WASHINGTON — Back in 1963, the Kennedy Administration encouraged a group of dissident South Vietnamese generals to topple their president, Ngo Dinh Diem, whose inept and unpopular regime was failing to cope with a mounting communist insurgency. The episode marked a turning point for U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Now, the Reagan Administration has played an important part in ousting Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos and replacing him with Corazon Aquino. The U.S. move began on Feb. 15, when President Reagan, after zigzagging, bluntly blamed the Filipino leader for the "widespread fraud and violence" that marred the election a week before. It ended when Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), on instructions from Reagan, advised a beleaguered and exhausted Marcos: "I think you should cut, and cut cleanly."
The memory of the Diem coup had haunted U.S. officials as they pondered ways to depose Marcos, who was clearly headed toward collapse as a result of egregious mismanagement and corruption. They feared that, as in Vietnam after Diem, his downfall would plunge the Philippines into chaos and benefit communist-led rebels who call themselves the New People's Army. Indeed, Reagan expressed that view in October, 1984, suggesting that Marcos, despite his faults, was the sole alternative to communism.
But the new concern is that the United States, having persuaded Marcos to step down, may have assumed responsibility for the Philippines' future. That responsibility could take on critical dimensions should the communist threat grow--as in Vietnam. A senior U.S. diplomat, comparing the two situations, said to me: "In for a penny, in for a pound."
The Vietnam and Philippine situations are not entirely analogous. By 1963, the United States had already established a long-term commitment to South Vietnam's security--16,000 military advisers were then in the country. The only U.S. military personnel now in the Philippines, by contrast, are at Clark Air Field and the naval installations at Subic Bay, strategic bases unrelated to the fight against local communists. Diem's domestic enemies were covert conspirators; Marcos' foes fought in the open, by election.
But the departure of despots leaves a vacuum. Just as the Vietnamese generals fell to bickering among themselves, so Aquino will face the task of keeping intact a cohesive government that can grapple with the immense problems before the Philippines. America's role in the years ahead may well hinge on her success.
I have known "Cory" Aquino since the days 20 years ago when her late husband, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., was one of the Philippines' leading political figures. Arrested by Marcos in 1972, he spent eight years in jail, then went into exile in the United States. He returned to Manila in August, 1983, only to be assassinated at the airport--a crime in which Marcos was almost certainly implicated. The murder, sparking widespread opposition to Marcos, brought Cory to power. Never have I seen a person change so completely.
During her husband's lifetime, Cory was a shy housewife and mother who quietly served coffee while he talked endlessly, with extraordinary verve, on nearly every topic imaginable. Shattered by his death, she resisted pleas to campaign against Marcos. "What do I know about being president?" she would repeat.
Gradually, though, she realized that only she could crystallize the opposition--and she did. Traveling with her during the campaign, I saw the modest woman transformed into a dynamic crusader--energetic, self-confident, sometimes witty, always projecting sincerity. A vital element in her performance was its spiritual component. Intensely religious, she was Joan of Arc struggling against evil. Filipinos, their Catholicism heavily mixed with mysticism, were inspired.
But if campaigning for office is a kind of poetry, managing a government is prose, and now Aquino must rebuild the plundered Philippine economy. She must also learn the art of politics, which requires making compromises. A key question is whether her original loyalists, attracted by her purity, will tolerate deals. Also in question is whether veteran politicians in her entourage will respect her authority.
During the campaign, her relations with running mate Salvador Laurel were often strained. Laurel, who only broke with Marcos in 1980, had himself hoped to run for president and only conceded to her when persuaded of the need for a unified front. Named prime minister in the new Cabinet, he will not be easy to control.
Even more controversial was Aquino's appointment of Juan Ponce Enrile, the defense minister under Marcos, as her own defense minister--obviously because, at the last minute, he switched allegiance and brought several army units over to her side. Enrile made a huge personal fortune under Marcos; he closed his eyes to abuses in the armed forces and he retains considerable leverage over Aquino through the troops faithful to him.