Carlos Peña Romulo once wrote that each of his careers “might have been lived in a different country and a different age.” Soldier, journalist, educator, author, and diplomat, he was a definitive world figure of the 20th century.
Romulo grew up in the town of Camiling in the province of Tarlac in northern Philippines. He was born within the Spanish walled city of Intramuros, Manila, on January 14, 1898, at the twilight of one colonial regime and the dawning of another. His father, Gregorio, fought in the revolution for Philippine independence against Spain and, until surrender, America. The bitterness of the conflicts left an impression on the young boy—marking “the beginnings of a rebel,” as he called it—and he made a promise never to smile at an American soldier.
His levelheaded father eventually welcomed American schoolteachers who came to Tarlac to teach English, however, becoming the first of the town’s elders to learn the language. Likewise, the young Romulo’s hatred abated not only because of his father’s example but also because he became friendly with an American sergeant.
His father’s dream of an independent and democratic Philippines lived on. One of the last to take his oath of allegiance to America, the elder Romulo learned to accept the foreign power’s rulings except—as the young Romulo recounts in his memoirs—“in the manner of the flag.”
“The American law says we cannot display our flag in any public place,” Gregorio Romulo told his family. “Well, my bedroom is not a public place.”
In World War II Romulo was aide-de-camp to General Douglas MacArthur. As a journalist he wrote a series of articles, after a tour of the Far East, about Japanese imperialism, and predicted an attack on the United States. For this he won the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for Distinguished Correspondence, and it was MacArthur himself who delivered to his friend the good news.
His skill at using words made Romulo the logical choice to become “the Voice of Freedom,” which broadcasted news of the war effort to Filipinos and Americans alike. Often contrary to Japanese propaganda, Romulo’s reports earned the ire of the enemy, who put a price on his head. But Romulo kept broadcasting until the Fall of Bataan, and abandoned his post only after MacArthur’s strict orders to leave. He flew first to Australia, eventually ending up in the United States in exile, leaving behind his wife and four sons.
In 1924 Romulo married Virginia Llamas, a local beauty titlist. They met at a picnic and they married not long after being crowned King and Queen of a Manila carnival. She once commented that she was the type of wife who preferred to glow “faintly in her husband’s shadow,” to which one acquaintance quipped, “this didn’t leave much room to glow in”—a jab at Romulo’s height.
Standing only 5’4” in his shoes, Romulo often made fun of his height. His book I Walked With Heroes opens with the anecdote about being the newly elected president of the United Nations—the first Asian to ever hold the post—and having to be “perched atop three thick New York City telephone books” just to see and be seen by all the delegates below the podium. When MacArthur fulfilled his promise to return to the Philippines, with Romulo at his side, it was reported that the American general was wading in waist-deep water. One correspondent, Walter Winchell, immediately wired back asking how Romulo could have waded in that depth without drowning.
He also used his height to his advantage. “The little fellow is generally underrated in the beginning,” he once wrote. “Then he does something well, and people are surprised and impressed. In their minds his achievement is magnified.”
This kind of understanding served him well as he began a career as a diplomat at the United Nations. Describing himself as the “barefoot boy of politics,” he had never before attended an international conference and was new to diplomacy. To add to this challenge, he was representing a small nation that had not yet achieved independence. (There already had been reports of Filipino delegates being ignored at international meetings.)
Romulo—whose lifelong dream was to help build a body such as the United Nations—resolved to make the Philippines the voice of all small nations. As a signatory of the charter forming the United Nations in 1945, he spoke the famous line, “Let us make this floor the last battlefield” at the first General Assembly. There was at first silence, but then he received a standing ovation—the only one given to any speaker at the conference.
Romulo launched himself fully into the world of international diplomacy, standing his ground against the big powers and committing himself to the causes of fledging nations. Dismissed by some, like Andrei Vishinsky, chief of the Soviet delegation, as a “little man from a little country,” Romulo was undeterred, fighting “like David, slinging pebbles of truth between the eyes of blustering Goliaths.”
Dubbed by his colleagues “Mr. United Nations,” he was elected president of the United Nations General Assembly in 1949—the first Asian to hold the position—and served as president of UN Security Council four times, in 1981, in 1980 and twice in 1957.
Despite all the triumphs, Romulo hit low points in his life. His eldest son Carlos, Jr., died in a plane crash in 1957, and his beloved wife died in 1968, near the end of his terms as president of the University of the Philippines, his alma mater, and, concurrently, Secretary of Education.
“I had to be outstanding,” he wrote, “to make the greatest effort to win, to prove I was capable not in spite of having been born a Filipino but because I was a Filipino.”
Romulo served a total of eight Philippine presidents. His career as a public servant spanned more than fifty years, including seventeen years as Secretary of Foreign Affairs and ten years as the Philippines’ ambassador to the United States. As a soldier he was a brigadier general in the US Army, receiving the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for his service during World War II, and a major general in the Philippine Army. As a writer he authored sixteen books, two plays, and several poems. In 1982 he was named a National Artist for Literature by the Philippine government. He was also conferred the first Bayani ng Republika Award for his outstanding service to the Filipino nation and the rank of Raja of the Order of Sikatuna, an honor usually reserved for heads of state.
By the time he died in 1985 he had served on the boards of a number of prestigious Philippine corporations, such as San Miguel and Equitable Bank. “The General,” as he was widely known, had received well over a hundred awards and decorations from other nations as well as over sixty honorary degrees from universities all over the world. Extolled by Asiaweek as “A Man of His Century,” he was the most admired Filipino in international diplomacy of the 20th century.
He was laid to rest in the state cemetery, alongside Philippine presidents and other great Filipinos, survived by his second wife Beth Day, whom he married in 1978.