The Road to Martial Law: Marcos Beginnings

On September 11, 1917, Ferdinand Edralin Marcos was born in the small town of Sarrat, Ilocos Norte.

In the Marcos-authorized biography of the guy entitled Marcos of the Philippines: A Biography (1964), Ferdinand was born to Mariano Marcos and Josefa Edralin.

The author of the book was none other than a known American writer and the founder of the Yank, Army Weekly himself, Hartzell Spence. Reviews described it as too biased in the favor of Marcos.

From the book, Spence writes: 

In the East, which is characterized by patience and measures time in centuries rather than moments, man is inclined to wait for the coconuts to fall rather than to climb the tree and harvest them.  Yet destiny has crowded Ferdinand E. Marcos without pause almost from his birth. 

And yet this “destiny” which Marcos loved to insert in all his speeches, is put into question when even his birth is plagued with controversy.

Another American author and freelance investigative journalist who specialized in political intrigues in Asia named Sterling Seagrave came out with book after the EDSA People Power Revolution entitled Marcos Dynasty (1988).

In it, he detailed that Mariano Marcos was not in fact Ferdinand’s biological father but Ferdinand Chua, a godfather to Ferdinand. The Chuas were apparently one of the influential families in Ilocos. 

Mariano, the father, hailed from the generation that fought the Philippine Revolution of 1896. Before the revolution, he served as gobernadorcillo in Batac under the Spanish administration, effectively establishing a political clout in the town.

Mariano Marcos became a fierce revolutionary, becoming an ardent follower of the excommunicated Filipino secular priest Gregorio Aglipay who founded the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Aglipayan Church). Thus, the Marcoses would be known Aglipayans until such time that Ferdinand converted to Catholicism for political convenience.

In the American Colonial Period, Mariano Marcos further went up the political ladder as opportunities were opened to Filipinos.

It was here when Ferdinand was born, as he then was reared in a family in Sarrat, with a growing political influence.

Mariano ran as representative of the 2nd District of Ilocos Norte in the Philippine Assembly (the precursor to the House of Representatives) and won in 1928. 

Here is when it gets tricky. On September 16, 1935, the first national elections of the Philippines was held, leading the way for Filipino leaders to take up their posts in the new transitional government known as the Commonwealth, a 10-year transitional government to eventual independence from the United States.

Mariano Marcos, now a strong contender to another political opponent, Julio Nalundasan, ran as Assemblyman in the National Assembly. It was well known that the two considered each other as bitter rivals—nemesis of each other. Hence, when Mariano lost to Nalundasan, it was a sore defeat for the family. 

To add salt to the wound, the night that Nalundasan was announced winner, Nalundasan supporters were said to have paraded around the town with an empty coffin and a Marcos name painted on it. 

On the night of September 20, 1935, after his victory party, Julio Nalundasan was mysteriously shot dead in the head at his home by an unknown sharpshooter using a .22 caliber rifle with Western Lubaloy bullets while he was brushing his teeth.

The immediate suspects were Ferdinand Marcos (member of UP’s rifle team and “national small-bore rifle and pistol champion” according to Hartzell Spence), his father Mariano Marcos, his brother Pio Marcos, and his brother-in-law Quirino Lizardo.

In the ensuing investigation, the rifle assigned to Ferdinand in the UP ROTC was in the gun rack but another rifle, that of team captain Teodoro M. Kalaw Jr. was missing. The National Bureau of Investigation confirmed that the missing weapon was indeed the one used to kill Nalundasan. And among the suspects, only Ferdinand Marcos had access to the ROTC armory.

Ferdinand, then a young law student in the University of the Philippines, was arrested in 1938 while reviewing for the Bar. He was subsequently indicted for murder, and convicted by a district court in November 1939 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

During the imprisonment, Marcos was allowed to take the 1939 Bar Exam, receiving an unprecedented mark of 92.35%, the highest in the batch.

Ferdinand then made an appeal to the Supreme Court making it a big issue of the day, not only in Ilocos but nationwide. Recognizing this, President Manuel L. Quezon had Leon Ma. Guerrero, the bright lawyer in the Office of the Solicitor General and future diplomat, to handle the government side of the case as prosecutor. 

Marcos’ acquittal, as journalist Raissa Robles would correctly describe, was “bizarre.” 

In the film “Iginuhit ng Tadhana: The Ferdinand E. Marcos Story (Written by Destiny)”, a propaganda film used by Marcos in the 1965 Presidential Elections, the young Marcos (played by actor Luis Gonzales in the film), as also attested by Spence, did not need a lawyer, but instead stood up before the Supreme Court to defend himself.

While Marcos loyalists would be quick to point out that Ferdinand singlehandedly defended himself and convinced the magistrates to acquit him, that is just a small part of the story, if not impossible, given the documents that point to the magistrates’ look at the evidences and not on the defense oratory. (See G.R. No. L-47388).

When Marcos filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, it found its way to then Associate Justice Jose P. Laurel, who found a keen interest in the case.

Apparently, like the young Marcos, Laurel was also previously convicted of homicide in his younger days, and would have suffered imprisonment if not for the intervention of George Malcolm, then American Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. 

Primitivo Mijares, who disappeared without a trace after writing a book on Marcos, wrote in that book the account:

Malcolm knew Laurel to be a bright young man, having been his student at the U.P. College of Law, and notwithstanding the evidence, urged his colleagues to acquit young Laurel.

Laurel had always acknowledged his debt to society in this respect, and when the Marcos case came before him on appeal at the Supreme Court, he saw an opportunity to repay his debt–privately to Marcos.

Laurel saw also in Marcos, not just his own physical features, but a very promising man, perhaps a mirror of himself.

Laurel thus went individually to all the members of the Supreme Court and pleaded with tears for the acquittal of young Ferdinand.

Laurel succeeded and thus Marcos was also acquitted by a benevolent Supreme Court and in the same way that Laurel was given a chance by society.

Indeed, Laurel also insisted in writing the decision. Rumors also went around that Ferdinand Chua, a municipal court judge in Batac, also moved some strings. 

In the end, that year, 1940, Marcos was acquitted by no less than the highest court in the land. He was a free man.

But not for long. War clouds loom on the horizon, and soon, the Philippines would be invaded by Japan

War, they say, shows what a person is really made of. And this particular grueling war would succeed in unveiling the character behind the man.


___, Philippine Electoral Almanac: Expanded and Revised. Manila: Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office, 2016.

Mijares, Primitivo. The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. San Francisco: Union Square Publications, 1976. 

People of the Philippines vs. Mariano R. Marcos, et al., G.R. No. L-47388, October 22, 1940.

Robles, Raissa. Marcos Martial Law: Never Again, Student Edition. Quezon City: Filipinos for a Better Philippines, Inc., 2016.  

Seagrave, Sterling. Marcos Dynasty. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988.

Spence, Hartzell. Marcos of the Philippines: A Biography. New York: The World Publishing Co., 1969.

Editor’s note: This 15-part series called the Road to Martial Law first appeared on the author’s Tumbler page. It documents the unprecedented rise of a Filipino dictator and the sudden death of Philippine democracy with the declaration of a nationwide Martial Law via live television on September 23, 1972. Minor edits have been made by editors.

Part 1: It Takes a Village to Raise a Dictator: The Philippines before Martial Law
Part 6: First Quarter Storm of 1970: Philippines on the Brink
Part 7: Plan for Endgame: Plots, Protests, Scandals and Assassinations
Part 8: Plaza Miranda Bombing: Prelude to Marcos’ Endgame
Part 9: Hijacking Democracy: The Mood Before the Declaration of Martial Law
Part 10: September 21, 1972: When Martial Law Had to Wait for One More Day
Part 11: Like a Thief in the Night: Martial Law Implemented
Part 12: The Long Night Begins: Martial Law Announced on Live TV
Part 13: A Mere Scrap of Paper: The Constitutional Convention Hijacked under Martial Law
(up next) Part 14: The Final Blow: A compromised Supreme Court legitimized Martial Law
(up next) Part 15: Road to Martial Law Redux: A Conclusion to a Series

About the Author

Kristoffer Pasion the resident historian of Team He is a public historian working for the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. He has been serving in government for almost a decade, having worked as cultural officer for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (2011-2013), and as history researcher for the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines (2013-2016).

He runs the blog Indiohistorian, and does active history writing on social media. He is finishing his masteral studies in History at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, pursuing research on the history of government institutions.

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