There has been a curious undertone of surprise and shock about the emergence of evidence that President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines perhaps falsified his war record, in which he had portrayed himself as an anti-Japanese guerrilla warrior. Recent allegations suggest that he was something quite different, possibly a collaborator who worked hand in hand with such Philippine politicians as Jos,e Laurel and Jorge Vargas, who were openly pro-Japanese.

This is not the place to debate the accuracy of the charges. What is notable here is that American observers appear to be shocked that so staunchly a pro-American politician as Marcos could possibly have been avidly pro- Japanese -- in the wning days of World War II, as well as earlier.

This suggests a basic misunderstanding about Third World politicians. No matter what political ideology they may espouse, they see themselves as nationalists first. Marcos may be everything terrible that he has been called, but there is no doubt that he sees himself now -- and saw himself then -- as a Philippine nationalist first.

He was not alone then, especially in Asia. Others collaborated with the Japanese: Chandra Bose and Mohan Singh of India, Ba Maw and Aung San of Burma, Sukarno of Indonesia. All of these politicians and their leaders -- and one might throw in Ho Chi Minh -- saw themselves as nationalists, radicals and anti- imperialists who had lived and suffered under, variously, the British, the French, the Dutch and the Americans, all representatives of Western imperialism. For them, at least initially, Japan's avowed anti-imperialism held tremendous appeal and spoke of their pride and suffering.

Christopher Thorne, a leading diplomatic historian of the Pacific war, writes in "The Issue of War": "The principle of Asiatic Monroeism as against the aggressive Monroeism of the United States was aimed at assisting all Asians to hurl back the evil encroachment of the West . . . to be dedicated to the sacred war that would signify racial resurrection in Greater Asia."

These currents explained at least in part Japan's great success against the Western powers. The Japanese insisted their rule would be unselfish, that its cause was Asia for Asians. Or, as Gen. Yamashita, the victor of Malaya and Singapore, said, "We hoped that we sweep away the arrogance and uprighteousness of the British and share the pain and rejoicing with all the colored people in the spirit of give and take and also hope to promote the social development by establishing the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in the great spirit of cosmography."

The appeal was blatantly racial and cultural, and it was surprisingly effective with the majority of Filipinos, although the landed gentry assured Gen. Douglas MacArthur of their support. The Japanese tide symbolized, according to Thorne, a "vindication of the prestige of all Asian nations in the face of Anglo- Saxon Jewish imperialism."

The government of Laurel -- whose son is one of the current opposition leaders -- promptly concluded a military alliance with Japan in 1943 but refused to declare war against the United States until the fall of Manila in 1944, when it was too late. Marcos, like Laurel and Vargas, was basically a collaborator, although only a junior politician of little significance.

Although initially the Japanese victories over Western armies raised Asian morale, the reality of Japanese rule was something else again, proving to be just as vindictive, racist and oppressive as that of the West -- perhaps even more brutal, since the Japanese believed they came from a culture and tradition superior to that of their Asian brothers. The Japanese never bothered to establish real local support, but preferred to rule with a mailed fist. This would eventually disenchant their supporters.

Marcos must have realized this early, but it took him a long time to find, for posterity's sake, a historical alibi -- an anti-Japanese guerrilla pedigree. Yet in his own way he also saw himself as a nationalist, very much like the Vichy generals in France; Sadat and his Free Officers, who supported the Germans, and Rashid Ali Al-Galiani, who established a pro-Hitler government in Iraq.

I suspect that our shock at the recent allegations stems from our misconceived notion that our form of U.S. democracy and benevolence is remembered with fondness in Asia. This is simply not the case. Not all Filipinos appreciated MacArthur's studied arrogance. Many of them remember, from tales told by their grandfathers, an earlier American occupation.

The issue of Marcos today is what he has become, not what he was. If we look to the past, then we must understand what motivated Asian leaders of whatever political persuasion. Considering some of the reactions in the press, we still do not understand those motivations. This suggests an innocence we can ill afford.