IF family heritage is the source of a man’s heroism, then Dr. Jose P. Laurel had had much of it long before his incarnation into the world. His legendary ancestors, who were the original settlers of Batangan (the ancient name of Batangas) were the early breed that resisted the Spanish invaders. This heritage of gallantry against foreign aggressors would continue down the country’s history, all the way into the last gasps of Spanish colonialism where Dr. Laurel’s father, Judge Sotero Remoquillo Laurel, was a delegate to the Malolos Convention, Secretary of the Interior in the First Philippine Republic under President Emilio Aguinaldo, and died in an American concentration camp when Dr. Laurel was just a small boy.
On the other hand, if the degree of academic and intellectual achievements were to be the criterion for heroism, then what historians would ascribe to Rizal as a polymath would actually pale much in comparison. Witness how Dr. Laurel’s curriculum vitae stood after 1945:
• Elementary, Tanauan, Batangas; San Juan de Letran
• Secondary, Manila High School (Araullo High School)
• A.B., La Regeneracion (University of Santo Tomas), Manila
• (1915) LI. B., College of Law, University of the Philippines, Manila – Salutatorian
• (1919) LI.M., Escuela de Derecho, Manila -Licenciado en Ciencias Juridicas
• (1920) D.C.L., Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, United States
• (1920) Special Studies, Sorbonne University, Paris
• (1920) Special Studies, Oxford University, United Kingdom
• (1936) Ph.D., University of Santo Tomas, Manila
• (1938) LI.D., Tokyo University, Japan – Honoris Causa
• (1909) Temporary Clerk (Messenger), Bureau of Forestry
• (1912-1914) Permanent Clerk, Code Commission
• (1915) Permanent Clerk, Executive Bureau
• (1918) Chief Clerk, Law Division, Executive Bureau
• (1921) Chief Clerk, Administrative Division, Executive Bureau
• (1922) Undersecretary, Department of the Interior
• (1923) Secretary, Department of the Interior
• (1925) Senator and Floor Leader, Philippine Senate Congress
• (1934-1935) Delegate and Temporary Chairman, Constitutional Convention
• (1936) Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the Philippines
• (1936) Member, Electoral Commission
• (1939) Member, Moral Code Committee
• (1941) Vice-Chairman, Code Committee
• (1941) Acting Secretary, Department of Justice
• (1941) Chief Justice, Supreme Court
• (1942) Commissioner, Department of Justice
• (1942) Commissioner, Department of the Interior
• (1943-1945) President, Second Philippine Republic
On books written, Rizal wrote two, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.
Dr. Laurel wrote:
1. The Election Law Annotated – Manila: Bureau of Printing, 1922.
2. Cases on Municipal Corporations – Manila: Oriental Comm. Company, 1924.
3. Cases on Constitutional Law – Manila: Bureau of Printing, 1925.
4. Election Law of the Philippine Islands – Manila: Oriental Comm. Company, 1925.
5. Local Government in the Philippine Islands – Manila: La Pilarica Publication, 1926.
6. Political Law Review Questions and Notes – (Includes extraordinary legal remedies on the subject of municipal corporation) Manila: Oriental Comm. Company, 1926.
7. The Law of Elections of the Philippine Islands – Manila: Oriental Comm. Company, 1928.
8. Assertive Nationalism: A Collection of Articles and Address on Local Problems – Manila: National Teachers College Manila, 1931, reprinted 1991. 221p.
9. The Election Law – Manila: Cecilio Press, 1931. 966p.
10. The Election Law and Amendatory Acts – Manila: Cecilio Press, 1931.
Rizal and Dr. Laurel both wrote pieces while in prison, Rizal in Fort Santiago in Manila and Dr. Laurel in Sugamo Prison in Japan.
Rizal wrote Mi Ultimo Adios, consisting of 13 stanzas that were but evocations of literary muses – so easily memorized that for college students it’s virtually all that’s required to pass the Spanish subject during my time in college.
Dr. Laurel wrote War Memoirs, consisting of 72 chapters of an engrossing epic narrative comparable in scope and spectacle to the Iliad by Homer, or even better in fact, considering its rich content of principles of international law. In his book A Child’s Footnote to History, the late Vice President Salvador “Doy” Laurel, the son of Dr. Laurel, rightly calls his father’s perilous trek together with his family and some members of his War Cabinet through the guerrilla-infested and treacherous hills of Mountain Province onward to the very fringes of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima – the Odyssey.
The charm of Mi Ultimo Adios stems from the literary criterion that of all the forms of literature, poetry is the most pure, complete and fulfilling, given its spatial limitation and its requirement of rhyme and rhythm, meter, and cadence. To wit: “Encampos de batalla, luchando con delirio/otros te dan sus vidas, sin dudas sin pesar”. See how spectacular images of great battles and lives sacrificed are evoked by one single line such that when in the end Rizal delivers his last farewell, he appears like the gallant knight in shining armor making his last heroic charge: “Morir es descansar.” And Rizal crumpling from the shots of the rifles of the Spanish civil guards that morning in Bagumbayan on December 30, 1896 was all that was needed to ensconce him in the psyche of a nation so gullible to unscrupulous machination for propagating false gods and fake heroes. (Need we recall here the image of Ninoy Aquino sprawled on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport that noon of August 21, 1983 which millions regard as martyrdom for the nation but this one single author dares say a case of euthanasia or, in Greek, “good death”?)
And yet, has anybody ever asked: What campos de batalla did Rizal ever fight in? If nobody can point to an answer, it’s because Rizal had fought in none. In fact, during his trial, Rizal vehemently protested that the 1896 Katipunan Revolt was not his revolution. Indeed, it was not his. It was Bonifacio’s. But then why execute him in the first place? Because he was a traitor to Spain. Simple as that. And it is a non sequitur that for being a traitor to Spain, one should be a hero to the Philippines. Just as Dr. Laurel would put it: He was neither pro-Japanese nor pro-American, but pro-Filipino.
It is on the question of “for whom” that Rizal fails in any appreciation for heroism. It was always for “self” that Rizal was struggling. Noli Me Tangere was chiefly for exposing friar appropriations of economienda lands, of which the Mercados of Calamba were among the major beneficiaries, and advocating reforms to redress the abuses of the friars. It is quite intriguing to note that of the many courses in college that had to do with the struggle of the masses, social studies and political and military sciences for example, Rizal sought to pursue surveying. What had land survey anything to do with revolution? Nothing at all, from all appearances. But as far as the Mercados’ lands were concerned, surveying certainly mattered most importantly, and in this context Rizal’s choice of the college course is very well understood. Landowning had dominated Rizal’s life’s concerns such that even as he had turned to writing the El Filibusterismo with the failure of the reformist Propaganda Movement, he returned to the Philippines to make a last-ditch effort to replace the vast Mercado lands that had been appropriated by the friars. He appealed to Governor General Despujol to let him bring 100,000 Philippine inhabitants to establish a Filipino colony in Borneo. Only after Despujol rejected his plea did Rizal make good the revolutionary threat in Fili by organizing the La Liga Filipina. But between the formation of the Liga in 1892 and the outbreak of the Katipunan revolt in 1896, Rizal had had time to accumulate wealth, including landholdings, amounting to P1 million at the time (reckon that amount with the $20 million dollars with which the United States bought the entire Philippines from Spain), and when, in defiance of Rizal’s instruction to relinquish leadership of the revolution to Antonio Luna, Bonifacio launched the Katipunan revolt just the same, Rizal promptly volunteered to serve the Spanish army fighting revolutionists in Cuba – evidently an effort to escape complicity with the uprising of the Katipuneros.
Always it was for “self” that Rizal found his campos de batalla.
It is to the contrary that the light of Dr. Jose P. Laurel shines. His entire political career showcased a way of life in which always he put the nation above self. In 1923, for instance, he resigned his post of Secretary of the Interior in protest against Governor General Leonard Wood’s reinstatement of a suspended police detective. The resignation triggered a mass resignation of all the other Filipino Cabinet members. To Dr. Laurel, Wood did not violate organizational discipline. In Dr. Laurel’s own words, Wood “trampled Filipino honor.” He asked,
“Would Wood have done the same (bypassing his direct authority over the issue) if that police detective were a Filipino?” The police detective happened to be American.
Wood confronted Dr. Laurel for his act: “Remember it was on the strength of Taft’s high recommendation that I appointed you Secretary of Interior. Now you are causing me so much embarrassment here and in Washington.
You better reconsider your resignation.” Dr. Laurel responded: “… I cannot with dignity continue serving under the circumstances. The honor of my country as well as my own do not permit me.”
The rest of the American period actually witnessed Dr. Laurel undertaking a seemingly self-imposed task of seeing the Filipino nation through its manifold trials and difficulties. In the 1934 constitutional convention he was elected delegate and became content with just sitting as temporary chairman in the proceedings for the election of convention officers, notably Claro M. Recto, who was elected convention president. He was, as a matter of course, selected as one of the so-called Seven Wise Men, the group tasked with drafting the Constitution, the other six sages being Filemon Sotto, chairman, and Norberto Romualdez, Manuel Roxas, Vicente Singson Encarnacion, Manuel C. Briones, and Miguel Cuaderno.
Dr. Laurel shared with the group his belief that the norm of action more appropriate at that time was constructive conservatism and not radicalism, which he saw as only seeming to be more democratic but in the long run more harmful to the country. Having thus shared his many insights on the framing of the Constitution, he stepped aside from the group, giving way to Conrado Benitez, in order to focus on drafting the Bill of Rights, which to this day Filipinos can cling to in defending themselves against state terrorism.
Ultimately, the Constitution passed by the convention was in large measure an embodiment of Dr. Laurel’s own ideals: the presidential, republican form of government; the doctrine of the separation of powers; the provision for a Bill of Rights; women’s suffrage; the supremacy of the Constitution; the independence of the judiciary; and so many more legacies of law.
But the greatest test for Dr. Laurel’s service to the nation was the presidency of the Second Philippine Republic established on October 14, 1943. Self-serving politicos seek glory and fortune in government office in times of peace. At wartime, neither glory nor fortune was there to seek. Dr. Laurel knew it was a puppet government he was heading. With precise foresight, he had seen it coming, and that’s why in the last meeting of the Commonwealth Cabinet before President Quezon left for exile to the United States, he had expressed the desire to leave the government and together with his family join the guerrillas in the hills. But consistently upholding the interest of the nation, he could not but acquiesce when Quezon asked him to stay and “help” cushion for the people the impact of the Japanese invasion. If being President of a nation is difficult enough in times of peace, how far more gargantuan is that task in times of war. Just days before the deliberations for the wartime republic got underway, Dr. Laurel was fired upon by an unknown assassin while playing golf at Wack Wack Golf and Country Club. He survived the assassination attempt, and while still recuperating from his injuries at the Philippine General Hospital, he drafted the proposed Constitution for the upcoming republic. Subsequently the draft was passed by the National Assembly (earlier constituted by the Executive Commission with Benigno Aquino, Sr. as Speaker) which eventually elected Dr. Jose P. Laurel President of the Philippine Republic.
Thus did Dr. Jose P. Laurel bear the nation on his shoulders like a cross on Calvary at a time nobody else would.
He did so against the unanimous objection of his family, particularly incurring the “tears”, he said, and utter animosity of his wife, Paciencia, who simply detested what she herself called Dr. Laurel’s puppetry to the Japanese. Sad that not even his loved ones understood the full implication of Dr. Laurel’s admitted collaboration with the Japanese invaders. He did it on purpose in order to, in his words, “tide the nation over to better times.” He steadfastly promoted the policy of “national survival” as the primordial doctrine for the Filipinos under the conditions of war. That the policy—collaboration with the Japanese—was correct is proven by the fact that the more than 100,000 Filipino casualties often cited as a result of the World War II in the Philippines were not killed during the Japanese invasion in its entirety but during the American re-occupation of the Philippines in 1945 – in just one battle, the battle for the so-called liberation of Manila.
In other words, under Dr. Laurel’s stewardship, the nation survived and averted what would have been a truly great debacle had he not been President.
American artillery destroyed homes and buildings and ravaged inhabitants in the Battle of Manila, turning the Pearl of the Orient into the greatest of shambles of World War II next only to Warsaw, Poland.
Certainly, the Japanese suicide fighters inflicted harm too upon the Filipinos who were caught in the crossfire, but Japanese bayonets could only kill one at a time; American shells blasted people hundreds at a time, and those more than 100,000 could not possibly have been killed by bayonets but by bombs.
It was too bad that when MacArthur returned, Dr. Laurel had been forced by General Yamashita to retreat to Japan. He would, as he did to the Japanese in 1942, have stood up to MacArthur in 1945 and thus spared Manila from the terrible death and destruction.
But, as in Greek tragedy, that’s just how irony works. Yamashita forced Dr. Laurel into retreat to Japan in order to escape MacArthur only for Dr. Laurel to fall right into the hands of MacArthur once he became Proconsul of Japan upon Emperor Hirohito’s surrender in 1945.
(To be continued next Saturday)