Today I have the honor of speaking about a person who stands out as one of the greatest statesmen our country has ever produced. Yet, I must confess that it is difficult to speak of such a great man considering not only the number, the magnitude, and the historical significance of all that he had done for our country, but also because when I was a student, he seemed a little remote and far, having allowed more flamboyant personalities to dominate the political landscape at the time.
Let me start, however, by saying that this man’s greatest achievement was not so much in helping attain the dream of Philippine political or economic independence as in providing the country with an enduring example of the ideal kind of leadership that our country needs today—a leadership characterized by selfless love for country, a total commitment to the people’s welfare by placing the people’s interests above his personal political ambitions, and a quiet dignity and grace which his contemporaries must have interpreted as a lack of “fire in his belly.”
It was his brand of leadership—quiet, without the usual fanfare, theatrics, or gimmickry produced by a team of public relations men—a leadership that united the country’s divided forces so that they could rally behind one cause: the struggle for complete independence from the United States.
Who was this man? Where did he come from? Why does he deserve such accolade? And why can we say that he is a fine example we have today of the ideal national leader?
Let me give you a brief summary of his life. I propose to deal with his quality of leadership, particularly in moments of crisis, a little later.
Sergio Osmeña was born in the historic city of Cebu on September 9, 1878—exactly 109 years ago.
As a boy, he could easily have been spoilt by his family. His grandmother, Doña Paula Osmeña, owned the town’s only bakery and sweetshop. According to his biographer, Vicente Albano Pacis, he was exposed to the temptation of stuffing himself with the sweets that surrounded him daily or, worse, the temptation of pilfering the money so freely exchanged in the shop in order to indulge himself in betting, gambling or developing other vices. Yet, he never succumbed to these temptations. He willingly did errands for his mother, grandmother, and aunt, gladly performing the tasks given him.
As a young student, his intellect first manifested itself under the tutelage of Miguel Logarta, one of the few lawyers in Cebu at that time. From Miguel Logarta he learned at a very young age to appreciate the value of a good education. Later, at the age of nine, Sergio entered the Seminary-College of San Carlos, where he maintained a consistent record of excellence, obtaining in virtually all his subjects the rating of sobresaliente. After he completed his studies in San Carlos at the head of his class, he went to the Colegio de San Juan de Letran in Manila in order to obtain an A.B. degree. Although Sergio’s family supported him, his sense of responsibility led him to work as a capista—that is, he served the other students at meals and did other chores in the dormitory to help his family defray his expenses. It was as a capista that he met Manuel L. Quezon, a fellow capista. After Letran, Osmeña proceeded to Sto. Tomas for his law studies. He not only obtained the highest grades in most of his studies, he also developed his instinct for leadership.
His law studies were interrupted, however, by the outbreak of the first Philippine revolution. As a young man, he witnessed the heartbreaking defeat of the Philippine revolutionary forces led by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo. The factors that led to the defeat of the revolutionary forces would leave an indelible impression on him—the fractious elements within the revolutionary ranks, the self-interest of some leaders which kept revolutionary forces fighting among themselves, and the inferior weaponry of the revolutionary forces which were no match to American firepower.
However, even after the revolutionary forces were defeated, Sergio Osmeña apparently never lost his vision of a free Philippines. Knowing that arms were almost useless in the new struggle for independence, he resorted to journalism as his first nationalist weapon.
With the help of Nicasio Chiong Veloso, a Chinese millionaire in Cebu who later became his father-in-law, he set up the newspaper El Nuevo Día (The New Day).
Despite the fact that his paper was closely censored by the American military commander and governor of the province, Colonel E.J. McClernand, Osmeña pursued his mission of creating an informed public opinion at a critical time in our history. Osmeña and his co-editors, Rafael Palma of Manila and Jaime C. de Veyra of Leyte, managed to communicate to the people that their newspaper was being censored by simply inverting the types and thus producing solid black rectangles which the people realized were actually deleted news items.
The story of how he was able to print news which the Americans suppressed is worth telling. The editors had heard of the massacre of an American contingent by the guerillas in Samar. Naturally, the Americans did not want the people to learn about that massacre. Yet, Osmeña and his editors were able to tell the people the story by simply putting it at the end of a harmless-looking news article. The lead paragraphs reported a number of guerilla surrenders but, toward the end of the news article, the massacre was described. Naturally, neither the headings nor the lead paragraphs mentioned the massacre, and the American censors overlooked the end of the story. One can imagine their fury when they realized that El Nuevo Día printed, right under their very noses, a story which they wanted to suppress.
Later, the paper folded up due to various factors, such as Palma’s return to Manila and Osmeña’s need to review for the Bar. However, El Nuevo Día was instrumental in developing Osmeña’s art in dealing with the Americans, which served him well through his years of public service under the American administration.
He became the official leader and spokesman of the Filipinos in 1907, at the age of 29, when he became the first Speaker of the Philippine Assembly, and therefore the most influential Filipino leader at the time, being second only to the Governor General.
As Speaker, he is said to have won for the Assembly the exclusive right to originate tax and appropriation bills (similar to the U.S. House of Representatives) and the decisive vote in the election of two Filipino Resident Commissioners to Washington. He also elevated the Assembly to a position of equality with the appointive Philippine Commission, which functioned as the upper house.
Later, as Speaker of the House of Representatives under the Jones Law, he conceived the Council of State and the Board of Control, wherein the Speaker and Senate President came to share the executive power of the Governor General. He also advocated economic nationalism, as a result of which the government organized commercial corporations which not only accelerated economic development but also spurred the growth of Filipino entrepreneurship. It enabled Filipinos to acquire business experience and overcome a business timidity that had enabled foreigners to control the country’s economy. It was also at this time that he helped create the Independence Missions which extended the influence of the Philippine Legislature overseas to the United States.
The Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act, which Osmeña and Roxas obtained in the early 30s from the U.S. Congress in one of these missions, was rejected by Senate President Quezon, among other things, because of the retention of U.S. military bases after independence. What Quezon won from the U.S. Congress, namely, the Tydings-McDuffie Act, was almost an exact copy of the Independence Law Osmeña and Roxas had brought home, except for one important exception: no military bases, only U.S. naval fuelling stations.
Quezon changed his stand on this point in 1943, during the Pacific War, saying in effect that military and naval bases were necessary for the freedom and security of the Philippines.
In retrospect, it may be said that Filipino leaders of Osmeña’s time had a heroic response to the crisis of nationalism after the two wars—the Revolution against Spain and the Philippine-American War. Bewildered by their defeat, Filipinos swung from one extreme to another. Some wished to deliver the whole Philippine territory to the U.S. that it might become a member of the Union. Others wished to continue the armed conflict that would have forced the U.S. to adopt a policy of ruthless imperialism. Aware of this, Osmeña revived and expanded Rizal’s peaceful approach in order to continue the struggle for independence without further bloodshed.
Again, Osmeña rose to the challenge of leadership during the exile of the Commonwealth Government in America during the Japanese occupation. Despite the fact that President Quezon should have stepped down from office in 1943 as stipulated by the amended 1935 Constitution, Vice President Osmeña did not insist on the termination of Quezon’s term for the sake of national unity during that time of crisis, and also because of his compassion for Quezon’s state of health at the time.
On August 1, 1944, following the death of Quezon, Osmeña finally became President of the Commonwealth. Upon his return to the Philippines with MacArthur and the liberation forces in 1945, he undertook the difficult task of reconstruction. The Philippines was in ruins as one of the most war-ravaged countries of the time. Yet, he was able to lay the foundation for economic recovery, for the more efficient administration of justice, which included the apprehension of collaborators, and, more importantly, the distribution of much-needed welfare and social service to the Filipino people.
Unfortunately, he would lose to his former ally, Manuel Roxas, in the presidential election of 1946.
I shall now take up President Osmeña’s concept and style of leadership in a time of grave crisis, similar to the one we now face today.
I recall seeing him briefly when I was still in high school. There was a big public controversy at the time over the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act which then Senator Osmeña and Speaker Roxas had obtained from the U.S. Congress. He and Roxas came to Pasig and, because even in those tender years I was already interested in public issues, I went to the glorieta, to listen to the speeches. Senator Osmeña spoke with poise and dignity in Spanish, but his speech, it seemed to me, was badly-handled by a local figure who volunteered to translate it into Tagalog, a language which the interpreter clumsily handled. Roxas’ speech was eloquent and his interpreter, Marciano Evangelista of Batangas, was masterful. The people were held spellbound by Roxas’s oratory and fascinated by Evangelista’s magnificent translation.
In my student days at the University of the Philippines, the one figure that seemed to dominate and tower above the rest was Manuel L. Quezon, the president of the Senate. At the height of the struggle for leadership, Quezon had succeeded in ousting the young, brilliant Roxas from the House speakership—Roxas was to say he had fallen from the Speaker’s chair into “the arms of my people”—and in getting the Senate to quickly reject his (Quezon’s) resignation as Senate President and accept the resignation of Osmeña as President pro tempore. Not only did Quezon appear wily and skillful, he was also ruthless. The Quezon purge was thorough and methodical—the followers of Osmeña and Roxas were quickly removed from their positions.
Quezon went to the United States and obtained from the U.S. Congress the Tydings McDuffie Act—which, being a faithful reproduction of the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act (except for the removal of the military bases), placed Osmeña and Roxas in estoppel. The legislature had no alternative but to accept it.
The consequence was that, due to the maneuvers of Quezon, Senator Osmeña, always a man of dignity and grace, gave way to Quezon, succumbed to the courtship of the latter, entered into a coalition with him, and became the vice-presidential candidate of Quezon in the first election under the 1935 Constitution.
The interesting thing is that although they ran under the same ticket, Sergio Osmeña got more votes than Manuel Quezon, the latter having obtained 694,000 votes and the Cebu leader more than 817,000 votes, a lead of more than 123,000 votes or 18%.
Why, it may be asked, did Sergio Osmeña coalesce with Quezon when he was in fact more popular in almost every region of the country (including the Tagalog provinces, except Tayabas) and might have won the Commonwealth presidency for himself?
This brings us to the style of leadership of Sergio Osmeña. He was not theatrical or flamboyant. But the nation, by giving him more votes than it did Quezon, demonstrated that it appreciated the services of a man described by Joseph Hayden as “the less spectacular and very much less advertised partner in the Quezon-Osmeña team.”
But more than that, wrote Hayden:
In deciding that his people at that particular moment needed national political unity more than a strong opposition party under his leadership, Mr. Osmeña acted in accordance with the unselfish patriotism and the modesty which are so conspicuous in his character.
Hayden’s analysis was on target, as we shall see a little later.
If Sergio Osmeña was steadfast and predictable about his political convictions, Manuel Quezon was mercurial and volatile. Apparently, Quezon’s moods and decisions were affected by his repeated bouts with tuberculosis. In 1934, while ill at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Quezon—in a conversation with General Creed Cox, the Chief of the Bureau of Insular Affairs—surprisingly favored a permanent relationship of the Philippines with the United States, which comes close to what the leaders of Philippine Statehood, Inc., were advocating a few years ago. But three years later, that is, in 1937, Quezon wrote President Roosevelt recommending independence earlier than contemplated under the Independence Law, possibly in 1938 or 1939. Understandably, the State Department, to which the matter was referred, did not give the recommendation much importance, considering the provisions of the Tydings-McDuffie Law.
When, in 1935, Don Sergio coalesced with Don Manuel, it was assumed that the 1935 Constitution, which ordained a six-year term without reelection for the President, would open up the way for Don Sergio, with the support of a retired Quezon, to become the Nacionalista candidate for President in 1941 and enable the favorite son of Cebu to be the first president of the independent Philippine Republic in 1946.
But in 1940, the unpredictable Quezon had a sudden change of mind. Quezon’s political lieutenants argued that six years was too short for a good president and too long for a bad president. Behind the scenes, Quezon pushed for the amendment of the recently-ratified Constitution so as to reduce the presidential term to only four years, but—as in the United States—allowing the incumbent to run for an additional but nonrenewable tenure of four years (eight consecutive years all in all). The amendments—which included the revival of the Senate, whose members would now be elected by the entire nation, and the establishment of the Commission of Elections—were promptly drafted, approved by the Legislature, and ratified by the people. Quezon and Osmeña were thus reelected in 1941 under the amendment, which was made to apply retroactively so that Quezon, the incumbent president, would serve two more years up to November 1943, at which time Vice-President Osmeña would automatically succeed Quezon as President. Amending a Constitution to serve the interest of one man did not start with Ferdinand Marcos—he merely followed the example of Quezon and obviously improved on the model.
But war came in December 1941—Pearl Harbor was bombed and the Japanese invaded the Philippines. To save Manila from devastation, General Douglas MacArthur declared Manila an open city, and the two leaders, along with a few others, including MacArthur, had to seek refuge in Corregidor. The accommodations in the island fortress were primitive, the air was bad, the environment was bleak, and, in the face of the unceasing air raids and shelling by the Japanese forces, the only thing that held the group together was the flickering hope that reinforcements would come. In time, the hope vanished even as the sick condition of Quezon worsened.
It was in this time of great crisis that the impulsive Quezon yielded to some wild thoughts and plans. By Quezon’s own account, he wanted to yield to the Japanese and defy them in the hope that this would solidify Filipino resistance. MacArthur was able to dissuade him from the folly of giving the Japanese the pleasure of keeping him a captive and then issuing all kinds of statements in his name.
Next, Quezon thought of asking President Roosevelt by cablegram to grant immediate, complete, and absolute independence to the Philippines, and for the U.S. to enter into an agreement with Japan to neutralize the country so that, within a reasonable time, both the armies of Japan and the U.S. would be withdrawn. It was the sober, circumspect but candid Don Sergio who told Quezon that his plan was ill-advised. This led to a harsh exchange of words between the impetuous Quezon and the gentle leader from Cebu, the latter maintaining that, as we had decided to join forces with the Americans, we were in honor bound to continue the struggle to the bitter end. It was only due to the timely intervention of Secretary of Justice Jose Abad Santos, who advised the two to postpone the discussion, that the exchange was stopped.
In any case, the irrepressible Quezon sent a mild cable containing the same idea to Roosevelt. As expected this drew a reply from the President of the United States. “The present sufferings of the Filipino people,” Roosevelt told Quezon, “are infinitely less than the sufferings and permanent enslavement which will inevitably follow acceptance of Japanese promises.”
And, as if to tell the Filipino leader that Filipinos could surrender if this was his desire but that the Americans would still fight, Roosevelt wrote:
Whatever happens to the present American garrison, we shall not relax our efforts until the forces which we are now marshalling outside of the Philippine Islands return to the Philippines and drive the last remnant of the invaders from your soil.
Because of the increasing precariousness of their situation, the group had to slip away by submarine on February 20, 1942, for the Visayas, and, after some time, leave for Mindanao preparatory to a gruelling trip to Australia where MacArthur was to establish his new headquarters. Quezon, who had arrived earlier in Australia, wanted to settle down there for the duration of the war, perhaps due to his physical condition and his desire to be close to MacArthur, who had promised the Filipinos and the whole world, “I shall return.” But it was the serene Don Sergio who, to the annoyance of the erratic Don Manuel, gently but firmly reminded the latter about the standing invitation of Roosevelt for them to go to Washington. Their mission, Don Sergio pointed out, did not end in Australia but in the U.S. where they could serve the country better. So firm was the Cebuano statesman that he offered to go alone in case Quezon did not want to go. In the end, the reluctant Quezon had to yield, and MacArthur prepared for their departure.
In a year’s time, the two leaders, now in Washington, were on a collision course again on a matter that showed the understandable desire of one to cling to power and revealed the moral strength of the other.
As stated earlier, the 1940 amendments to the 1935 Constitution were approved to suit the desires and whims of President Quezon. He wanted to stay longer in power by at least two more years (which is really nothing compared to the obsession of a future successor to remain indefinitely in power as a dictator).
Vice-President Osmeña would have automatically succeeded Quezon as President in 1943. Which was why, during their campaign for reelection in the Philippines, the pitch was that the nation was actually electing two presidents.
But in Washington, as the expiry date of November 15, 1943, approached, President Quezon made it clear, through his loyal followers, that he did not want to leave the presidency. Both Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes and Secretary of State Cordel Hull, having been informed of this development, told President Roosevelt in separate memoranda that they were against a palpable violation of the 1935 Constitution. As stated in the memorandum of Cordel Hull:
. . . if the will of the Filipino people, as expressed in their Constitution, is ignored by the Commonwealth authorities in Washington so as to alter the right of succession to the Presidency, it is believed that the reaction in the Philippines cannot but be unfavorable and that such a deviation would be looked upon as a contravention of democratic principles of government.
Quezon was ill at the time, in a hospital in Saranac Lake, when the gracious, gentle Sergio Osmeña—who had given way to the impulsive leader so often in the past—wrote the former a very kind, generous letter so characteristic of this self-sacrificing, self-effacing statesman. The Cebuano leader referred to the legal obstacle, commended the leadership of Quezon in wartime, stressed the need for national unity and solidarity, and then concluded the letter, dated October 8, 1943, in the following words:
. . . under the circumstances, I will consider it a patriotic duty not to oppose but, on the contrary, to support and plan to maintain for the duration the present set-up of our Government in the interest of our people’s unity and to better assure the effective prosecution of the war, provided that there should be found a legal way of doing so that is acceptable to both of us and to our people. Otherwise, it will be an inescapable duty to follow the course prescribed by the law.
A week later, the sick Filipino president lost no time writing a letter to President Roosevelt, contending that the 1935 Philippine Constitution had become “a shambles,” that only he—not Mr. Osmeña—had been invited to Washington, that said invitation implied that he would continue in office until the end of the war, and that “the power and authority to determine and recognize who is the head of a government in exile in Washington rest exclusively with the President of the United States.” Taking advantage of the opening in the Osmeña letter, Quezon wanted Roosevelt to settle the matter by means of an executive order, and so ended his letter thus:
In conclusion, I am happy to be able to say that although Vice-President Osmeña may not agree with me as to what is the law, he and I are in complete accord in the view that the best interest of our country is paramount. I request that he be heard . . .
Vice-President Osmeña correctly believed that the 1935 Constitution was not a mere scrap of paper, that the de jure government in exile in Washington was bound by its provisions, that he is willing to give way to Quezon, as he had often done in the past, but that this could not be done by mere presidential decree but by means of an enactment of the United States Congress. This was also the view of the Secretaries of State and Interior and presidential assistant Judge Rosenman.
Quezon wanted absolute loyalty from his cabinet and he summoned the members to his sick room, where he showed them a draft of a letter to President Roosevelt asking the latter to issue an Executive Order declaring the non-operation of the Philippine Constitution during the war and stating that because of this, the incumbent president, Manuel Quezon, shall continue in office. Vice President Osmeña read the letter and quietly informed the sick Quezon that he could not sign it. When the turn of Auditor-General Jaime Hernandez came, Quezon told him: “As Auditor-General, I cannot oust you even if you should give an opinion contrary to my point of view. Will you kindly tell us what you think of this letter?” Hernandez, after reading the letter, pleaded for twenty-four hours “to study the phraseology and suggest such corrections as may be necessary.” According to General Basilio Valdes, a Cabinet member and an eyewitness, the reply of Hernandez infuriated Quezon, who told him (Valdes): “General, tell Aurora (Mrs. Quezon) to pack. We are leaving Washington. I shall cease to be President.”
It was left again to the man of Olympian serenity and selflessness to save the day for President Quezon. After the disrupted Cabinet meeting, the grand old man of Cebu remained in the sick room to calm and reassure the man of fire and ambition. Don Sergio reiterated his offer to cooperate with Quezon to insure his stay in office and volunteered to see Senator Tydings and other leaders of Congress so a solution could be found. With the conformity of Osmeña and the other Filipino leaders, a resolution to enable Quezon and Osmeña to hold over until constitutional processes shall have been restored in the Philippines, was passed by the U.S. Senate and, shortly thereafter, by the U.S. House of Representatives where it encountered rough sailing. Joint Resolution No. 95 was actually approved in the Senate viva voce and in the House by a vote of 181 yeas and 143 nays.
After the passage of the Resolution, which reunited the two leading Filipino leaders, the man from Mt. Olympus issued a message to all Filipinos in the Philippines and abroad, explaining why he supported it with all his heart. One passage in his message reveals the character of the man:
Fellow countrymen, these are critical days for individuals as well as nations. Our sense of responsibility as a people and the strength of our national solidarity have once more been tested. We have again proven our unity. With this action, we have shown to the world that when the freedom of our country and the validity of our commitments are at stake, there are no differences among us and such considerations carry no weight in our decisions.
The prestigious Washington Post, which had opposed the move to let President Roosevelt extend Quezon’s term by mere presidential fiat, supported the Resolution of Congress and extolled the generosity of spirit of Osmeña, in an editorial which stated:
Passage of the resolution at least puts the United States in the position of following the leadership of the Philippine Government that is not upheld by the Japanese bayonet. Before there was agreement among Filipino officials on this issue, the Post spoke in opposition to a move to have President Roosevelt extend Mr. Quezon’s term. It is a very different matter for Congress and the President to join in granting the united request of the Philippine government in exile. The present solution of the dilemma is not ideal, but it is probably the best that can be made in the circumstances. Certainly, the avoidance of a fight among the exiled Filipino officials is a real achievement and a tribute to the statesmanship of Vice-President Osmeña.
I have often been asked—What is the difference between a statesman and a politician? Always, I would go back to the oft-quoted answer of a high school student: “A statesman is a man who belongs to the state; a politician is a man who thinks that the state belongs to him.”
We are now in the midst of a crisis, perhaps not as critical as the one that divided and then reunited the two foremost leaders of the past generations, but a crisis nevertheless that could lead to a disaster bigger than the one which confronted them. Perhaps, part of the solution to our many problems may be found in the unselfishness, humility, generosity of spirit, and the readiness to sacrifice in the national interest—qualities we need so badly these days on the part of our key leaders, the qualities which were President Osmeña’s sterling attributes.
President Osmeña was one man who did not allow himself to be deceived by the thought that only he could solve the problems of the nation—recall that he did not even want to run for reelection in 1946—nor was he fascinated by the idea that, by means of fraud and organized violence, he could stay in power indefinitely. Always, he was the perfect, incorruptible gentleman—genial, self-effacing, serene, untouched by the lust for wealth and power—the man of self-denial, the compleat public official and statesman.
Truly, we have a lesson to learn from this great leader. We now live in a difficult period of transition from an oppressive dictatorship to an elusive democracy. The democratic gains we won last February 1986 are slowly being eroded by leaders of varying shades of ideology who pretend to be servants of the people but are in reality slaves of their selfish interests and personal ambitions. Narrow-mindedness and subservience to dubious values and forces render peaceful dialogue futile and meaningless.
What we need today is a real national renewal. We need selfless leaders to nurture our fledgling democracy and protect it from divisive and destabilizing threats of the extreme left and extreme right, which continue to undermine our efforts to reestablish democratic institutions and processes. What we need today are leaders who put country before self and people before ambition. What we need today are true public servants—honest, competent, self-sacrificing, and dedicated to the well-being of the Filipino people. What we sorely need are wise and good leaders—cool under fire and equal to any situation, like Don Sergio Osmeña.
Don Sergio is the shining model of true statesmanship, a leader for all seasons that we Filipinos may remember with pride and honor.
9 September 1987
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Jovito R. Salonga was born of poor parents in Pasig, Rizal, on 22 June 1920. He earned his Ll.B. from the University of the Philippines (1946), a master’s degree in law from Harvard Law School (1948), and a doctorate in jurisprudence from Yale Law School (1949). A bar topnotcher in 1944, Salonga served as law professor in various Philippine universities as well as visiting lecturer in Canada, Japan, and the United States. He was congressman of Rizal (1961-65) and was elected to several terms as a senator (1965, 1971, 1987). Attesting to the esteem in which he was held by the populace, he was a consistent topnotcher in senatorial elections. He was chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (1986-87) and president of the Senate (1987-91).