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Drowning in a Strawberry Ice Cream Soda: Life as a Diplomat in the Philippines

World powers, including the United States, have long considered the Philippines to be of strategic importance. The entire landmass of the Philippines is comprised of over 7,000 islands.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy and the Marcoses view turnover ceremonies at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines (14 March 1979) Al Ramones & Domie Quiazon | National Archives and Records Administration
U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy and the Marcoses view turnover ceremonies at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines (14 March 1979) Al Ramones & Domie Quiazon | National Archives and Records Administration

It is one of the largest archipelagos in the world. In the 16th century, Imperial Spain attempted to conquer the Philippines numerous times. They finally succeeded in 1571, creating the modern-day capital of Manila and forcibly establishing a feudal system with a tiny population of Spanish elites who owned vast estates worked by vast swathes of the native Filipino population.

The Filipino revolutionaries rebelled many times, finally declaring independence in the late 1890s—the same time that the United States, the victor of the Spanish-American War, claimed the Philippines as a territory. Controversially, the revolution was brutally crushed by U.S. troops and the Philippines endured another 50 years of colonialism. In 1946, spurred by the renewed public consciousness of World War II, the U.S. granted the Philippines independence and fostered the improvement of the public school system, healthcare institutions, and infrastructure.

During the Cold War years from 1947–1991, the United States worked very hard to maintain access to two strategically vital military bases by encouraging robust diplomatic ties with the Filipino dictatorship led by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

Richard Murphy served as U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines from 1978–1981, during the height of controversy. He said life in Manila as a diplomat was like “drowning in a strawberry ice cream soda,” it was so sweet with extravagance. In his oral history, he describes his observations of the Filipino oligarchy, government, the complexity of U.S.-Philippine relations during the Cold War, and public opinion in both countries.

Over the course of his illustrious career, Richard Murphy also served as ambassador to several Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania.

Richard Murphy’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 6, 2017.

Read Richard Murphy’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Sairah Aslam

Excerpt 1: The Elites and their Extravagance

“There was no sense of guilt about their notoriety and the reasons how they got the land, how they behaved as members of the elite.”

Life in Manila as a diplomat, to quote a colleague, was like “drowning in a strawberry ice cream soda.” It was very sweet…. The flowers, the colors of the clothes, the extravagant turns of phrase, the way the rich openly described themselves as ‘we’re well to do and we’re working hard to get even wealthier.’ There was a dominant fiesta mentality. Any chance to throw a party was welcomed even by those who could economically ill afford it…. There were family names which came down over the generations of the well-to-do landowners, the powers behind the throne be it the Spanish throne or the Commonwealth or independence. The oligarchs were seen as the prime movers of governmental policy. Yes, they lived very well. Doesn’t mean they were all grasping, but there was a clear assumption that “if I’ve got the money and the land, who’s to say I shouldn’t be dictating the way life should be lived by my tenant farmers or by my associates in the community?” There was no sense of guilt about their notoriety and the reasons how they got the land, how they behaved as members of the elite. They were a law unto themselves.

Imelda was out of the country when I arrived. I had heard her described by others as a rather mysterious figure, surrounded by a group called the Blue Ladies. That term came from the color of their dresses when they accompanied her on her tours of the country including the presidential campaigns. She was spoken of with some awe and a degree of fear about the vindictiveness with which she pressured regime critics through taxation and investigations. She seemed to get more of the blame for such actions than the president did. She came back a few weeks from a world tour which had included Moscow. She immediately presented to me a heavy cut glass bowl filled with caviar and brushed aside my hesitation and my thanks. She was good at sizing people up. She picked one of her circle, astutely matching up one of her closest supporters with my wife to be her guide to Philippine society. The lady was a salt-of-the-earth type and not addicted to couture dressing. It was Imelda’s way not only of being helpful but ensuring that she had a steady reading of where we were going and who else we were seeing.

This reminds me of another anecdote about my being chosen for the Philippines. When [Assistant Secretary] Holbrooke interviewed me, he said, “We have sent different types of officers to the Philippines to represent the country; we felt this time we needed a plain couple”. He added that “We want you to get along with the Marcoses but not fit in their pocket.” We did get along. I was not a dancer who could do the latest steps and join in singalongs. I was always a little bit embarrassed by that side of life in the Philippines. She had restructured the top floor of the palace to contain a miniature ballroom where the latest dance steps would be trotted out along with little accouterments like smoke which would come in jets momentarily covering the floor like a fog. I imagine that this was copied from café society at the time to add a touch of glamour. Then she would be asked to sing…. Coming as I did from a background of Protestant celebrations in New England, the dancing parties in the palace were a little too rich. One of my security guards who was sent by the palace to accompany me wherever I went later spoke admiringly of Mike Armacost, my successor in Manila. He said, “You know, Mr. Armacost really knew how to boogie;” there was some regret that I didn’t! (Laughter) Yeah, there was a giddiness in their mind set. It was a country where certain landlords dating from Spanish times had long established their unquestionable authority in parts of the country. They enjoyed a good life with private aircraft and lavish homes, while there were desperate situations in downtown Manila and the other cities.

Excerpt 2: Past Brutality and Present Affection

“‘Think of us as a country that spent 300 years in a Spanish convent and 50 years on Broadway before we became independent’”

MURPHY: [In 1898] we went head-to-head with the nationalists but it didn’t have a religious connotation. We were the imperial force which the nationalists bitterly fought. Our troops, particularly the Marines, overwhelmed the nationalists in the late 1890s. I found it curious remembering our brutality in that period that Filipinos came to regard us so highly. Filipino friends would say “If you want to understand us, think of the Philippine Islands being dragged across the Pacific toward Mexico. Think of us as a country that spent 300 years in a Spanish convent and 50 years on Broadway before we became independent.” There was an almost giddy appreciation of Americans when I arrived in the late ‘70s. We had delayed independence with the onset of the Second World War, but committed ourselves to fostering independence in the Philippines as soon as that conflict was over…General Douglas MacArthur was a hero in Philippine history. When you’d visit small towns in the Philippines likely as not there would be a small bust of General MacArthur in the town square commemorating his having freed the Philippines from Japanese occupation…

When we’d visit in the provinces, the standard opening by the mayor would be, “We have with us no less than the American ambassador and the First Lady of the American Embassy. We’re extremely proud to welcome you to our community.” Not a hint of troubles between Washington and Manila, not a hint of the darker days in our history…my memories are basically about how easy it seemed to be representing the United States in that country.

I found in my own American staff a split between those who thought the Marcos regime was doing a solid job and deserved our support, and those who were highly critical of it. They would bring up their differences in our staff meetings. I had arrived with an understanding that this was a relationship which we wanted to preserve, that was valuable to American interests not only in the Philippines but in East Asia. That thinking grew from the reliance we had developed on our military facilities over the years. Marcos a couple of times referred to his talks with LBJ, saying “Be very careful not to get dragged into a ground war in Asia.” I took very seriously the view that we needed the Philippines. There was a good basis for our relationship from the work we had done building the school system which the Spanish had not done much to improve in their period, in building roads, the health system. That all contributed to this aura of good feeling between the two peoples. Also, there were a number—a few million—of Filipinos already resident in the U.S. by that date. They maintained close family ties and the money they would send back was a major support for families living in poverty in the countryside.

Excerpt 3: Resistance

“They had just finished an election that was not at all seen as that free”


Benigno Aquino Jr. Blooded Clothing from Assassination (26 July 2008) Jon Voltaire B. Aquino | Wikipedia
Benigno Aquino Jr. Blooded Clothing from Assassination (26 July 2008) Jon Voltaire B. Aquino | Wikipedia

My own introduction to the country was jarring. We had flown Pan-American to Hawaii. Arriving in Manila I was asked for an interview to a journalist waiting on the tarmac. His first question was “Please explain why your government continues to try to destabilize our country?” Taken aback I said “There is no such effort.” That stimulated a flood of articles in the Filipino press by journalists writing stories of constant American interference. One cartoon showed me riding in a row boat with a Filipino who looked puzzled as I explained we were not trying to destabilize the country. The cartoonist drew a reporter underwater boring a hole to sink the rowboat illustrating what was really going on between our two countries.

Religious groups
Another long standing question beyond the future of the Marcos’ leadership was activities of the Moro National Liberation Front in Mindanao. The Muslim population had long felt dispossessed, dominated by Christian settlers coming down from the north over the previous few generations who had appropriated some of the best lands. The Muslim rebellion reminded me of the Palestinians’ reaction towards Israelis. Rebellion wasn’t evident on the streets of Manila; the hot-spots were in Mindanao. The government kept a close eye on the situation but never succeeded in resolving tensions in the southern sector of Mindanao….

The Roman Catholic church was headed by Cardinal Sin who made a standing joke of his family name. He would say when I called on him “Welcome to the house of Sin.” He was an outspoken critic of the Marcoses, of Mrs. Marcos in particular. She cordially disliked him…the liberation priests in Latin America and their teachings were starting to circulate in the Philippines….There were members in the priesthood who dwelt on the needs of the people. Cardinal Sin was not one of them but was regarded with suspicion by the regime in the Philippines as not being one whom they could count on to be a loyal supporter.

Vice President George H. W. Bush came after the end of martial law and the election which Marco won. He gave a flowery toast praising the Philippines for its display of Democracy in that election. I saw Filipinos looking at each other a bit sideways; it was an eloquent expression by a visiting dignitary but it rang hollow. They had just finished an election that was not at all seen as that free. Anyway, the vice-president departed that afternoon ahead of schedule citing “bad weather over the Pacific.”

American and Filipino Public
Just before I got there, Mrs. Marcos had come to Washington and, talking to a friendly Senator, said she felt her country and her husband’s leadership was being wrongly viewed in American circles, and she wanted to testify to Congress. Her friends on the Hill said, “That’s not a good idea; if you testify you open yourself up to some direct and perhaps unpleasant public criticisms. We can arrange some off-the-record private meetings for you.” She didn’t listen. She was confident of her ability to control the situation. She did testify, and just as her friends had cautioned, she got hit with some nasty assertions about the state of human rights and governance in the Philippines. Almost immediately thereafter there were youth demonstrations in Manila against the American embassy, against the bases, against imperialism, etc.

Excerpt 4: The Ousting of an Autocrat

“In Aquino’s absence, Marcos faced no challenger.”

By 1978, [the Philippines] had been under martial law since the mid-‘60s. That had ended its reputation as a Wild-West cowboy town where contending forces would shoot rather than talk. Marcos had succeeded in stabilizing the situation, dominating it, and being a very clever politician had secured his presidency. There certainly were those who criticized him, who wanted to see an end to martial law and were ready to propose alternative candidates. He finally announced the ending of martial law and promised a free election. The contenders were unable to persuade the public that they could easily and efficiently replace Marcos himself.

By that time in his political career, he was confident of not having to depend on the Americans for his continuation as president. He campaigned on the slogan of “free elections” in 1980-81 and won overwhelmingly. We were in no way involved in that election in favoring his candidacy. He had built his machine and his image and was very confident. His reign didn’t last much longer; the death of Aquino brought to the surface a lot of the latent antagonisms to his governance, “People’s Power” was suddenly flooding the streets of Manila and he was on an American helicopter being evacuated to Hawaii. I didn’t foresee that happening when I left in ’81.

Q: My knowledge of developments there – when was Mr. Aquino killed?
MURPHY: Just after my tour in 1983. He had been in jail and when he was released came to the States for a spell. His end was highly publicized: when the plane bringing him back to Manila landed, there were security types waiting who took him straight off of the plane and he was dead within hours. He was seen as a serious political threat to Marcos. In Aquino’s absence, Marcos faced no challenger. Who was responsible for his killing? Was Mrs. Marcos directly involved? The rumor mill ran overtime and some among the president’s supporters such as General Ver were talked of as having counseled his killing without Marcos directly authorizing it. The fact remained that Aquino was knocked off before he could revive his political career.


BA in British History and Literature, Harvard University 1947–1951
MA in Anthropology, Cambridge University 1951–1953
Joined the Foreign Service 1955
Aleppo, Syria—Consul 1960-1963
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia—Political Officer 1963-1966
Manila, Philippines—Ambassador 1978-1981
Washington, D.C., U.S.—Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs 1983-1989