How CIA's Edward Lansdale groomed Ramon Magsaysay to be President of the Philippines

Saturday July 15, 2017 ()

Magsaysay and Lansdale
(Edward Lansdale (left) and Ramón Magsaysay, undated photo)

In the presidential election of 1949, the Nacionalista candidate was Jose P. Laurel who, proclaiming nationalist views, was claimed to have thrown off his reputation as a collaborator during the Japanese occupation.

Laurel went so far as to promise to lead the Nacionalistas into an armed alliance with the Huk movement, led by the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP), if he was defeated as a result of electoral fraud.


In return, the PKP and the Huks supported his candidacy. As the election drew near, however, Laurel withdrew from the agreement, and a PKP document states that there "were indications that US approaches had been made and pressure applied to Laurel".

The election was characterized by massive fraud and terror, with Elpidio Quirino, who had succeeded to the presidency after the death of Roxas, chalking up a predictable victory.

In his book The Marcos Dynasty, Sterling Seagrave (admittedly not always a reliable source) claims that MacArthur warned Manuel Gallego, Manila's "roving ambassador", that Quirino should be re-elected "or else" he would guarantee that all US aid and loans would be canceled.

Furthermore, at Ambassador Paul V. McNutt's suggestion none other than Chiang Kai-shek visited Quirino in July 1949, following which the Philippines became the only country in Asia to allow Chiang's Kuomintang (KMT) to function openly as a political party. Seagrave comments that Quirino secured the presidency "aided by millions of pesos donated grudgingly by Chinese businessmen under pressure from the KMT-controlled Chinese chambers of commerce in Manila"

But Washington also had an eye to the future, planning to boost the fortunes of Ramon Magsaysay and eventually have him elected to succeed Quirino. Magsaysay was to be US imperialism's "man of the people".

Despite the myth cultivated about his supposedly humble background, he in fact came from a family that owned several farms (one in excess of 1,000 acres) and a general store.

In 1940, as branch manager of a bus company, Magsaysay broke a strike that was itself called in protest at his high-handed disciplinary methods.

In September 1950, at the urging of the head of the Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) and the US Ambassador, Quirino appointed Magsaysay to the post of Secretary of National Defense.

A week later, Manila saw the arrival of Edward Lansdale, who installed his desk in Magsaysay's office and promptly commenced to groom "America's boy".

Later, it would be claimed that Lansdale had "invented" Magsaysay, who was persuaded to reduce corruption in the armed forces, curb military terrorism and reorganize the Army.

Edward Lansdale (later dubbed "General Landslide" for his part in Magsaysay's election to the presidency) was acting as Magsaysay's Svengali, tutoring the Defense secretary in the art of psychological warfare.

For public consumption, Lansdale (upon whom the main character in Lederer and Burdick's novel, The Ugly American, was reputedly based) was now a military adviser attached to JUSMAG, although he would later admit that "my advisory work wasn't necessarily limited to military affairs".

In reality, he headed the CIA's Office of Policy Coordination in the Philippines, with special responsibility for the Office of Psychological Warfare, later more tactfully renamed the Civil Affairs Office.

Charles Bohannon, Lansdale's subordinate, would recall that the team was told "they could do almost anything as long as the ambassador, the chief of JUSMAG, and another US representative" — possibly the head of the local CIA station — "did not object violently."

In his Instruments of Statecraft, Michael McClintock views the relationship between Lansdale and Magsaysay as having been "a rather peculiar blend of buddy-buddy camaraderie and cold-blooded manipulation."

Having "largely created his public image," in private Lansdale and Bohannon "characterized Magsaysay as a superstitious, malleable pawn of their own creation."

With regard to its long-term plans for Magsaysay, the CIA established and funded the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) in August 1951. Gabriel Kaplan was recruited by the CIA and brought from New York "to help Lansdale elect Magsaysay president two years before the election was to take place."

The immediate target of the Namfrel campaign was the elections for the Senate in November 1951, and here Magsaysay was persuaded to play a prominent part, ensuring that the elections were clean.

They were, and as a result Magsaysay's own party, the Liberals, lost all nine contests. But this was all part of the plan for, as the Constantinos put it in The Continuing Past: "The biggest gainer was Magsaysay. He was ‘Man of the Year,' said the Philippine Free Press, ‘a national hero,' the ‘Eisenhower of the Pacific,' the ‘next President,' said Time magazine which carried his picture on its cover."

Magsaysay now proceeded to consolidate his popularity by visiting the barrios, eating rice with his hands and discussing the peasants' problems.

The excellent press, in both the Philippines and the USA, which the Americans had orchestrated on Magsaysay's behalf, and the popular image that had been constructed around the man, fooled even genuine nationalists.

Magsaysay made approaches to Claro M. Recto and Lorenzo Tañada, suggesting that he should run as the opposition candidate for president in 1953.

At least one of these meetings, with Emmanuel Palaez, Manuel Gonzales (president of the Manila Lions Club) and Oscar Arellano, Lansdale was present.

On November 18, 1952, Magsaysay reassured Quirino that "I will betray my father before I will betray you." Nevertheless, two days later Magsaysay signed a secret agreement with Recto, Laurel and Tañada to the effect that he would run against Quirino on the Nacionalista ticket.

It is of course true that as Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay reformed the Army, and that as president, he would combat corruption and introduce a number of reforms.

But such actions were merely part of an agenda aimed at defeating the Huk Rebellion.

In their book on counter-guerilla operations, Valeriano and Bohannon state: "The guerrilla claims a moral superiority over his government enemy. He claims a greater concern for the welfare of the people. To beat him at this, not only must the forces of the government demonstrate their own moral superiority; they must find ways to dramatize their concern for the people."

Thus, reforms were viewed as not simply correct and desirable in themselves, but as tactics to defeat the rebellion.

This approach extended even to the "honest" presidential election of 1953, which resulted in the victory of Magsaysay.

Without a trace of irony, the CIA's Edward Lansdale tells us that during a trip to Washington, "my plan for a free election was approved ..."

During the campaign, considerable sums were forthcoming from the Americans. Afterwards, Time magazine would report:

"In spite of a Filipino law which forbids foreigners to contribute to election campaigns, US business interests in the islands anted up some $250,000 at a time when Magsaysay's (Nacionalista) Party was seriously short of funds."

According to the Constantinos, the "total American contribution was much higher."

Once again National Citizen's Movement For Free Elections (Namfrel), a CIA creation, played a prominent role in the campaign, with Lansdale maintaining daily contact with the organization.

Another CIA creation was the Magsaysay for President Movement (MPM), which emphasized the notion that Magsaysay should not be seen merely as a partisan candidate but the candidate around which the whole country, regardless of party, could unite. The idea here was to ensure that "the old (Nacionalista) Party machine would not be the ultimate victor" so that Magsaysay's loyalties would lie not with such a machine but with his American patrons.

It would be a mistake to assume that Magsaysay's US-funded campaign was averse to dirty tricks: In his Instruments of Statecraft, Michael McClintock cites the claim of Gen. Ralph Lovett, head of the CIA's Manila station, that the incumbent, Elpidio Quirino, was drugged before he delivered a speech, rendering him incoherent.

The election became a three-horse race with the entry of the "sugar bloc" team of Carlos Romulo and Quirino's vice-president, Fernando Lopez, who ran under the banner of the Democratic Party (also called the Progressive Party).

In August, however, this team withdrew, with Romulo announcing that he would be supporting Magsaysay. The effect of this was to split the Liberal vote and in his Portrait of a Cold Warrior, the CIA's Joseph Smith heavily implies that Lopez was persuaded to join the Romulo team due to the fact that the CIA's Manila station had tape-recorded evidence of his extra-marital activity.

Given the massive publicity machine that had built Magsaysay's candidacy, it was obviously only the Liberals who would have an interest in rigging the election, and thus the Namfrel workers were, as the Constantinos point out in The Continuing Past, actually Magsaysay activists.

In the event of a fraudulent Quirino victory, Magsaysay planned to stage a coup with US assistance. In the event, however, he won with a predictably overwhelming 69 percent of the vote.

"America's boy" was raised to the presidency for a specific purpose. Within days of his election, Magsaysay met US Navy Secretary Robert Anderson and the following month the latter was able to tell a press conference in Washington that the Philippines "would be receptive toward granting the United States permanent use of the bases there".

Once Lansdale had installed Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, Magsaysay was among the very first to recognize the new regime. Claro M. Recto (who had soon recognized his error in supporting Magsaysay), ascribed this to one factor:

"It was the arrival in Manila, accompanying the Chairman of Diem's Revolutionary Junta, of Colonel Edward Lansdale. He came, he saw, he spoke, and the President's last line of resistance easily snapped, and Lansdale walked away in triumph: He could still compel obedience."

But, says former CIA officer Joseph Smith, the purpose for which Magsaysay had been "invented" by Lansdale extended far beyond the Philippines, for the CIA's Manila station was using Filipinos to "spread democracy throughout the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) security area our Secretary of State had put together in Southeast Asia.

It was believed that the Filipinos would be more readily accepted than Americans in roles as political advisers and liaison officers with local intelligence services."

The Freedom Company of the Philippines was established by Lansdale in 1954, with Magsaysay as the company's honorary president. Its aim was to deploy Filipinos to Vietnam and elsewhere, being ostensibly a public service organization under contract to the host government.

According to Smith, Freedom Company personnel assisted in drafting South Vietnam's constitution, "trained the Vietnamese president's Guard Battalion, organized the Vietnamese Veterans Legion to tie in with one of Cord Meyer's schemes to use veterans groups internationally as an anti-Communist front, and ran the huge Operation Brotherhood activity ..."

Smith claims, not without reason, that the USA's "fateful entanglement" in Vietnam "began in Manila in the early 1950s, not in Saigon in the early sixties."


  1. US electoral interference in the Philippines, Part 3 and 4, Ken Fuller, Manila Daily Tribune, June 13, 2017 and June 20, 2017
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(This article is adapted from the source listed above. We are unable to grant permission for any kind of reproduction other than social media shares.)


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