Share This Article

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos’ official request in February 1966 for congressional approval to send a combat engineer battalion to the assistance of South Vietnam could not have shocked the citizens of the Philippines more than if he had turned somersaults in public. Marcos’ predecessor, Diosdado Macapagal, had attempted to persuade the Philippine Congress at the end of 1965 to send troops to South Vietnam–and the opposition to that proposal had been led by Marcos, then president of the senate. Marcos had recently deserted Macapagal’s party, the Liberals, and when he later ran for president on the Nacionalistas ticket, he won.

Marcos’ change of heart bewildered his supporters. One congressman pointed out that Marcos had questioned the right of the previous administration to commit the country indirectly to war, and he had maintained that the best way to help the Republic of Vietnam was to increase medical and humanitarian activities. ‘A few months later,’ Filipino Congressman Pablo V. Ocampo said, ‘the same Ferdinand Marcos advocated the sending of combat engineers–a euphemism for combat troops….What made him adopt the position of the Macapagal administration, which he had criticized?’

In hearings before the U.S. Subcommittee on United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of the Committee on Foreign Relations, beginning September 30, 1969, committee members also questioned the reasons for Marcos’ decision and the successful passage of the bill to send combat engineers to Vietnam, eventually totaling more than 2,000 men. Senator Mike Mansfield asked the deputy chief of mission from the U.S. Embassy in Manila, James L. Wilson, ‘Did the Filipinos dispatch this battalion…of engineer[s] to Vietnam on the basis of their own initiative or…pressure from the United States government?’ Wilson replied, ‘There was an active interest on the part of the United States government in bringing forces from other nations into the conflict in Vietnam,’ and said that the government of South Vietnam had also directly asked the Philippine government for aid. He added that Filipino public opinion had been in favor of some contribution, although the form of that aid was in debate.

The U.S. government’s active interest in bringing other nations into the war had been part of U.S. policy discussions as early as 1961. President Lyndon B. Johnson first publicly appealed for other countries to come to the aid of South Vietnam on April 23, 1964–in what was called the ‘More Flags’ program. Chester Cooper, former director of Asian affairs for the White House, explained why the impetus came from the United States instead of from the Republic of South Vietnam: ‘The ‘More Flags’ campaign…required the application of considerable pressure for Washington to elicit any meaningful commitments. One of the more exasperating aspects of the search…was the lassitude…of the Saigon government. In part…the South Vietnam leaders were preoccupied with political jockeying….In addition, Saigon appeared to believe that the program was a public relations campaign directed at the American people.’

An editorial in the Manila Times on March 1, 1966, shows that some Filipinos agreed with Saigon concerning the More Flags program: ‘The fact is that this proposal [to send combat engineers] is just so much window dressing for such an unattractive proposition as sending Filipinos to fight in an undeclared war which…Americans themselves are coming to deplore. [T]he troops we are sending there are…merely to add to the show of flags on the U.S. side.’

According to the former special assistant to the commander, U.S. MACV, Brig. Gen. James Lawton Collins, Jr., as the personal representative of General William C. Westmoreland to the Vietnamese Joint General Staff on Allied Participation, the real problem was that the South Vietnamese government was incapable of obtaining aid alone, having few diplomatic ties. Therefore, the American embassies made requests on their behalf, leaving the Vietnamese to make formal requests after aid had been agreed upon.

Senator William J. Fulbright, among others, expressed considerable skepticism as to whether South Vietnam had requested aid from the Philippines, but President Macapagal had been petitioned on July 15, 1964. In fact, a few months earlier, Manila had joined some other members of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) in a joint declaration of support for the Republic of Vietnam, a SEATO protocol state. Doctors and nurses, mainly from private organizations within the Philippines, had been working with South Vietnamese villagers since 1953 in a program called Operation Brotherhood. Three months after the 1964 joint SEATO declaration, the Philippine government had authorized additional economic and technical assistance to South Vietnam. Medical personnel, rural development specialists and members of the Philippine armed forces were dispatched. In August 1964, a small cadre of psychological warfare and civil affairs advisers also arrived in Vietnam.

The engineer battalion could have been considered merely additional aid of the same kind. The public furor over Marcos’ proposal may therefore be explained by the parallels some Filipino congressmen, such as Ocampo, saw in the contributions of the South Korean government, which had started out with medical and engineer units and had escalated to a combat division. Many questioned whether sending Filipinos to fight in Vietnam would accomplish anything. Congressman Felix P. Amante, on March 15, 1966, said: ‘It is a mistake, Mr. Speaker, to say that we should not send [aid] to Vietnam unless we are sure that it would win the war for the South Vietnamese….We should make it clear that we are sending our help in fulfillment of a commitment so that in our hour of need other nations will honor their[s]…because we know that if we should find ourselves in the unhappy situation of the South Vietnamese, other nations, with the United States at their head, will pour billions of dollars and the lives of their sons, uncomplainingly, to give us help.’

The Philippine Congress discussed the policy and legal implications of military participation, as well as the thorny question of funding, given the tight budget situation. One congressman spoke emotionally about the murderous NVA and VC. Congressman Ramon V. Mitra brought up casualties on the other side, reminding his colleagues of ‘the horrors of being in a town bombed by American planes,’ as had happened in northern Filipino villages during the Japanese invasion. This touched a nerve, and various congressmen began discussing a long list of Filipino grievances against the United States, going as far back as 1898.

According to testimony from Wilson, the United States had offered a great deal for Philippine participation in Vietnam. Details of the offer included: ‘1) to equip PHILCAG [Philippine Civic Action Group] in Vietnam on a loan basis and provide logistics support; 2) to pay overseas allowances, over and above the regular pay to be provided by the Philippine government; 3) to provide replacement costs,’ to replace the unit being sent to Vietnam.

Wilson continued, ‘We offered the Philippines the following: Two SwiftCraft over and above the two committed earlier without relation to PHILCAG [these were patrol boats, used to control smuggling, a major problem in the Philippines at that time]; 5) Accelerated funding in FY66 of equipment for three engineer construction battalions previously considered for later funding under the Military Assistance Program; and 6) M-14 rifles and M-60 machine guns for one battalion combat team to be funded in FY66. All of these…to be funded by Defense from service funds as Vietnam-related costs, and not from the Military Assistance Program.’ The question of funding arose because the cost of the items would otherwise have been subtracted from the total allotted under the Military Assistance Program (MAP).

Senator Fulbright exploded after hearing additional testimony in the same vein. ‘This seems to be the ultimate in corruption for us to make deals like this in pursuit of an illusionary policy all designed to prove to the world that we have great support in Vietnam, which we do not…and no one except the Australians and New Zealanders pays for its own troops.’ Fulbright asked about the Philippines extracting a price for PHILCAG, since they were pro-interventionalists. Wilson said that the official reasons given by President Marcos were, first, ‘that the [overseas] allowances were so great that he could not afford it in his defense budget,’ and second, ‘the equipment needed by this unit in South Vietnam would cost so much that again he could not afford this extraordinary expenditure for it.’

One might expect that the United States would have declined the offer, or that the offer would have been withdrawn by the Philippine government after discussions revealed the tremendous expense involved. A message from the U.S. State Department to the embassies in Saigon, Seoul, Manila and Taipei, declassified in 1973, provided information concerning civilian and military assistance from other countries to Vietnam: ‘As general principle donor countries will be strongly urged to meet as much of cost of their aid as possible, particularly expenses within donor countries and transport. U.S. will be prepared on case by base basis to consider financing these costs or portion thereof, if necessary to prevent aid offer from being withdrawn. However such payment would not be made to point where project loses donor identity and result appears to be no more than U.S. employment of third country nationals or in the case of military personnel, mercenaries.’

The deputy chief of mission eventually revealed that the total amount of equipment supplied represented 10 engineer construction battalions, five of which had been first mentioned in the joint Marcos-Johnson communiqué. Three of these were service-funded, and two more were to be funded through MAP. Five were added at a later date.

The Filipino view of what Senator Fulbright termed ‘the ultimate in corruption’ shows the quandary in which developing nations all too often find themselves, being unable to separate the need for assistance from international obligations, as well as the extent to which pragmatism may be confused with cupidity, at home and abroad. Ocampo said: ‘It is obvious that the main factor behind the administration’s drive to send troops to South Vietnam, which President Marcos says he ‘cannot reveal in a public manner,’ is the promise of the United States to send economic aid to this country in exchange for our sending troops to South Vietnam.

‘The President’s silence on this score can only be met with sympathetic understanding by Members of this Chamber. No President could reveal the brutal truth that in order to get the wherewithal for a program of development with which to achieve a successful Administration, this country must send Filipinos to die in South Vietnam. No matter how the spokesmen of Mr. Marcos try to cover up…the truth remains that the overriding factor which motivates the Marcos Administration…is the promise of American aid.’

Congressman Jose L. Briones admonished his colleagues to shun ‘horse-trading.’ He said: ‘I wish to reiterate my unwavering stand against an alleged scheme of Malacañan [the Philippine presidential residence] to buy Liberal votes in favor of this measure with pork-barrel funds. All these talks of material considerations and dollar windfalls, new military equipment, war trade bonanzas and pork-barrel funds–behind the Vietnam aid bills are deplorable. If we must go to South Vietnam to help stem the tide of communist aggression and defend our security and freedom, let us do so without being coerced or pressured, without being bought or purchased.’

Naturally, rumors flew thick and fast, together with accusations of opportunism. In the column ‘Over a Cup of Coffee,’ by Teodoro F. Valencia of the Manila Times, a fairly common view of the congressional debate was expressed. ‘Politics is a practical game of give and take. The President will pay heavily for every vote he will get on his Vietnam aid bill. There will be appointments and promotions to consider. [T]he harder the opposition makes it, the harder a bargain [they] will be able to drive.’ Congresswoman Salud Vivaro Parreño pointed out that the Manila Times was claiming that ‘the Liberals have taken a favorable consideration in the next fiscal year….I am upholding the stand of the Chief Executive whether or not he has brainwashed any one of us, which I deny.’ Her declaration must have seemed somewhat reminiscent of a man coughing and waving his arms in smoke, while denying the presence of a fire.

Marcos pointed out that the Philippines had a long-standing commitment to SEATO, which could not now be ignored. He could have added that the nation’s traditionally strong anti-Communist stance was involved, and mentioned the immediate threat at that time from Sukarno’s konfrontasi policy and the Hukbalahap (pro-Communist) guerrillas within the Philippines itself. These facts may have contributed to Marcos’ rationale for commitment to South Vietnam.

Senator Fulbright failed to understand why the Philippines insisted on a price for PHILCAG because he did not realize that the Philippines could not afford to pay for it themselves. The Philippines was not totally bankrupt, but the national budget was generally running at a deficit, at times as much as 2 million pesos a day. On one hand, the 36 million pesos the Philippine government expected to pay for PHILCAG was a great deal of money, but on the other hand, the financial benefits from increased American aid and from the continued and increasing buildup of American military forces in the area was of tremendous value. The possibilities, in short, were for the kind of economic’shot in the arm’ experienced by the United States in the opening years of World War II before Pearl Harbor, though on a much smaller scale.

Were these the sole reasons for the dispatching of PHILCAG to Vietnam? One author has suggested that Marcos had intended all along to back such a proposal–that he opposed Macapagal in an attempt to get even for Macapagal’s reneging on his agreement to back Marcos in the next election, rather than run for a second term himself. Once in office, Marcos would naturally have taken advantage of the aid offered in exchange for PHILCAG by the American government in order to institute civic action and other programs that would make his administration look good, and ensure a second term for himself. Or, in view of the numerous trial balloons launched early in his administration concerning an amendment to the Constitution lengthening the president’s term of office, Marcos might have agreed in order to further his schemes for perpetual, one-man rule.

Certainly, Marcos was pragmatic. Having gauged public opinion so that he knew the probability of success for his proposal to send engineers, and knowing from the earlier U.S. negotiations with Macapagal what offers could be expected from the United States, he began his campaign. He spoke darkly of national security and interests, and factors that he ‘could not reveal in a public manner.’ He was probably responsible for some of the speculations, whether of high moral tone or of the most practical cupidity, that might have affected the outcome of the final vote. Too many facts–details of United States­Philippines negotiations–which presumably were secret at the time, seem to have turned up in the press to suggest otherwise, and it must be remembered that the Manila Times was then practically a government mouthpiece.

Wilson told the Subcommittee on Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad that even though Marcos had originally stressed Philippine national interests in his support for PHILCAG, played host to a conference in October 1966 of nations with troops in South Vietnam, and made a dramatic visit to PHILCAG in the field in the summer of 1967, things had changed. Wilson said, ‘There is a progressive backing away from these issues, based apparently on President Marcos’ feeling that he would have difficulty in maintaining the necessary support from the Philippine Congress.’

The growing American disenchantment with the war in later years, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu’s inability to win more than a third of the votes in 1967, and similar factors may well have influenced Philippine public opinion as well as that of President Marcos. In 1968 the government of the Philippines began fact-finding missions to some Communist countries. At the end of 1968 Marcos publicly discussed the possibility of withdrawal of the American military presence from Asia and the need to be prepared.

The Nixon Doctrine, announced in July 1969, while intended to reassure the United States’ allies of the country’s intent to honor its commitments, also indicated that the U.S. military presence would be reduced. The Nixon Doctrine was followed by the November 1969 announcement by Carlos P. Romulo, Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, to the American Embassy in Manila that PHILCAG would be withdrawn from Vietnam completely.

The American partial troop withdrawals in 1971, announced in the middle of 1970, as well as the opening of contacts between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, confirmed the need for the Philippines to find its own accommodations with Communist-bloc countries.

A certain amount of horse-trading is a necessary evil in the course of making agreements with allies concerning military assistance. Some degree of logistical support is still commonly provided by the United States to allied countries in military operations. For example, in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, logistical support in one form or another was provided to countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Great Britain, France, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.

In Desert Storm, the type of aid offered by various allied participants was well suited to the resources of the contributing country. The United States provided some logistical support, but also received in return important materiel, such as German Fuchs reconnaissance vehicles. The Gulf War was a true cooperative effort. This was not entirely the case with the Philippines in South Vietnam, however. The rural development specialists, psychological warfare and civil affairs advisers that preceded the combat engineers were considerably more appropriate a form of aid to South Vietnam. Why then did President Marcos insist on combat engineers? Considering that the one battalion sent to Vietnam was parlayed into 10 battalions at home, as well as ‘other items,’ it might be argued that he had more in mind than making a generous gesture of support to another country. His assistance was acquired on his own terms, and American anxiety for more flags probably led the United States to pay too dear a price.

When a country provides military assistance to another country, the limits of reasonable support should be kept in mind. It was a pleasant surprise when researching certain aspects of the Gulf War to find that the United States has indeed learned this lesson of the Vietnam War.

This article was written by Kathleen Lockwood and originally published in the June 1999 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!