Cover Photo By Jacob Banog
Cover Photo By Jacob Banog.

Deciphering a dictator: Biting into the fruit of the poisonous tree

Ferdinand Marcos Sr. stated in a 1987 Playboy interview: “History is not through with me yet!” Historians would agree.

By Caly Bautista | Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Author, educator, and historian Ambeth Ocampo unraveled the real Marcos Sr. from his “reel” image through years of study of the Marcos Diaries, or the “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree.” The university lecture reminded audiences of the significance of historians and their work in the present time. 


History is just chismis—that is, if chismis also requires decades to be validated, cross-referenced, and have its sociopolitical implications considered before publication. With the second Marcos presidency in place, Philippine historians—like Dr. Ocampo—had recently become one of the top receivers of flak for simply continuing their line of work. 


Despite the trolls he encountered online, Dr. Ocampo still gladly took the mic as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies lecture series on March 11. He invited his audiences in the Philippines through a live Zoom broadcast of the seminar, titled “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree: The Marcos Diaries”—a reference to the unofficial copies of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s diaries that Ocampo collated in the past 10 years. 


History and bias: The problem with “true neutral”

The lecture amplified what is often said in hushed voices in the country: misinformation and historical distortion are at large, and the culprits' last names remain the same. But to Dr. Ocampo, this is not a new sight. He discussed the Marcoses’ fluency in playing the "media game" and how commissioning biographies and producing films that glorified Marcos Sr. even helped the family get away with painting the man as the most decorated war hero of WWII, a myth disproved by official documents.


Dr. Ocampo related this to a Winston Churchill quote: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” As Marcos authored how he should be perceived, urging historians to keep this part of history objective is an obvious misstep. With this, we find the answer to Dr. Ocampo's question, “Should we let history decide?” Later in the talk, Dr. Ocampo also mentioned the Marcoses’ reputation in the present. In their return to the country after the exile, the Marcoses have been “working double-time,” as he put it. They used the internet and social media to their advantage, having succeeded in repackaging themselves as celebrities. “This is [the reason] why Marcos Jr. got elected,” he said. 


Dictator’s POV: Martial Law in the diaries

The core of Dr. Ocampo’s discussion chronicled a fraction of 15 years' worth of the for Marcos Sr.'s scattered personal accounts during his presidency, from 1969 to 1984. Having accumulated about 3,500 pages of transcriptions and notes, he gives us a glimpse of the diaries’ significance through the former dictator’s account of the event that further embedded his name in history: the infamous Martial Law.


For instance, in its official declaration, the Marcos administration pointed to the car ambush that allegedly targeted the Justice Secretary of the time, Juan Ponce Enrile, to justify his proclamation of martial law. With this, Marcos Sr. called the declaration “a necessity” in a diary entry. However, Dr. Ocampo proposed that Marcos Sr. might have intended his diaries to be published in the future.


In a 2021 Rappler Talk, Dr. Ocampo previously agreed to the notion that the dictator wrote as if he was talking to an audience. True enough, there became a discrepancy regarding his reason for declaring martial law when days after the proclamation, he met the Philippine Historical Association. To them, he admitted how “before the ambuscade on Secretary Ponce Enrile, I had already ordered the enforcement of the proclamation […] Long before that, I had decided to proclaim martial law." This observation proves how without a historian’s help, the diaries alone are more or less unreliable due to their “self-referential” nature, containing glaring lies that Marcos Sr. wrote to put himself in a positive light. 


The flesh beneath the iron fist

Publishing the Marcos diaries is not a question of if but when. Whether Filipinos are ready to face what’s written in the diaries, Dr. Ocampo relayed his main issue with releasing the documents to the public. “But that’s the thing. If you see Marcos as a human, it makes him relatable. It makes him forgivable.”


Aside from the Martial Law declaration, Dr. Ocampo also revealed the other memoirs of Marcos Sr. that seemingly “humanizes” him: taking stem cell treatments with his wife, Imelda, referring to his children in a “softer tone” in various accounts, and his apparent religious persona, even detailing how God sends him visions in his sleep. In picturing Marcos Sr. as less of a dictator and more of an average, empathetic human being, he attempts to capture our sympathies, and in turn, we are more likely to dilute what and who he was.


On the other hand, there are also his accounts that could raise eyebrows, such as his belief of being the “chosen one,” meant to save the country from Maoists, anarchists, and radicals, his libelous and homophobic comments towards other political figures at the time, and his 1971 retreat to Baguio to ask God for a sign to proclaim martial law. Significantly, much of his 1971 entries were able to show how Marcos Sr.’s declaration of martial law in 1972 was indeed premeditated long before the supposed Enrile ambush. 


Given this diversity of information, carelessly making the diaries public as they are, without historians’ addition of annotations and footnotes that clarify falsities and provide context, the truth of Marcos Sr. could get lost further in translation. 


Nonetheless, Dr. Ocampo assured that the publication of the Marcos diaries will soon push through, however contentious. He recalls a friend’s advice when he shared his fears regarding the implication of publishing the diaries to his reputation: “Just remember that 50 years from now when things are cooler, historians will be happy that you just put it out.”


Dr. Ocampo had also previously brought “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree: The Marcos Diaries” to the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in November 2021 for his Professorial Chairholder Lecture on History. While Dr. Ocampo shed light on the existence of the Marcos diaries, people are reminded that the duties of historians go beyond restating past events. Instead, it also requires digging up multiple graves to seek the complete truth and investigate why they were buried in the first place. 


Although the amount of people distorting history and belittling its importance remains disheartening, Dr. Ocampo refused to give up on educating the misinformed. 


“I am a teacher, a professor, so I try to engage,” he said in a Facebook comment regarding an online encounter with an apologist. 


Regardless of its publication dilemma, Dr. Ocampo hopes that Filipinos gain acceptance of what truly happened through the contents of the diaries and the contextualization done by historians. 


These diaries will help Filipinos come to terms with Marcos. When they do, they will be liberated rather than imprisoned by history.”