuel “Dindo” Gonzales (the brother of Luis) and his wife. Initially, they visited New York, andWashington, D.C. The Magsaysay couple also had an executive medical check-up at the Walter Reed Hospital.
The significance of Magsaysay’s visit to the United States was well stated in an editorial of the New York Times: “The Philippines need good leaders and men of integrity, imagination, courage and simplicity. Mr. Magsaysay is that sort of a leader. It is a pleasure to have him here and the chance to get to know him better.”
The New York Herald Tribune seemed even more direct to the point: “Magsaysay is evidently a new and vital force in his political world. Whatever he chooses to do, Americans will watch his career with great interest.”
In a statement issued by the American State Department, it stated: “Mr. Magsaysay is well known to the American people due in part to the success of the Philippine Armed Forces under his leadership in reducing the threat of the Communist-controlled Huk dissident movement. He was received well by the American officials and by the American people.”
Newsweek and the International News Service also reported predictions in Washington that “Magsaysay will become the next Philippine President.”
The 20-day US trip gave Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay an incalculable publicity for the Philippines. He was always in his usual engaging self with newsmen. Wherever he went in America, he was inevitably asked about his political plan. “Are you running for president in 1953?” an American newsman asked. He answered: “I have no political plans. There’s plenty of work to do knocking down communism right now and I have declared all my energy to do that job.” He always had a good word for President Quirino too: “He’s our fine leader.”
After two weeksbof visiting various cities in the United States, Ramon finally spoke at the Annual Convention of Lions International in Mexico City. He gave the Lions an inspiring analysis of the Filipino experience in counter-acting the Communist-Huk rebellion and the US-Philippine mutual defense pact. He also eagerly obliged newsmen seeking his views.
Right after their Mexico trip. Manuel “Dindo”Gonzales had started promoting Magsaysay as an opposition presidential dark horse.