Between its two world wars and the global Cold War that followed them, it was hard to find a moment in the 20th century when the world wasn’t either mired in conflict or nervously preparing for one. And since each of the world’s most powerful nations had been building their arsenals since the century began, it took more than sheer firepower to come ahead in those conflicts.
For that reason, it was all but necessary for the world’s militaries and intelligence communities to get creative with the ways they undermined their enemies. And while there have been some bizarre plans to do so over the years, it’s hard to match the supernatural mind games the CIA once played in the Philippines.
The oldest colony
As William Blum described in his book Killing Hope, the United States claimed the Philippines as a colony in 1898 after forcing Spanish occupiers out and essentially forcing their $20 million sale of the island nation.
American occupation of the Philippines would continue for almost half a century, with the final years of this status quo running parallel to the second world war.
A common enemy
After Japanese forces invaded the Philippines in 1942, the United States provided military equipment, and their officers trained and led guerilla campaigns through a group known as the US Army Forces in the Far East.
But they weren’t the only ones fighting to liberate the nation from Japanese occupation.
The Hukbalahap emerge
That year also saw the formation of another resistance army called the Hukbalahap, which Blum described as meaning “People’s Army Against Japan” in Tagalog.
Although they largely emerged at the Filipino Communist Party’s behest, the Hukbalahap frequently assisted American forces and rooted out Japanese collaborators in the Philippines.
A one-sided alliance
However, the Hukbalahap’s communist origins all but ensured the American government would never trust them.
Thus, the US Army Forces in the Far East secretly disarmed many of their units, spread rumors about them among the Philippines’ poorest citizens, and stood by while Japanese forces attacked their positions.
A national hero emerges
As Esquire Philippines reported, however, none of these attempts to undermine the Huks took hold among the rural masses, who praised the group as liberators.
This admiration particularly extended to Hukbalahap leader Luis Taruc, who was lauded as a hero of the people.
A thorn in America’s side
Although U.S. forces never trusted the Hukbalahap, their hostility would grow when Taruc’s supporters opposed the Bell Trade Act of 1946.
Although this was the year the United States granted the Philippines its independence, this act allowed for American control of the nation’s industries and economy. As Taruc saw it, this prevented the Philippines from enacting land reform and industrializing on its own terms.
Swift but incomplete consequences
This opposition led Philippine President Manuel Roxas to expel Taruc and the Huks’ other supporters from Congress, which in turn led the Hukbalahap to rebel against both his government and the American government.
According to Esquire Philippines, Roxas succumbed to a heart attack in 1948, and his successor Elpidio Quirino carried on the fight.
However, Quirino was no more capable of vanishing the Hukbalahap than his predecessor.
Since his administration was plagued by corruption and Quirino faced some personal scandals of his own, he wasn’t a particularly strong or popular national figure.
Enter the CIA
To ensure the Hukbalahap didn’t jeopardize American interests, the CIA became involved and sent U.S. Air Force officer and psychological warfare pioneer Edward Lansdale to mastermind a new strategy.
As Blum wrote, Lansdale was surprised to hear how repressive the Quirino government was but believed that the Philippines would be even worse off if the Hukbalahap took over.
A different kind of market research
At the behest of the CIA, Lansdale established a team called the Civil Affairs Office and led them with the understanding that it took more than firepower to defeat a guerilla army.
By that, he meant that the local folklore in the rural areas where the Huks were known to reside could be exploited to stop civilians from supporting them.
A promising start
Blum wrote that one of the tactics Lansdale’s team employed involved flying a small plane over Hukbalahap areas and hiding it in the heavy cloud cover.
Once in position, this plane would broadcast Tagalog messages that would appear to citizens below as mysterious curses promising doom to anyone who gave the Huks food or shelter.
Where the vampires come in
Since this tactic was effective enough to starve some Hukbalahap units into surrender, Lansdale’s team ramped up their psychological warfare using the powerful legend of the Aswang.
According to Esquire Philippines, this is a creature known for leaving similar bite marks to vampires and one reputed to have similarly deadly results when encountering humans.
A widespread fear
Although Esquire Philippines reported that belief in the Aswang may persist to a degree in the Philippines today, it was especially widespread in the mid-20th Century when the nation was mostly agrarian.
So from 1950 to 1954, the CIA would exploit this beast’s legend in the island country’s Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, and Tarlac provinces.
Blum wrote that when government forces were anxious to get a Hukbalahap unit out of a given region, a squad assembled by Lansdale would go into a town and spread rumors of an Aswang living on a nearby hill. That hill would be where the Huks were based.
They would then pull out and wait a couple of days for the “news” to spread in the town, particularly among Hukbalahap sympathizers, who would then tell the unit on the hill.
Winning a battle with one casualty
After the rumor had been sufficiently spread, Lansdale’s squad would wait in ambush on a trail they knew the Hukbalahap would patrol.
And when a patrol passed by, the squad would abduct the last person in line.
Making a vampire
Blum continued, writing that the squad would then put two holes in the rebel’s neck as Dracula would have before draining the blood from their body. That being done, they would bring the body back to the trail and leave it there.
Since Lansdale noticed that Hukbalahap members weren’t any more immune to this folklore than the villagers around them, the casualty’s comrades would fearfully flee the area once they discovered the body.
A two-pronged Aswang attack
But while this tactic proved an effective and practical strategy to force Hukbalahap members to relocate, the CIA needed to use it on a larger scale to hobble the rebels’ strength.
So rather than leaving one body on a specific trail, Esquire Philippines reported that Lansdale’s team would leave a pile of them (usually comprised of Huks) in a busy area of one of their target provinces.
A terrifying sight
And true to Lansdale’s playbook, these bodies were punctured with the right holes to make locals think they were bitten and mauled by an Aswang.
In Lansdale’s words, “To the superstitious, the Huk battleground was a haunted place filled with ghosts and eerie creatures.”
A watchful eye
According to Esquire Philippines, Lansdale’s team used another tactic called the “Eye of God.” This would involve painting ominous eye murals on walls facing the houses of suspected Hukbalahap sympathizers.
As Lansdale put it, “The mysterious presence of these malevolent eyes the next morning had a sharply sobering effect.”
But did it work?
By the time these psyops ramped up, the Huks were already facing organizational and supply issues.
So they needed the once sympathetic rural population to fear associating with them like they needed an actual Aswang attack.
Terror takes hold
Yet Lansdale’s team was able to foster enough terror throughout the Philippine countryside that Hukbalahap support did erode.
Thus, this use of the Aswang legend made the group more susceptible to the government’s search-and-destroy methods than they otherwise would have been.
Just in time for the CIA’s big move
As Blum wrote in Killing Hope, the Hukbalahap’s position in the Philippines eroded in time for Lansdale to devote more of his efforts towards getting the CIA’s cooperative presidential candidate, Ramon Magsaysay, elected.
Blum described Lansdale as “inventing” Magsaysay and as someone who was able to control his actions with impunity.
A clear pattern of meddling
According to Blum, Magsaysay largely deferred to the CIA’s plans for him. And on one occasion that saw him defy them and insist on delivering a speech written by a Filipino rather than Lansdale’s team, Lansdale became enraged enough to knock him out.
The CIA also drugged his predecessor and opponent, Elpido Quirino, before he delivered a speech to make him less coherent and less electable.
Magsaysay’s victory avoided a bloody Plan B
By 1953, the election results came in, and Magsaysay won. With his presidency, the CIA had a key ally in Asia.
And according to Blum, Magsaysay’s victory was important enough to the intelligence agency that they had already smuggled in caches of weapons to supply a coup in case he lost.
A year later, another CIA victory
After facing intensified search and destroy missions with dwindling public support, it was soon clear to Taruc that their position in the Philippines was all but unwinnable.
As such, most of the remaining Hukbalahap finally surrendered in 1954.
He still had supporters
Although Taruc did not have sufficient support to keep the conflict going, that’s not to say that his support completely evaporated.
A Time article from 1954 described the villagers of San Pablo as “fanatically loyal” to him and weeping upon hearing news of his surrender.
A stark difference
That Time article also mentioned that the Huks’ numbers had plummeted from 10,000 in 1948 to less than 1,500 by the time of Taruc’s surrender.
As Taruc put it at the time, “There is no further reason why more blood should be spilled..”
A similar picture painted by his roster of sympathizers
Over the same period, Time estimated that the number of citizens supporting Hukbalahap had fallen from about 1 million to about 30,000.
As Blum quoted historian George Taylor as saying, “Since the destruction of Huk military power, the social and political program that made the accomplishment possible has to a large extent fallen by the wayside.”
To a large extent, but not totally
Although these CIA victories would see the Philippines become a solid base for American air and sea operations throughout the rest of Asia. However, that’s not to say this new paradigm went unchallenged.
According to Esquire Philippines, it only took a few years after Hukbalahap’s defeat for new resistance forces to start forming in the Philippines.
A new challenger
Before long, the Philippines would see a new firebrand in the form of Jose Maria Sison.
And while he would eventually face incarceration, Sison would prove Taruc’s fall was not the end of communism in the island nation. That’s because he founded another incarnation of the Communist Party of the Philippines, this time with an associated paramilitary force called the New People’s Army.