September 21, 1972: When Martial Law Had to Wait for One More Day

If you believe that Martial Law was implemented on September 21st, then it just shows how Ferdinand Marcos succeeded in perpetuating not only his myth of the Marcosian “Golden Age,” but his enduring influence on our culture and our psyche. 

The evidences are clear. 

Martial Law was not issued on the 21st, although the document had a post-date “September 21” on it. As records clearly indicate, corroborated by several eyewitness accounts, Martial Law was only implemented at 8:00 pm on September 22 and announced via live television at 7:15pm on September 23.

Martial Law was only implemented at 8 pm on September 22 and announced via live television at 7:15pm on September 23.

Such was how President Marcos masterfully planned everything, from the philosophy to back up Martial Law (he called it “Democratic Revolution” at first, and changed it to “New Society” later on) to its careful implementation, and its subsequent reinforcement via propaganda.

Days before the proclamation of Martial Law, true to its mandate, the Senate fiercely criticized President Marcos on the slumping economy, threats to security, and his frequent presidential banter on the possibility of suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus. And the opposition was not done yet.

September 12

In an unprecedented fashion, on September 12, 1972, Sen. Ninoy Aquino, the leading Marcos critic in the Senate, spoke to American officials in the US Embassy over a luncheon, and told them of the government’s plan of imposing Martial Law, to their shock. Present in the luncheon were Frank Maestrone, a new officer at the Embassy.

First Lady Imelda Marcos got wind of the event, and immediately called a staffer in the Embassy demanding to know why the “enemy” was there and who was the “Macaroni” in the meeting, referring to Maestrone.

The next day, the Embassy alerted Washington, divulging to the White House of Marcos’ contemplating on declaring Martial Law. But the Americans remained unaware of the exact date it would be imposed. A CIA agent was sent to find out, and a few days later, the agent contacted the U. Embassy to inform them that Martial Law was set on September 19.

And then the bombshell.

September 13

In a privilege speech on the Senate floor on September 13, 1972, Senator Aquino revealed that he received a top-secret military plan from the Armed Forces given by President Marcos himself to place Manila and surrounding areas under the control of the Philippine Constabulary—a preparation for Martial Law. Aquino said Marcos called it “Oplan Sagittarius.” He further accused Marcos of using the city bombings as justification for a military takeover.

Ninoy Aquino Oplan Sagittarius Exposé
Senator Ninoy Aquino after announcing the secret ops on Oplan Sagittarius. | Presidential Museum and Library

Of course, this alarmed the Senate, and the media was abuzz with the great reveal.

Senate President Gil Puyat immediately went to Malacañan Palace to confirm if this was true. When he came back to the Senate, Puyat said:

The President stated that he has no plan to declare Martial Law. But if Martial Law is to be imposed due to some unusual event, he would first consult the leaders of the Congress.

President with Congress Leaders
President Ferdinand Marcos, flanked by Senate President Gil Puyat and House Speaker Jose B. Laurel, probably during the SONA of 1971. | Presidential Museum and Library

Malacañang was quick to put out a statement.

There is a contingency plan for the whole country, including the Greater Manila area, and it was organized in 1966. The plan is aimed at the coordination of local police forces and the AFP in the event of actual fighting with the Communist. It would be the height of negligence not to prepare such a plan.

The next day, a bomb exploded in the San Miguel Corporation building in Makati. Constitutional Convention (ConCon) delegate Augusto Espiritu wrote on his diary:

The bomb scare has been sweeping Manila in the past few days. Rebeck [Espiritu, Caesar’s brother] tipped me off on a rumor that the Convention would be bombed. He said this could not be mentioned in the Convention Hall because the delegates might panic. Even Raul Manglapus, he said, was preparing to leave at about 4:00 p.m.

Despite the revelations in the Senate, many people in the media remained skeptical. Teodoro Valencia of The Manila Times wrote:

One thing is sure, the President is not discouraging talk about Martial Law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. My own interpretation is that he is not about to do it. Perhaps he is fishing for reaction. He’s getting all kinds of reactions.

The more serious portion of the Aquino diatribe was to reveal that Manila would be placed under PC control. When you come to think of it, Mayor Ramon Bagatsing is almost asking for it.

PC control is not the same as martial law. So many cities and provinces are under PC control right now […] There’s no point in denying that the President is ready with a plan on the imposition of Martial Law if that should become necessary.

But that’s not the same as saying he will impose Martial Law tomorrow or the next day or when. Or if at all. To have a plan and to do as planned are two different propositions.

September 18

On September 18, the bomb scare at the ConCon became a reality. A restroom within the Quezon City Hall near the hall where the Convention was held exploded.

ConCon Delegate Jose Nolledo issued a statement and said that immediately a group was seen fleeing after the explosion. Several eyewitnesses described them as as military men and not Communists.

ConCon Delegate Augusto Espiritu, who was on his way to the ConCon that morning, was warned not to go anymore as there was an explosion in the building. Espiritu recounts the ordeal on his diary:

This bombing incident made martyrs, to some extent, of the delegates. And at this stage, some martyrdom may be necessary to gain sympathy from a public that is fast losing its patience. The people are losing confidence in the Convention. After more than a year, it has not yet finished its task.

The time bombs were planted on three floors and they exploded almost simultaneously within seconds of each other. The question is—were they really meant to kill—or only to terrorize?

The corollary question is—who could have done it? To me, no moderate—whether of the right or of the left—would have done this. I am inclined to believe that not even the radical left would want to sow terrorism; this would alienate them from the population. The only group, to my mind, that would have some motive for bombing Quezon City is the Marcos group itself. The motive? To sow fear among the population and to find an excuse for imposing Martial Law or suspending the writ of habeas corpus. The executioners could be some paid pigeons of Marcos.

Come to think of it: who burned the Reichstag in 1933 anyway? Surely not that unfortunate Dutchman who was immediately arrested. Wasn’t the joke in Berlin at that time, that Goebbels loved to play dangerously with matches?

The Constitutional Convention would never be the same again. Fear has been sown into the hearts of delegates. Nevertheless, it would be difficult, at this stage, to suspend or adjourn the Convention. The proper thing would have been for the Convention to decide on a recess before the bombing incident. But now, it is too late to call for a recess; it would look cowardly for the delegates to do so.

Around 5 seconds after, another bomb exploded in the living room of the house of Quezon City Judge Julian Lustre. The judge was hearing a subversion case.

Marcos wrote on his diary that night:

We finalized the plans for the proclamation of martial law at 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm with the SND, the Chief of Staff, major service commanders, J-2, Gen. Paz, 1st PC Zone Commander, Gen. Diaz and Metrocom commander, Co. Montoya, with Gen. Ver in attendance.

They all agreed the earlier we do it the better because the media is waging a propaganda campaign that distorts and twists the facts!

So after the bombing of the Concon, we agreed on the 21st without any postponement.

We finalized the target personalities, the assignments, and the procedures.

Ninoy Aquino with Gerry Roxas
Senators Ninoy Aquino and Gerry Roxas conversing, circa 1972. | Gerry Roxas Foundation

September 19

By September 19, President Marcos met with the National Security Council, and invited opposition Senators Gerry Roxas and Ninoy Aquino. In the session, according to Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos challenged the opposition senators to help the Council identify the Liberal Party (LP) leader who had allegedly met with the leaders of the Communist Party.

This was coming from Enrile’s intel that Ninoy Aquino allegedly met with Joma Sison of the CPP at Dasmariñas Village, Makati on September 7th. Senator Jovito Salonga, in response, criticized Marcos saying:

“The President has involved himself in a hopeless inconsistency. Why should Mr. Marcos invite the Liberals to the Security Council meetings to discuss plans to counter the communist menace if he has any evidence linking the LPs with the Reds?”

It was clear that even with these insinuations by President Marcos, his approval rating had greatly declined. Alfredo Roces writes in The Manila Times:

“If the present situation has reached the stage where emergency powers are being seriously and publicly considered by the Marcos administration, then the question is whether at the same time President Marcos can possibly manage on his own, without the full support of the political opposition and the citizenry.

“It is curious that President Marcos appears to be alienating rather than trying to sincerely win public support by linking the LP leadership with the NPA, by warning businessmen not to support the subversives, and by rounding up the youth in raids, without effort to win some youth leaders over.

“There have been some stray comments that could be interpreted to mean that the administration thinks some members of mass media are tied up with subversives.

“In brief, what is missing is the effort to try to unify the nation if the Marcos administration really believes that there is a serious threat from the communists.”

September 20

In one of the last great rallies that would be assembled at the country’s public square, Plaza Miranda in Quiapo, the Movement for Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties held a demonstration on September 20th.

Headed by Senator Jose W. Diokno and the National Press Club, all the speakers in the program denounced the rumored plans to implement Martial Law.

Anti-Martial Law Rally 1972
The Movement for Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties held a demonstration at Plaza Miranda, Quiapo from September 20 to 21, 1972. | Presidential Museum and Library.

The next day, September 21, the rally would grow to around 30,000, composed of “more than 30 civic, religious, labor, student and activist groups.” By noon, President Marcos was informed that the troops were already in position.

Ninoy Aquino in Senate
Last photo of Ninoy Aquino in the Senate, taken September 21, 1972, a day before his arrest.

In the Legislative Building, Senator Ninoy Aquino delivered his last privilege speech which would be broadcasted via radio and television.

It was clear, that on the 21st, democracy was still alive and vibrant as ever.

Right after the session, Senator Arturo Tolentino recounted his conversation with Aquino.

Ninoy: “Ka Turing [Sen. Tolentino’s nickname] … I plan to disappear.”

Sen. Tolentino: “ What do you mean?”

Ninoy: “I cannot stay here any longer…. Marcos is making me appear as a double agent. Then he will have me killed and blame the communist for it.”

Sen. Tolentino: “Where will you go?”

Ninoy: “Bahala na…”

The timing of the imposition of Martial Law was dependent upon Congress’ adjournment. And September 21, being divisible by seven, was perfect for numerologist Marcos, plus the adjournment was scheduled originally on the 21st.

But on the last minute, Senate and House leaders agreed not to adjourn on this day, and instead hold a special session. The scheduled adjournment was therefore moved to September 23.

Primitivo Mijares, Marcos’ pressman and a victim of forced disappearance, explained:

“The timing of the imposition of Martial Law was heavily dependent on Congress being in session and Senator Aquino being available for the planned arrest.

“Marcos’ sense of history told him that, even after the declaration of Martial Law, Congress must be allowed to hold at least one session before it is gavelled to adjournment, in order that history can record the fact that Marcos did not close the lawmaking branch of government by his proclamation of Martial Law.

“His thinking then had something to do with his plans for the Constitutional Convention.”

Hence, no matter the plans of Marcos on the 21st and its perceived auspicious numerical value in numerology, Martial Law would have to wait for one more day.

Ferdinand Marcos Playing Golf
President Marcos plays golf at the Palace grounds of Malacañan, beside the Pasig River, circa. 1972. | Presidential Museum and Library.

Bonner, Raymond. Waltzing with a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy. New York: Times Books, 1987.

De Quiros, Conrado. Dead Aim: How Marcos ambushed Philippine Democracy. Pasig City: Foundation for Worldwide People’s Power, Inc., 1997.

Enrile, Juan Ponce. Juan Ponce Enrile: A Memoir. Quezon City: ABS-CBN Publishing, Inc., 2012.

Espiritu, Augusto, “September 14, 1972,” Philippine Diary Projectlink.

Espiritu, Augusto, “September 18, 1972”, Philippine Diary Projectlink.

Marcos, Ferdinand, “September 18, 1972, Philippine Diary Projectlink.

Martinez, Manuel. The Grand Collision: Aquino vs. Marcos. Quezon City: M. F. Martinez, 1987.

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

Pimentel Jr., Aquilino. Martial Law in the Philippines: My Story. Mandaluyong City: Cacho Publishing House, 2006.

Rempel, William. Delusions of a Dictator: The Mind of Marcos as Revealed in His Secret Diaries. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 1993.

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

Salonga, Jovito. A Journey of Struggle and Hope: The Memoir of Jovito R. Salonga. Quezon City: U.P. Center for Leadership, Citizenship and Democracy, 2001.

Santos, Vergel. Chino and His Time. Pasig: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2010.

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 4: The Turbulent ’60s and Marcos’ Ascent to Power
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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