Honor and Jose Abad Santos
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - January 5, 2020 - 12:00am

The book is HONOR: The Legacy of Jose Abad Santos. I have purposely chosen this as my first column for 2020. He is the most underrated hero in Philippine history. This is the first comprehensive book written about him. Why was this person who was Secretary of Justice such a controversial person? Perhaps it was not his work; but, the way he died.

According to historian Peter Parsons: “ ...there was a World War II. And that the arguably most important hero of that war was this Abad Santos. His death put to shame the rest of the political figures who rolled over and did the bidding of their Japanese overlords. Abad Santos told the captors he preferred death to betraying his country.”

Another historian, Regalado Jose wrote: “In this new biography of Jose Abad Santos is told the story of the highest ranking member of the government to give up his life – voluntarily and unflinchingly – rather than stain himself with dishonour. Jose Abad Santos had been Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Secretary of Justice, and empowered to act as president in  the absence of the president of the Philippine Commonwealth Government, Manuel L. Quezon. Abad Santos was steadfast in his decision not to work with the Japanese conquerors, preferring to stick to his oaths and to his beliefs. He had been a brilliant government official and jurist and his loss was keenly felt. But he set an example for others – an example that redounds to the present day. It is not easy to give up one’s life; others of lesser mettle would have pleaded or would have bartered their very soul just to live on. But Jose Abad Santos unswervingly faced death in the face.”

His last words to his son are still valid today: “it is a rare opportunity to die for our country. Not everyone is given that chance.”

The book was written by a grand niece, Desiree Ann Cua Benipayo. This is much more than a biography. It sets the book within the setting of Philippine contemporary history beginning with the Philippine War of Independence and ends with the war trials at the end of the Second World War.

Perhaps because it was written by a descendant of the Abad Santos family, the book devotes major portions to stories of the ten Abad Santos siblings. Especially charming are stories of their childhood which paint a vivid picture of life during that period of Philippine history. It describes the Abad Santos home and the games they played. 

A major part of the book is devoted to Pedro Abad Santos, the elder brother of Jose. Pedro or Don Perico was the founder of the Socialist Party and headed the peasant movement during the period when Jose Abad Santos was the Supreme Court Chief Justice and Secretary of Justice. This meant that the two brilliant brothers were on opposite sides of the political fence during the Commonwealth era.

Pedro Abad Santos was a voracious reader. He read authors like Leon Blum, Norman Thompson, Tolstoy and marxist and socialist books of the time. He was branded a communist but he was neither a communist or in favor of violence. He defended the peasants giving free legal advice. He criticized the Philippine Constabulary (PC) for being right leaning pawns of the landlords. As he put it: “All the landlords had to do to disperse or threaten peasants was to telephone the commander of the PC.” He also criticized the courts as most judges in position were either from the elite or were beholden to them for placing them in those positions. He once wrote to his brother, Jose, then Secretary of Justice:

“ I might as well tell you at the outset that the workers, including tenants and agricultural workers have lost faith in the courts, our ruling class has taken the place of the former colonial rulers and uses the courts to  further their interests and privileges.”

As I read this part of the book, I told myself that after a hundred years the situation in the Philippines has not changed.

It was March 1942 in Negros Occidental when Quezon decided to join MacArthur in Australia and set up a government in exile. He asked his Cabinet members to join him. At that time. Pedro Abad Santos had already formed a guerrilla army in Central Luzon.

Jose Abad Santos told Quezon he preferred to remain: “If you will permit me. Mr. President [ Quezon] I prefer to remain, carry on my work, and stay with my family...I believe my place is in the Philippines.” He planned to go to Cebu to join the resistance there in Cebu. Quezon then appointed Jose Abad Santos his delegate with full presidential powers.

He was later captured; and, after refusing to cooperate with the Japanese forces, he was executed in May 1942 in a desolate town in Lanao del Sur. His remains were never found. His brother, Pedro Abad Santos also died while in a Japanese prison. 

Writer Leon Ma. Guerrerro once wrote: “Nations are known for the heroes they have.” 

Jose Abad Santos died with honor as a hero. 

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout resume on Jan. 25 (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration, email writethingsph@gmail.com.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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