Youth: The Rural-Urban Axis
Pangasinan – Manila – West Point
Fidel remained in Pangasinan one year after the Narciso Ramos family moved to Manila so that the paterfamilia could attend well to his duties at the National Assembly4. The sojourn sustained Fidel’s academic stamina. Left on his own, he nevertheless graduated at the top of his primary school class. Secondary school in Manila was interrupted by the Second World War. They had just arrived at the Philippine capital when the Japanese Occupation commenced. The Manila that Ramos experienced with his sisters and parents, almost immediately upon their arrival, was among the world’s cities most devastated by the war. From 1942 to 1945, daily life put most residents in the vicinity of extreme danger. Food became scarce even as gestures of allegiance to the occupiers had to be meticulously displayed. Disrespecting the Japanese forces often meant punishment or death. Manila was under the heel of its most brutal conqueror, but the Ramos family also witnessed—and participated in—defiance of the occupation. Their immediate forebear, Narciso’s father Plácido Ramos, was in his time a soldier in the war for independence. Their church, the Methodist Cosmopolitan, was a safehouse for guerrillas fighting the Japanese. Fidel’s work with guerrillas introduced him to the craft of intelligence gathering. The war experience solidified the Ramos children’s understanding of duty to country.
At the end of the war, Manila was the third most destroyed Allied city in the world. An American construction engineer estimated the ruination from shelling, fire, and demolition at about 759 million dollars. Army engineers estimated total damage at a billion dollars. Nearly the entirety of the 300-year-old Spanish city of Intramuros was in ruins, and residents of the American period districts of Malate and Ermita experienced house-to-house torture and summary execution. The mass atrocities happened in the last month of the war5. More than 100,000 people were slaughtered by Japanese forces on the run and by American bombardment from the air. “The destruction of Manila was one of the greatest tragedies of World War II. Of all the allied capitals only Warsaw suffered more,” American historian William Manchester wrote6. Another Filipino teenager at that time, historian Benito Legarda, wrote that “the Japanese forces occupying the city since Jan. 2, 1942 went out of their way to make life unlivable, once they realized the US military was advancing to recapture the city. They dynamited bridges, destroyed utilities and murdered civilians … There was no excuse for what took place in Manila in those 28 days … none at all.”
Fidel had decided to become an engineer, so he enrolled at the College of Engineering of the National University, thinking to participate in the reconstruction projects. He belonged to that generation of Filipinos who entered university as the Philippines became a fully independent nation. The country passed from Commonwealth status to full republic on 04 July 1946; the capital of the country was moved from destroyed Manila to Quezon City in 1948; and a Philippine War Damage Commission was created by the Philippine Rehabilitation Commission. The son of Assemblyman Narciso and Angela Ramos emerged into adulthood in a time when the focus of the nation-building effort was on engineering and military efficiencies.
Fidel was already enrolled at the National University College of Engineering when he tried out for the highly competitive single slot for admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He earned his place in July 1946 and subsequently graduated, at the age of 22, in the top ten percent of the Class of 1950. He was also elected to the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, a membership he continued in the University of the Philippines.
The young cadet was determined to contributed to rebuilding a destroyed Manila as a soldier first and engineer
Ramos family archives
Fidel V. Ramos was determined to excel, being the sole Filipino in his batch at the American Military School. He graduated in the top ten of his class.
Ramos family archives
War and Education
“As a foreign graduate, I drew from West Point the values of duty, honor, country, and also much of my commitment to the ideals of democracy and freedom.”
President Fidel V. Ramos
Speech at the United States Military Academy, 1993
Ramos was a competitive student at the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA). Aware that he was representing a newly independent nation—“I had to succeed because my success would be a success for the Philippines; my failure, a Filipino failure”—he emerged from being a loner in his first two years to an active joiner in the Academy’s organizations. He assumed leadership of the camera club and became editor of the freshman magazine. A highly ranked competitor in chess, he also excelled in swimming, track, boxing intramurals, and cross-country competitions. He rose as well in secondments during his summer military training with the midshipmen of Annapolis, and at the army camps of Fort Benning, Fort Sill, and others. This range of interests and enthusiasm for competition aligned with West Point’s post-Second World War shift from training for combat readiness (with cadets accelerated and graduated early) during the war years, to a renewed focus on academics. Arts and letters, and athletics were essential elements of this academic life, so the school organizations and their functions in education replicated the academic traditions of Ivy League institutions. Reversion to this fulsome university life underscored the period during which Ramos was an undergraduate. West Point’s new superintendent in 1945 modernized and expanded the curriculum, and in a few years, electives were offered, and antiquated courses (like fencing and horsemanship) were eliminated. The single cadet from the Philippines won for himself more than the competitions he joined; he won a superior education that produced world leaders.
During Ramos’ years as an undergraduate, the Cold War wholly emerged in the catastrophic aftermath of the Second World War. The USMA of this period was rife with heroic stories of its alumni sacrificing life, winning the war, and determining the postwar policy environment. In particular, Class ‘41 has been remarked on extensively in the geopolitical literature. The abstract of a recent book7 reads:
[T]hese young officers struggled with the fog and terror of war and early command. In a postwar era of unprecedented military latitude, they helped shape defense strategy, led development of America’s rocket programs, and created the theory and practice of helicopter airmobile combat that came to dominate in Vietnam. In Europe, Asia, and with the Soviets, 41ers practiced diplomacy and tradecraft as architects of American Cold War policy. All the while, they clung tightly to tenets of duty and moral courage inculcated at West Point: often tested, but holding firm to the bonds that make up the “Long Gray Line.”
The cultural shape of Ramos’ education in an American military institution included a widely shared acknowledgement of Filipino contributions to defending democracy, marking a time when combat duties in the Pacific theater of war had just concluded. The Filipino cadet imbibed a stronger appreciation of liberal democracy fortified by narratives of sacrifice. Sacrifice was enshrined in American civic narratives of war, and, in relation to the Second World War, was associated with the phrases “our finest hour,” “pulling together in common purpose and spirit,” and “only one thing on their minds: winning the war8.” Combined with the statistics of attrition fresh on the minds of Westpointers—five hundred of the university’s alumni had died in the war—sacrifice was a physical reality. Ramos would evoke this idea throughout his life.
Fidel’s childhood tuition in democracy would coalesce at West Point as the commencement of a career path. His military career began in the institution that supplied four of the five generals who directed the global defense of democracy against the Axis powers. The student body to which he belonged was also immediately familiarized with crafting policy for postwar reconstruction, specifically to contrast with the attractiveness and de facto reality of socialism in the community of nations.
Ramos’ Class of 1950 graduated on 6 June 1950, only eighteen days before the Cold War flared into a hot regional war. On June 25 of the same year, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) attacked South Korea using Soviet tanks. Analysts recall this conflict as directly an outcome of the ideological division of the world at the end of the Second World War. China and Russia supported the NKPA incursion, while the US fought alongside several countries, including the Philippines, and the newly established United Nations. The Korean War took a considerable toll on the fresh West Point graduates. Half of the six hundred and fifty students consisting Ramos’ Class of 1950 served in this theater of war. Thirty-four of them were killed in action in the Korean Peninsula. One account drew out the American sense of this conflict: “Of ten classmates honeymooning on the beach at Sea Island, Georgia, six would soon fly to Korea—three to be killed in action, two to win Distinguished Service Crosses for extraordinary heroism9.” Ramos would retrospectively offer a Filipino perspective in a speech at USMA during a visit in 1993:
Even after the Philippines became independent, the close relationship between the two countries and their defense forces continued. Filipinos, including myself, fought under the Philippine flag on the same side as the Americans in two Asian conflicts—Korea and Vietnam.
Physical fitness was always an enduring part of the personal discipline of the soldier, engineer, and statesman.
Ramos family archives
He is flanked by his parents, Narciso and Angela Ramos, sisters Leticia and Gloria Ramos, and cousins.
Ramos family archive
Soldier in Korea
Graduated by the USMA in 1950 and obliged to choose a specialization, Ramos took up his wartime ambition to become an engineer. He earned his place in the prestigious Corps of Engineers, and proceeded to earn a master’s degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois with the help of a Philippine Government scholarship. His engineering textbooks and many of his West Point instructors had made the university familiar to him. At the Urbana-Champaign campus, the non-military environment gave him an expanded view of knowledge as transnational. Ramos would eventually articulate this expansive global perspective in a speech that he gave upon receiving the university’s medal of merit.
We usually think of our world in terms of nations. But in the world of knowledge, there are no frontiers and no nationalities. A premier university like the University of Illinois forms an important part of the vast international community of academic excellence and scholarship, in which all seekers of knowledge are members.
Explaining his global view in hindsight, he added:
In both rich and poor nations—in the First, Second and Third Worlds—the story is the same. Our lives change for the better to the extent that our universities, laboratories and think tanks discover new knowledge and renew the old, and to the extent that all are able to share in the fruits of modern civilization.
Soldier-engineer Ramos returned to the Philippines in 1952 with a heightened appetite for the intellectual rigging of military life. He had already learned to cultivate a global perspective on conflict, including an appreciation for cross-border collaboration in reconstruction. By the 1950s, the Philippines was well into rebuilding projects: structures, districts, cities, and rural agriculture infrastructure. Filipinos, assisted by the US, had picked themselves up from the destruction of the war.
It was, however, a period fully absorbed into the Cold War. Some of the wartime guerrilla groups continued beyond Liberation to turn their armed attacks against perceived enemies—principally the landed elite, but ultimately against the government of the newly independent republic. This conflict overtly took on a Marxist-Leninist Left ideological frame, in contrast to the American-style Liberal Democratic Right during this period. Before the mid 20th century10, the guerrillas-turned-insurgents—the anti-Japanese Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap) turned into the Hukbong Magpapalaya sa Bayan (People’s Liberation Army)—engaged the government in both ideological and armed conflict. Quickly outlawed, the Huks nevertheless managed to control a substantial part of Central Luzon, until the charismatic Defense Secretary Ramon del Fierro Magsaysay swung the momentum of the conflict towards Huk defeat.
In 1951, at the age of 23, the newly returned Lieutenant Ramos chose an assignment as a heavy weapons platoon leader and assistant intelligence officer for the Infantry Platoon of the 2nd Battalion command team. For the man who was “Eddie” to friends, a return to the Philippines was an immediate return to the front lines. Secretary Ramon Magsaysay, who was to become President of the Philippines in 1953, had offered Ramos the position of his aide-de-camp. Magsaysay’s son and junior recalled that the “young Eddie politely turned down the offer. He told my father, ‘Mr. Secretary, I am sorry but I’d like to go to combat.’”11 To others, Ramos explained his decision to join the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Infantry thus: “That was where the combat action was.” He repeatedly chose troop field duty, especially in his early career, only to be abruptly assigned elsewhere (for instance, when he took command of the Philippine National Police upon gaining his first star as general). The infantry, however, remained Ramos’ preferred military arm. He maintained direct and often personal contact with soldiers on the ground throughout his life, even when he became President. In the 1950s, this proclivity was set by the continuing battles the Philippine state had to fight even after the end of a world war.
The warrior-builder Ramos’ education built on his early life in a family of resolute democrats. His preference for assignments in battlegrounds was sharpened during the war, and during postwar university tuition in the US, where the defense of democracy was the core value structuring the learning experience. He returned to a Philippines preparing to join the UN forces that were pushing back against southward Communist incursions in the Korean Peninsula. And while President Magsaysay’s success at ending the Huk insurgency in central Luzon would produce a decade of true peace up to the mid 1960s, Ramos’ geopolitical understanding of the Cold War led to his volunteering for the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK). His personal alignment with the concept of “wars of peace”—literal battles to win détente between opposing forces and restore order through battlefield success—was expressed in his choices. His preference for an assignment to the Korean War theater was one such pivotal choice. He gravitated towards the geopolitical hotspot of the 1950s, and one which needed a multinational formation against a common Cold War antagonist, but also one which was clearly going to need postwar reconstruction.
University of Illinois presents a Presidential Medal for Outstanding Achievement to President Fidel V. Ramos.
After graduating from USMA West Point, soldier Ramos pursued a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering in the University of Illinois.
Ramos family archives
4 The Commonwealth Period National Assembly, the Kapulungáng Pambansâ ng Pilipinas, was created under Article VI of the 1935 Philippine Constitution to serve as the legislative body. The unicameral body seated 120 Assemblymen. It was replaced by the Congress of the Philippines in 1940.
5 See, among others, John A. Del Gallego, The Liberation of Manila: 28 Days of Carnage, February-March 1945. (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2020).
6 Agence France Press, “28 days of horror in fight for Manila,” Taipeh Times, August 15, 2005.
7 Anne Kazel-Wilcox and PJ Wilcox, with Lt. General Edward L. Rowny, West Point ’41: The Class that went to war and shaped America. (University Press of New England, 2014).
8 Mark Jonathan Harris, Franklin D. Mitchell, and Steven J. Schecter, The Homefront: American during World War II (New York: Putnam, 1984) quoted in Mark H. Leff, “The Politics of Sacrifice on the American Home Front in World War II,” The Journal of American History 77, no. 4 (March 1991): 1296-1318.
9 J. Robert Mosken, “The Tragedy of West Point’s Class of 1950,” Look 16, no. 2 (June 3, 1952): 31-41.
10 The peasant movement Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap) was organized to fight the Japanese occupation force in the Philippines during the Second World War. It was the citizen army of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (Communist Party of the Philippines) founded in 1930 by leading figures in the labor movement and the trade federation of that period. After the war, the Hukbalahap would be regarded an enemy force. Targeted by the Philippine military, the Huks continued with their armed rebellion, while simultaneously engaging in electoral politics. Their winning candidates (notably, Luis Taruc) would not be allowed to sit in government, even as the insurrection was routed.
11 Ramon Magsaysay, Jr., “My neighbor FVR: From soldier to president,” Inquirer.net, August 14 2022, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1646148/my-neighbor-fvr-from-soldier-to-president.