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“Am I Going to Watch a U.S. Senator Get Shot?”—Observing the Fall of the Marcos Regime in the Philippines

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Wikipedia commons

Senator John Kerry bravely pushed aside armed hostile Philippine military personnel and policemen, rushing into the barricaded church in front of him. Inside, a group of Filipino election officials were huddled in fear. Ignoring the chaos outside, Senator Kerry questioned the officials about the Philippine presidential elections that had taken place two days before. Over the course of the interview, it became clear that the corrupt president, Ferdinand Marcos, rigged the elections so he would remain in power. Armed with this information, Senator Kerry (and others) flew back to Washington to convince President Reagan to support Marcos’ opposition.

President Marcos ruled over the Philippines with an iron fist for two decades. Despite his human rights abuses, corruption, and media silencing, Marcos’s regime was buffeted by a military partnership with the United States. This relationship fell apart in 1983, when Marcos was accused of assassinating opposition politician Senator Benigno Aquino. The senator’s death spurred a national opposition movement led by Aquino’s widow, Cory Aquino. The Reagan administration pushed Marcos to hold elections, to which Marcos agreed.

In 1986, Marcos was declared the winner of the presidential elections. However, poll watchers disputed the results, and the reports of voter fraud from voting technician defectors convinced U.S. representatives, such as John Kerry, that the election was rigged in favor of Marcos. In response to this outcome, top military officials from the Marcos administration resigned, and many joined the pro-democracy People Power Revolution. Marcos was forced to flee the country, and Cory Aquino was elected as the legitimate president of the Philippines.

Foreign Service Officer John D. Finney was with Senator Kerry the night he defied the Filipino Military—and risked getting shot amid heightened tensions—to interview the election officials. Finney recalls the fall of the Marcos regime, and more, in his complete oral history. He began his career in Southeast Asia, and witnessed pivotal moments in the region such as the Vietnam War and the return of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. Finney would later repeatedly serve as a political advisor alongside the U.S. military in multiple roles across multiple regions.

John D. Finney, Jr. was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 21, 2004.

Read John Finney Jr.’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Elise Bousquette and Connor Akiyama

Excerpts:

“At the end of the day, [Senator] Lugar, Senator Kerry, and others felt that they had clear evidence that substantial portions of the balloting was rigged.”

The Election is Called: There were basically two principal things going on [in the Philippines at the time]. One of them was trying to resolve the investigation of the assassination of Senator Aquino [on August 21, 1983], at the Manila International Airport.

. . . . [This happened] two years before my arrival. There had been a series of investigations and court processes going on, and the outcome of this investigation appeared to lead directly to President Marcos. So if President Marcos, as the evidence seemed to suggest, was directly involved in the assassination of Senator Aquino, what would that mean for his future and the future of Philippine politics . . . .

What then emerged in the fall of 1985 was that on the political front Aquino’s wife, Cory Aquino, called for national elections. She emerged as the spokesman for the Philippine opposition. [We] had to decide whether we were going to continue our military assistance program to Marcos at the same time that he appeared to be culpable of the assassination of Senator Aquino . . . . While this was all coming to a head a key diplomatic move on our part . . . . was to send Senator Paul Laxalt, who was Reagan’s close friend, a senator from Nevada, out to Manila to tell Marcos that he should submit to elections. Also, Laxalt told him that if he didn’t submit to the election call that Aquino’s wife had raised that it might be difficult for us to continue our relationship with him. So he decided to have the elections.

Then the elections were held on February 7, 1986. I was appointed the action officer from State to escort a delegation from our Congress headed by Senator Richard Lugar plus about a 12 or 15 member house and senate delegation… to go out to the Philippines to observe this election. So I found myself in late January at Andrews Air Force Base on a plane with [Senator] Richard Lugar and Senator Thad Cochran, and a very ambitious and hard charging young senator from Massachusetts named John Kerry. We go to the Philippines to observe these elections . . . . We divided up into different teams . . . . So [I] went out with Lugar and John Kerry and the others and did the polling. We observed the election. At the end of the day, Lugar, Senator Kerry, and others felt that they had clear evidence that substantial portions of the balloting was rigged.

“I am ten feet behind him, saying am I going to watch a U.S. senator get shot right here before my eyes, because these military [sic] were mad as the dickens.”
Malacañang Palace archives
Malacañang Palace archives

John Kerry Defies the Filipino Military: Then that night [February 9], about 9:00 pm, a group of Philippine vote counters at the Philippine national convention center, where they were headquartered with all their computers, broke from the convention center, sought refuge in a church, and stated that it was rigged. I was down at the Manila Hotel when this happened. Senator Kerry came running out of the hotel, saying, “I have got to have a car. I have got to go to this church where these Philippine vote counters are, because there are rumors that Marcos’ police and military are going to move in on them and storm the church and arrest them.” So Senator Kerry said, “I have got to go over there.” We got a car. I went with him. The church was barricaded. And Senator Kerry was absolutely fearless. It was absolutely surrounded by Philippine military and police.

Kerry just shoved his way past and said, “I am Senator John Kerry. I am here to observe these elections.” He stormed into the church. I am ten feet behind him, saying am I going to watch a U.S. senator get shot right here before my eyes, because these military were mad as the dickens. Tensions were high; it was an electric situation. Then we went to the back of the church behind the altar and we found maybe 15 to 20 of these vote counters. They were trembling and crying. Some of them couldn’t speak English. I got an interpreter for Kerry. We sat there and we interviewed them. They told him how in essence the election was rigged. Kerry took all this on board. There was constant noise going on outside and shouting and screaming and searchlights and some kind of muffled explosions. I thought, well, they are coming in here. I was looking for a thick pew to crawl under and see what the heck Kerry was going to do, where he was going to hide. At the end of the day it didn’t happen. Kerry said, “I have heard enough. I am going back to the hotel.” We went back to the hotel; he reported to Lugar and Thad Cochran. Next day they called a press conference and said, “There is no doubt in our minds that there has been serious malfeasance in this election. We are getting back on the plane and we are going to report to the president.”

“Marcos sent his military forces out to take over the encampment from the rebels, and the military forces refused to do it.”

The End of the Marcos Regime: We got back on the plane and flew back to Andrews. My admiration for Lugar is boundless. I mean his determination, at the same time his calmness. His keeping these 10 or 15 Congressmen, Republicans, Democrats, very ambitious people like Kerry, very smart and retiring people like Thad Cochran and others . . . . Lugar kept them all together, and listened to everybody. Those who had the most extreme views, those who had a different view, he kept them all together. [He] got off the plane, and he went straight to the White House to brief President Reagan because we had a serious problem . . . . [Chief of Staff] Don Regan told the president you have got to stick by Marcos because if you don’t, we don’t know what we are getting into, and it could result in a worse case scenario. So Lugar had to go and tell the president directly, “Sir, this election is not fair. Marcos, even though he declared himself the winner, you know this is not in our view the legitimate outcome. In our view Cory Aquino was probably the [victor].” That wasn’t enough. [Secretary of State] Shultz, who found himself in a battle for President Reagan’s mind, sent [former FSO] Phil Habib, venerable old Phil Habib, sent him out to the Philippines… So you had a situation where Lugar’s report, as persuasive as it was, was not enough. So Habib went out there. Habib came back and Shultz went with him to see Reagan. Habib told President Reagan straight forward that the Marcos era is over. We have a new situation. While this debate was going on rebels under Gregorio Honasan and others within the Philippine army revolted. They took over this big army camp on the outskirts of Manila. Then the chief of staff of the Philippine army, General Eddie Ramos, broke with the Marcos administration and joined the rebels, and so did the defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile. So that revolt which led to the [People Power Revolution] . . . .

. . . . So, that revolt with General Ramos and Defense Minister Enrile joined led to a dramatic confrontation. Marcos sent his military forces out to take over the encampment from the rebels, and the military forces refused to do it. So, we then evolved into a situation where it looked like civil war, and the American contribution was to arrange for Marcos’ removal. So Habib, who went out there to verify that the election was indeed fraudulent, wound up verifying that the Marcos era was indeed over, and “President Reagan,” he said, “our contribution is to offer Marcos asylum to avoid Philippine civil war.” . . . . President Reagan asked his close friend, Senator Laxalt, “Call Marcos and tell him to cut and cut clean.” So Marcos agreed to be evacuated. So we did arrange for helicopters, flew him to Clark Air Base, and then flew him and his family and his entourage to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. There he eventually was provided medical support and protection. Cory Aquino was proclaimed president of the Philippines, the winner of the election.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in American History, St. Louis University                                                         1957-1961
MA in American History, St. Louis University                                                        1961-1962
PhD in American History, Georgetown University                                                 1962-1967
Joined the Foreign Service                                                                              1966
Tuy Huo, Vietnam—Deputy Province Advisor                                                         1972-1973
Udorn, Thailand—Consul General                                                                              1976-1978
Washington D.C.—Deputy Director Philippines Desk, East Asia Bureau           1985-1987
Honolulu—Political Advisor (POLAD), Commander-in-Chief PACOM              1987-1989
Washington D.C.—Director of Office, Defense Relation/Security, Pol-Mil        1994-1995
Washington D.C.—Pol-Mil Task Force on 9/11, State Dept. Ops Center             2001-2001
Kabul, Afghanistan—Political Advisor to Commander in Kabul                           2003-2004

“Am I Going to Watch a U.S. …

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