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The End of an Era — Handholding Ferdinand Marcos in Exile

Just minutes after returning from his three-year exile, former Philippine Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. was assassinated at the Manila airport on August 21, 1983. During his long career as reformist politician, Aquino had attracted the wrath of authoritarian President Ferdinand Marcos and spent eight years in prison on the unsubstantiated charge of subversion. His death, for which Marcos was blamed, ignited the national People Power Revolution which eventually led to Marcos’ downfall three years later. Adopting Aquino as their martyr and symbol, the Filipino people united behind his wife, Corazon Aquino, in the 1986 elections which Mrs. Aquino won, but where Marcos also claimed victory. On February 25, 1986, rival presidential inaugurations were held, but as Aquino supporters overran Manila and its television station, Marcos was forced to flee.

The Marcos family was transported by U.S. Air Force C-130 planes to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii where Marcos arrived on February 26. It was reported that when Marcos fled, U.S. Customs agents discovered 24 suitcases of gold bricks and diamond jewelry hidden in diaper bags. Moreover,  certificates for gold bullion valued in the billions of dollars were allegedly among the personal properties he, his family, his cronies and business partners surreptitiously took with them when the U.S. provided them safe passage to Hawaii. When the presidential mansion was seized, it was famously discovered that Imelda Marcos had over 2700 pairs of shoes in her closet. After various attempts to move to another country failed, the Marcoses remained in Hawaii until his death in 1989. Imelda was eventually pardoned by Corazon Aquino in 1991 and was elected to Congress from Leyte province in 1995 and won election in 2010 to replace her son, Ferdinand Jr.

In the following interview with Thomas Dunnigan beginning January 1994, Robert G. Rich Jr., who was serving as the Deputy Chief of Mission in the Manila embassy, recalls the aftermath of the assassination, the extraction of the Marcos family, and carrying out his main objective — dealing with the dictator and his wife so that the Reagan White House didn’t have to.


Imelda and the “Blue Ladies”

RICH:  When I arrived in Manila there was a certain surreal quality to the environment. Politics and economics really weren’t discussed by Filipinos. Every night we were out at Philippine social events…. It was terribly discouraging, because these events were filled with ladies dripping with jewels, talking of nothing but fashions, jewelry, money and shopping trips to the United States.

One of our friends was a “Blue Lady.” The “Blue Ladies” were an institution of which I don’t think there has been anything comparable since perhaps Elizabethan days….They were the ladies on whom Imelda Marcos called at the slightest whim. They got their term from an earlier campaign when the campaign color had been blue, and they were evermore known as Blue Ladies. These ladies were the matrons of wealthy families who were beneficiaries of Marcos favoritism. Some of them we probably would call cronies.

Because their husbands’ wealth, prestige and power were essentially dependent upon the Marcoses, they could not in the slightest way turn aside the whims of the First Lady, or “FL” as Imelda was known in those circles. It was a bizarre situation. Imelda Marcos was a woman who slept very little.  Two or three hours a night is all she ever seemed to sleep. If she were bored, she would call one of her blue ladies to come play cards or ping pong with her, etc. It was literally that type of institution. I have seen a prominent Filipino hostess giving a dinner at which I was a guest receive a phone call from the palace and then make her regrets to her guests and leave the dinner table to go off to the palace probably for no more important reason than to amuse the First Lady.

I describe that because it gives something of a picture of the atmosphere of the regime by these latter years of Marcos’ power. Marcos himself had retained certain astuteness as a politician. He was very much the lawyer and very much the able politician still. But FL was something else indeed. I don’t think that I have ever known any other person whom I would truly describe as amoral — not immoral, but amoral — simply without the instincts that most of us have that there is a right and a wrong. And yet she required constant adulation and attention.

I have vivid memories of sitting in opulent banquets at the palace and thinking: There are millions of people in the world who would give their own teeth to be here and would talk about the evening all their lives, yet I just wish I could be home with a good book!

“Imelda clearly intended to be Ferdinand’s successor”

The atmosphere in Manila changed very, very dramatically with the Aquino assassination….It has not yet been proven really who was behind this. Marcos, himself, was very ill at the time….

I tend to believe Marcos when he said to the Ambassador and myself not too long thereafter, “How could you believe that I did this, because it is the worst possible thing that could have happened to me politically?”

I believe this because he was smart enough politically to realize that. You don’t create that kind of a crisis, because it will engulf you. But Imelda was not so smart politically, and that is, why without firm evidence, I have always felt that she was a key part of the cabal….

Imelda clearly intended to be Ferdinand’s successor. For some years theirs had been a political marriage of convenience. If it had been a love match it hadn’t been for years before I got there. Each of the Marcoses had their separate love interests. But Imelda clearly saw herself as the next head of the Philippines, a successor to her husband. I think she felt that with Aquino coming back and her husband apparently on his deathbed, this rival had to be eliminated. And I don’t think she really would have had any moral qualms about it at all. It was clearly a question of power.

After the assassination…, the charades that had been going on were swept aside….The modernizing sector of the business community was what really turned things around in that period….The business conglomerates of the crony capitalists in the Philippines were largely a wreck, which resulted not in economic industrialization but in a vast milking of the resources of the nation.

The best estimates that we were able to put together in the latter Marcos period were that for almost 20 years, 10 percent of the GNP had been siphoned off into non-productive activities, much of it abroad. Now that 10 percent probably made the difference between the Philippines being as economically successful as Taiwan, Hong Kong, or South Korea and just rocking and stumbling along as they did. They started out with more advantages than the others. They had the English language, good business ties with the United States, in the early period preferential trading arrangements with the United States, reasonably good infrastructure, a literate population and a hard-working people….

The post-assassination period led finally to another election….It was clear that Mrs. Aquino had won, but Marcos claimed victory anyway and had a falsified election reporting scheme set up. We had a very intensive embassy observation going on throughout the country. There were also two official foreign observing teams: a presidential observing team from the United States and also an international team fielded with the help of the National Democratic Institute. It was clear who had won, but it wasn’t clear what the outcome would be since the incumbent was still claiming victory….

Extracting the Marcoses from the Philippines

When the Marcos situation finally collapsed in Manila, he was extracted under escort of our MAAG [Military Assistance Advisory Group] Chief in the Philippines, Brig. General Teddy Allen, initially to Guam. At that point I went home from the [State Department’s] Operations Center Friday night for the first good night’s sleep I had had for some time.

When I got up Saturday morning…the phone rang and it was John Monjo, who at that time was senior Deputy Assistant Secretary in the East Asia Bureau before he went out to be Ambassador to Malaysia. John asked if I would go to Honolulu.

I said, “When?”

He said, “Now.”

I said, “Why?”

He said, “Well, the Marcos entourage just arrived there a few hours ago, and there are all sorts of questions which we can’t sort out from here…. We are having a problem because five or six different people in Honolulu keep calling different people in the U.S. Government. They are calling the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, etc. and different people are getting different stories. We can’t even coordinate it in Washington because there is not one channel for all of this.”

I got there [Honolulu] Saturday night and sat down with General Allen, who was absolutely punchy from lack of sleep at that point. He talked about ten hours non-stop into a tape recorder with me asking questions about the actual process of physically getting [the Marcoses] out of the Philippines…We had some 40 plus Filipinos on a U.S. air base, not just President Marcos and immediate family, but several of the cronies and their immediate families, nursemaids, cooks, doctors, security guards, bottle washers, etc. Nobody knew where they were going, what they were going to do, or even who all the people were.

There was some expectation that, after a couple of days on the base, Marcos would go live in a house that he owned and we would have done our bit and that would be the end of it. Well, that was certainly a naive expectation….

I was now to be the inter-agency coordinator and liaison with all the issues of the Marcos entourage in Honolulu. My two-day stay extended to three months.

After about one month I kept periodically saying, “Can I come home?” “No.”

I got no sympathy out of Washington at all. [They said,] “You are out there in Hawaii,” [and] I would say, “Yes, I know, but I don’t live here.” And, besides, I thought at that point we ought to disengage from the Marcoses. But there was an element of “Keep Rich there as a security blanket and Marcos won’t keep calling President Reagan at the White House….”

It was clear that the United States stepping in and extracting Marcos saved a lot of Filipino lives. If we had not done so there could have been a lot of bloodshed and problems created that would have been a long time healing. That was avoided — a very important goal. There will probably be other occasions when it is worthwhile our doing these things.

But there are certain things that should be thought out ahead of time. There was the issue of the wealth that the Marcoses took out with them…which included jewelry which, when I later saw it, I felt would have made any museum or the Hapsburgs envious….

Then there was the issue of assisting the Marcoses to a more permanent destination. Were they going to stay in the United States? When were we going to get them off the base? The naive assumption that they were immediately going to leave the base was totally false. Who was going to be responsible for their security? How were they going to pay? Were we going to assist them to move on to a third country?

No Immunity, Lots of Lawsuits

One of the basic issues that I think should be addressed but was not adequately addressed in this case is the immunities of a head of government who is extracted by us under such circumstances. I think a good case could be made, if the government decides in time, that legal immunity to a foreign head of state should continue for a certain limited period of time. Because of all the furor around the Marcoses, the American government simply just caved and nobody at the cabinet level was willing to say, “No, this is absurd.”

As a result, [the Marcoses] were told “you have no immunity at all here in the United States.” Well, this allowed a tremendous onslaught of legal suits, and the Marcoses could not admit to any funds or resources or they would have been immediately attached by one court or another. Within about ten days or two weeks there must have been over a hundred legal suits filed against them. One day Marcos was in his sitting room, about the size of the living room we are in now, and he had set these stacks of folded legal briefs spread out on the floor. They covered the entire room and then some….

One set was suits in which the Philippine government was a party seeking custody of any wealth that had been removed from the Philippines in the evacuation, claiming that this had not been properly acquired with legal funds from his salary and therefore it was property of the Philippine people. Another set of suits involved property, real estate, office buildings, homes, etc. in the United States which it was claimed were owned by the Marcoses, although very complicated legal maneuvers had been conducted to not show them as the owners….

A third category of suits dated to a rather archaic part of our law which was passed by the first Congress of the United States, about 1787, called the Alien Tort Act…..What it amounted to was that it allowed people outside the United States, in this case in the Philippines, to bring suit in United States courts for acts which had not been perpetrated in the United States, in other words for actions in the Philippines.

A typical case might involve a family or someone on behalf of a family whose son or husband had disappeared at some point and allegedly was killed by constabulary forces or others under Marcos’ authority. These almost all involved disappearances, torture or killings of some sort over the many years of the Marcos era. These three sets of suits all raised, of course, different kinds of complications. The problem for the Marcoses, having not been given any immunity at all, was that, unlike you or I, they could not go down to a bank and open a bank account to pay the normal bills and expenses of everyday living….

Imelda, A Not-so Simple Housewife 

During the early weeks there was much talk in the press about Imelda Marcos’ “little green dress.” Every time any press appeared, any photographs were to be taken, or meetings with anyone outside those of us dealing with the Marcoses, Mrs. Marcos would put on the little green dress, which was probably the simplest dress she owned, and let it be known to the general public that this was all she came away with, with barely the clothes on her back, and that she was a poor, destitute person and she needed the sympathy of the world. This was part of an act and image they carried on for weeks….

It had been a rather tacit U.S. assumption that they would go to some third country and not remain long in the United States….A number of alternatives emerged and were discarded. At one point there was a prospect of an offer to go to a small West African country. I recall sitting at the dining table in the Marcoses’ part of the duplex talking with the president about his options.

Mrs. Marcos was sitting perhaps 15 feet away in the sitting room area, not part of our conversation directly. Suddenly she spoke up very loudly and said, “Well, I’m not going there. If you want to go, you go ahead. I am just a simple housewife. I am going home.” She then rose and stomped out of the room. Somehow, I can never see her as the “simple housewife.”

One interlude I recall President Marcos was very interested in was an offer from the Knights of Malta, but after some investigation we were able to inform him that the Knights of Malta didn’t have a country and didn’t really have anything but a few decorations and honoraria that they could bestow upon him.

Finally, these various options centered on Panama. Negotiations proceeded with Panama with the assistance of our embassy there, and we obtained permission for….the Marcoses to rent at tremendous expense a home in the highlands in northwestern Pan


However, Madam Aquino (in photo) at the last minute called up Noriega in Panama and persuaded him that it would be a very unfriendly act to harbor the Marcoses in Panama. She very much wanted them hostage in the United States where they could be brought under pressures through our legal system. At the nth hour, with bags ready to go through Customs and the airplane fueled and ready to depart, the deal fell through. That was the last major effort to move them onward to some more permanent location.

“I don’t understand why they are so upset about my shoes”

It became clear that we had them in the United States, whether we wanted them or not. My attention then turned primarily to trying to get them off the base into other quarters. It was six weeks before we finally succeeded.

Perhaps a few stories are interesting from that period. There was a big tree in front of this duplex, between there and the Officer’s Club that we used for the mess, and it became known by the Filipinos as the thinking tree. A few chairs were placed under the tree. I dealt with Mrs. Marcos as little as I could, since my official dealings were with the president, and she was a personality that I found very difficult and personally very repulsive to me. Therefore, I maintained politeness but did not try to socialize with her in any way.

However, from time to time I was caught by her. One day I was stopped by her outside under the tree. You may recall that at that time television was just full of stories about the Marcoses, and they watched them all. She came out blowing steam one day and said, “Shoes! I don’t understand why they are so upset about my shoes. We make shoes in the Philippines, it gives people work, and there is nothing wrong with me buying shoes. Besides, I have a lot more shoes than that down in Tacloban.”

Well, the background of that was that her shoes were not made in the Philippines. They were all made in Italy. And when she said, “Besides, I have a lot more shoes down in Tacloban,” she was referring to the palace she had built and furnished in the central Philippines near her childhood home without her husband’s knowledge a few years previously. They went down there while I was still in the Philippines, on their annual trip to the ceremonies to reenact MacArthur’s Leyte landing.

After the ceremonies, Imelda told Ferdinand that she wanted to show him something. She took him to this palatial home and he wandered through a few rooms and turned to her and said, “Whose is this?” She said, “It is ours.” They also had such secondary palaces in quite a number of places in the Philippines. So she was saying that she had even far more shoes than the television was talking about.

I cite this only because the way she reacted was so typical: What is wrong with all this? There was a total opaqueness in her moral understanding of why anybody should get excited over such things. Why was it an issue?

Back to trying to get them off Hickam Air Base. Some of the issues that had to be resolved in the future should be thought through in advance. For example: How long would the Secret Service provide protection after they moved outside military facilities; how would the transition be conducted between the United States being responsible for security and Marcos’ own security detail? They eventually did move to a very modest home on the water, but any home on the water in Hawaii costs a lot of money. It was actually a rather small place, not easy to maintain security there because there was little distance between house or road or house and adjoining houses. It was spoken of in the press as a much more palatial place than it was.

There, too, the charade of not owning anything continued. The little green dress was trotted out upon occasion, and if Marcos was to be seen he would try to be photographed lifting weights or something showing he was fit as a fiddle and ready to go.

We did eventually work out arrangements to return a few of this entourage to the Philippines after it became clear that this was a permanent exodus by the Marcos family and clan. Some of these security people, personal servants, staff, medical personnel and others had their lives and families back home, and we returned them to the Philippines at  U.S. Government expense and made arrangements to parole the immediate families of those who planned to stay into the United States under circumstances which would allow them to work and earn money.

“I was urging the Department to disengage”

So the human thing was done properly, but it all had to be decided after the fact of the exodus, not before as would have been better. I think these issues are useful because in the future when the decisions are made there should be an awareness in advance that these are all parts of the problem. What kind of immunity is going to be granted and for what period of time? What kind of responsibilities is the U.S. Government acquiring for people who are evacuated by us? The decisions should be made ahead of time, and the party to be evacuated should be told clearly what they can bring and what they cannot bring and what the status of personal effects will be.

At the time an emergency exodus is made there is no time then to make those decisions. That is why I hope the U.S. Government will think about these things and have a plan. I actually wrote a draft plan in this regard and gave it to the Secretariat after this episode. Without that there will again be a lot of ad hoc decision making under pressure in an emotional environment. It certainly was the case in the Marcos episode, where there was a high-pressure, volatile press environment, both in our country and elsewhere. There will inevitably be cases again in the future when it is in the deep interest of the United States to avoid civil war, chaos, mayhem and death, and to help smooth a transition to a constructive future by assisting in such an enterprise.…

The CINCPAC [Commander in Chief, Pacific Command] Judge Advocate worked with me full time during this period, essentially almost as my deputy, and has become a life-long friend. He later became Judge Advocate General of the Navy and retired as an admiral.

The Air Force was a little less comfortable with all of this because we were co-opting a significant part of their facilities, not only their senior officers’ quarters, but an officers’ club and a BOQ [Bachelor Officers’ Quarters], as well as Air Force personnel to establish a perimeter and checkpoints. This was fine for a few days, but it wore thin for the Air Force Base Commander very quickly.

He and I saw each other almost every day. His main interest was usually, “When are you going to get them out of here?”

They were at Hickam for six weeks, as I recall. I stayed there almost three months, because I was instructed to maintain liaison with them after they moved off base. It was a longer period than I felt advisable.

In fact, for several weeks, at least a month before it was over, I was urging the Department to disengage. I felt it was in the U.S. interest not to appear to continue to be nurse-maiding Marcos. I felt at that point there was very little still to be accomplished. However, what was being accomplished, from Washington’s point of view, was essentially to keep Marcos off the White House’s back.

In the earlier period I was engaged in extremely intense policy issues and operational problems. In the latter part, I felt I was mostly just providing a security blanket for Washington. Admiral Poindexter (NSC, at left) vetoed the suggestion every time the State Department supported me in suggesting we stand down.

Early on the Marcoses had picked up the phone frequently to call “Ronnie” and Mrs. Reagan, and the Reagans didn’t want that. So giving the Marcoses the sense that the U.S. Government was still concerned, paying attention to their problems, and passing their messages continued to be of value to the White House beyond the point when we had accomplished most other purposes.