Mercenary Monsters From Manila THE MARCOS DYNASTY

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Start with the veracity of Joe Isuzu. Add the civic virtue of Al Capone, the greed of Ivan Boesky, the gentility of a China Seas pirate. Wed this paragon to a bimbo on the make with the vanity of a Marie Antoinette and a shopping lust that would turn a Beverly Hills divorcee envy-green. Multiply by ten and you have, approximately, the portraits of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos that Sterling Seagrave paints in this merciless account of the Filipino dictator's rise and fall.

In a now famous apercu, author Mary McCarthy charged that everything written by playwright-memoirist Lillian Hellman was a lie, "including 'and' and 'the.' " Much the same, Seagrave argues, could be said of Ferdinand Marcos, who blithely concocted a past for his official biographies that bore scant relationship to the truth. Ferdinand claims to be the first son of Mariano Marcos, a provincial teacher and sometime member of Congress. According to Seagrave, there is strong circumstantial evidence -- including his subject's distinctively sinoid features -- that the real father was Judge Ferdinand Chua, scion of a wealthy, politically powerful Chinese clan who came to the rescue at crucial moments in Marcos' early career.

In the episode that first brought him national notoriety, Marcos responded to a slighting of family honor in a manner worthy of Michael Corleone. In 1935 Mariano Marcos was unexpectedly defeated for a third term in the Philippine House of Representatives by a neighbor, Julio Nalundasan. When the victor flaunted this triumph in a humiliating manner, Ferdinand, who had been a member of his university's shooting team, hid in the orchard one night outside Nalundasan's home and at an opportune moment coolly fired two shots from a long-barreled .22-cal. pistol. Ferdinand was found guilty of murder but was eventually freed by the Supreme Court of the Philippines -- after an intervention, Seagrave says, by the ever helpful Judge Chua.

For many years it was taken as gospel that Marcos was the most decorated Filipino soldier of World War II. Technically that is true: while running for President in 1965 he nudged the Senate into retroactively awarding him some 20 medals for heroism, nine of them on the same day. Seagrave argues convincingly that Marcos' stirring tales of escaping from Japanese prison camps after being tortured, and then conducting reconnaissance raids for the Filipino resistance, are so much hogwash. In fact, an American commander of the underground in 1945 had ordered Marcos' arrest and execution as a collaborator.

Like many another Filipino politician who was born poor, Marcos regarded bribes and corrupt profits as perks of office; he skimmed millions, for example, from the country's cigarette-tobacco monopoly. But Seagrave estimates that the ex-dictator's fortune may be as much as $100 billion. Whence came that awesome wealth? Seagrave's answer is that Marcos had located and dug up part of a vast horde of stolen bullion known as "Yamashita's Gold."

According to the author's somewhat breathless account, when Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita ("the Tiger of Malaya") moved to Manila in 1944, he took charge of several billion dollars' worth of gold that the Japanese had accumulated in their conquest of Southeast Asia. The bullion was cached in underground caves dug by U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war, who were then buried alive with it. Seagrave claims that Marcos was able to disperse the gold with the aid of a murky global network of coconspirators, including Swiss banks, a London-based bullion cartel, right-wing American political groups (among them, the John Birch Society) and -- guess what? -- the CIA.

The Marcos Dynasty, which ends with Imelda and an ailing Ferdinand flying off to exile in Hawaii, falls into the morbid subbranch of literature that Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed pathography. As such, it is a book with notable flaws. Seagrave, whose previous works include a biography of China's legendary Soong sisters, writes with glum prosecutorial fury, treating as credible any rumor of lurid conduct -- Imelda's alleged lesbian orgies, for example -- that helps his cause. When venturing into broader areas, like Washington's postwar foreign policy in the Far East, the author lapses into a crude historical revisionism, rejecting as paranoiac fancy any suggestion that leftist + insurgencies along the Pacific Rim might have been Communist influenced.

Finally, Seagrave seems so concerned about building an indictment that he fails to answer the question of what really made Ferdinand and Imelda tick. What drove them to accumulate billions they could never have spent in three lifetimes? What possessed her to buy those infamous closetsful of unworn shoes? Still, the author does persuade us that his subjects, Ferdinand in particular, were paradigmatically venal. Lyndon Johnson, no mean connoisseur of cads, may serve as final witness. After one encounter with the self- glorifying Marcos, L.B.J. called in Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy and warned, "If you ever bring that son of a bitch within 50 miles of me again, I'll have your job."