16 September 2017

Was Dr. Jose P. Laurel, Batangueño President of the 2nd Philippine Republic, a Traitor?

Dr. Jose P. Laurel (right) with his son Sotero (left) and Ambassador Joaquin Elizalde in 1949.  Image credit:  Presidential Museum and Library PH (2010-2016) on Flickr.
I have a fairly vague recollection of this self-same question being asked during a high school history class decades ago. If Dr. Jose P. Laurel of Tanauan had willingly consented to becoming President of a puppet state set up by the Japanese in 1943, later renamed by historians as the Second Philippine Republic, was he not then a traitor to his own country?

The question was not answered to satisfaction by the teacher. Laurel was, in fact, accused of collaboration1 with the Japanese at the end of World War II, sent into prison to face trial but granted a full pardon by Manuel Roxas, first President of the Third Philippine Republic.

He would lose in controversial circumstances in 1949 to Elpidio Quirino in what was then dubbed as the “dirtiest elections2” in Philippine electoral history; but be elected back to the Senate in 1951 in a landslide victory. The latter, to Laurel, was vindication and proof that his reputation as one of the country’s finest statesmen remained intact.

The question still remains, why would a man held in the highest esteem by his own countrymen agree to become President of what was effectively a farcical government, in so doing also handing his political enemies the noose with which to hang him.

Excerpts from the 1947 Congressional Record of the United States, delivered during the 80th Congress by the Honorable Harold C. Hagen of Minnesota3 and citing a letter sent to him by a P.W. Reeves4, provide the answers.

First, Reeves gave Hagen insights about Laurel as a person. Millions of Filipinos, Reeves wrote, believed that intellectually, “Laurel has no peer among the living and the dead.” He earned more academic degrees than any Filipino ever did; not to mention the honorary degrees that were too numerous to mention.

Reeves also noted that Laurel spoke and wrote fluently in no less than five languages and that that “no man has served his country more conspicuously and faithfully than Laurel.”

Laurel was, according to Reeves, initially supposed to accompany Manuel L. Quezon, President of the Philippine Commonwealth, on a trip out of the country to set up the Commonwealth government in exile. Having hastily packed a bag, Laurel went to Corregidor to meet up with Quezon.

Just before departure, however, Quezon was supposed to have changed his mind. Reeves wrote, “...Quezon decided, on account of Laurel’s popularity with the Filipinos, that Laurel should stay in Manila, and he, therefore, instructed him (Laurel) to remain and help protect the people.”

Earlier, General Douglas MacArthur, at the time Commander of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) and who had been whisked away to Australia, had given the instruction that “Filipino officials could serve in the Japanese-sponsored organization5 in order to better protect the people, but he admonished them that they must not take the oath of allegiance to Japan…”

Hence, Quezon’s instruction to Laurel, Reeves wrote, was “to do whatever was necessary to protect the people short of taking the oath of allegiance to Japan.” This instruction, given in front of “several prominent Filipinos,” had the knowledge and approval of MacArthur.

After the surrender of USAFFE troops in the Philippines to the Japanese in 1942, Masaharu Homma, Commanding General of the Japanese Imperial Army in the country, dissolved the Commonwealth government and set up in its place the Japanese-controlled Philippine Executive Commission.

The following year, then-Japanese Prime Minister Hideshi Tojo visited the Philippines and promised to “return” independence to the country6. This “independence” was, needless to say, quite farcical. But just to keep up the show, a republic was indeed set up with Laurel as its President.

In agreeing to become President, Reeves explained in his letter to Hagen, Laurel was merely “carrying out Quezon’s instructions to remain and cooperate with the Japanese in order to better protect the people.” Laurel’s cooperation with the Japanese he did so even at risk to his own life on the condition that Filipinos would not have to fight for Japan7.

While Quezon had initially intended to take along Laurel to act as his adviser in exile, which it must be said the latter was prepared to do, that he ultimately asked him to stay, according to Reeves, was the “signal honor paid Laurel by the famous Philippine President.”

What Reeves was trying to say was that Quezon, in leaving the country’s destiny in the hands of Laurel, completely trusted the latter in whatever decisions he would make for the nation’s benefit. In fact, when word reached the Commonwealth government in-exile in Washington D.C. that Laurel had been selected President of the puppet state back home, his son Sotero, who was working with the government in-exile, wrote to Quezon asking out of a sense of delicacy if he should resign.

Quezon wrote back, “I am not convinced that your father is a traitor to the United States or to the Philippines. I know him personally and have been closely connected with him officially for many years. I believe he is doing what he honestly believes is in the best interest of the Filipino people for the time being. After saying what I have said, it is a matter for you to decide what you should do. If you are loyal to America and to my Government, stay on the job. If you are not, resign and I will accept your resignation forthwith.”

Notes and references:
1Historical Dictionary of United States-Southeast Asia Relations,” by Donald E. Weatherbee, published 2008 in Maryland, USA.
2The Philippines Reader: a History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship and Resistance,” edited by Daniel B. Schirmer and Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, published 1987 in the United States.
3 “The Huks, Dr. Laurel, Collaboration, etc.” remarks by Congressman Harold C. Hagen, published in the Congressional Record of the United States and cited Volume I Number 10 Issued of The Quezonian, 1947.
4 P.W. Reeves served as Director of Personnel, Engineering Service, of the War Department in the Philippines in 1946.
5 Presumably, the puppet government that the Japanese Imperial Army was expected to set up in the Philippines.
6Second Philippine Republic,” Wikipedia.
7 “Bantayog: Discovering Manila through its Monuments,” by Maria Roseny B. Fangco, published 2008 by the Foreign Service Institute, Department of Foreign Affairs.

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