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A Historian Rewrites History by Stripping Bare the War Record of Philippine President Marcos

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It was at the deathbed of a Philippine general a decade ago that Alfred McCoy first heard about a cache of missing documents detailing Philippine guerrilla activities during World War II. McCoy, then a Yale doctoral candidate researching his dissertation on anti-Japanese insurgency in the Philippines, listened intently as Gen. Macario Peralta, dying of cancer, urged him to recover the missing war records. “Find these documents,” Peralta told McCoy, “and you will know everything there is to know about the guerrilla movement.”

McCoy, now 40 and an associate professor of history at Australia’s University of New South Wales, never forgot Peralta’s words, and they finally led him to a startling discovery, revealed last month as Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos and his challenger, Corazon Aquino, battled into the final stages of an election scheduled for this week. According to records produced by McCoy, Marcos’ legendary war record asa heroic insurgent was not just mythic in scope; it was a myth. Marcos’ fabled guerrilla unit, the Ang Mga Maharlika, never existed. His guerrilla record was a fabrication.

McCoy’s hunt for the elusive records had led nowhere until January 1985, when he took a seven-month leave from his teaching post to make an intense search at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. “There were about 600 boxes dealing with the guerrillas,” McCoy recalls. “That’s about 1,200,000 pages.” The material had just been released from the U.S. Army records center in St. Louis, and McCoy was the first scholar to see it. He practically lived in a cramped, windowless reading room at the Archives, working 10-hour days surrounded by floor-to-ceiling stacks of dusty gray boxes.

After six months of study McCoy still had not come across any files on Marcos. Then, one sultry day last July, he opened the box numbered 60. His hands trembled as he picked up a page and read, “It is concluded that the Ang Mga Maharlika unit under the alleged command of Ferdinand Marcos is fraudulent.”

“I just couldn’t believe it,” McCoy recalls. “I was absolutely stunned.”

Marcos’ political appeal has always been based to a large extent on his supposed exploits as the courageous leader of the Maharlika. Yet the U.S. Army records stated that when Marcos, like thousands of other Filipinos, had applied for recognition and back pay as a guerrilla, he was turned down. The Army concluded in 1948 that his claims were “fraudulent,” “contradictory,” “exaggerated,” “distorted” and “absurd.”

Marcos had offered widely varying reports of Maharlika’s strength, claiming 300 men at one point, 8,300 men at another. Marcos also wrote of being cut off from his unit by an American invasion force—one month before that invasion force had in fact landed. One Filipino, whom Marcos listed as a senior Maharlika officer, had actually been engaged in selling scrap metal to the Japanese occupation forces, investigators learned. “No such unit ever existed,” the Army concluded.

McCoy’s account of his discovery was at first rejected by several major newspapers because, McCoy says, “none of them were willing to take writing from an outsider.” But after seeing the documents, the New York Times finally published the news last month. McCoy’s revelations were quickly denounced by Marcos as “foolishness” disseminated by “crazy people.”

McCoy, an army captain’s son who grew up espousing conservative views, became an anti-Vietnam War activist during his senior year at Columbia University. In 1972 he published The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, an expose that charged CIA operatives with complicity in the drug trade during the Vietnam War. As he worked toward his doctorate in history from Yale, McCoy spent three years in the Philippines studying the culture. It was there that he married for the first time and his first son was born. After earning his Ph.D., he migrated to Australia to find a teaching job.

Despite his acknowledged opposition to Marcos, McCoy claims that the timing of his damaging research, just before the Philippine election, is pure coincidence. Nor does the professor profess any interest in turning his discovery into a big profit. Now in the U.S. for further research, McCoy will soon return to work in Sydney, Australia with his second wife, Ruby Paredes, a Filipino historian whom he married in January. He has no plans to turn his Marcos dossier into a commercial book. “I’m still planning to write a general academic history of Philippine resistance in World War II,” he says. “I just wanted to educate people. That’s my job as a historian.”