Manila — Benigno Aquino Jr. believed he was racing against time in his return to the Philippines, his wife said Tuesday. He was trying to get home and speak to his arch rival, Ferdinand Marcos, whom he believed to be seriously ill, while the Philippines leader was still in control of the country, said Corazon Aquino.
Aquino, head of the moderate political opposition to Marcos, was assassinated on his arrival at Manila airport Aug. 21 after three years of self-exile in the United States.
Aquino told his wife and others that Philippine politics was polarizing fast, and that Mr. Marcos's disappearance from the scene would leave a menacing power vacuum.
''He wanted to talk to the President, and persuade him to restore our freedoms before it was too late,'' Mrs. Aquino said in an interview at the family home outside Manila. ''He felt that he could exert the strongest moral pressure on the President - he had been in prison the longest after martial law was declared (in 1972). And now he was voluntarily giving up a comfortable existence in Boston to return to possible re-arrest.''
In his arrival statement, distributed at the airport just before he was killed, Aquino wrote of his determination to work for national reconciliation in his country. His supporters kept asking him why he thought Marcos would listen to him, Mrs. Aquino said. ''Some of them said that President Marcos had grown too callous to pay any attention. But my husband felt that he wouldn't be able to forgive himself if he didn't try.''
Some of Aquino's colleagues - Mrs. Aquino did not specify who - said that the terms he was offering Marcos were too easy. ''He wanted press freedom, honest elections, and a new Commission of Elections (the body that oversees elections in the Philippines) composed of independent people.
''Some of the other opposition people felt he was giving too much away. But my husband told them: 'Marcos has all the cards. We have to concede a few points. The important thing is to talk to him while we still have the chance.' That's the tragedy of it all,'' she said.
In one respect, the government's warnings to Aquino of a plot against his life served to spur him on: He clearly interpreted them as a sign that the President was critically ill.
''We were confused by the requests that he hold off (his arrival) for a month ,'' said Mrs. Aquino. ''And I remember vividly Defense Minister (Juan Ponce) Enrile's cable saying, 'Please believe us' about the threats. But then when we read in early August that the President was going into seclusion ostensibly to do some writing, we decided that Mr. Marcos must be getting ready for a kidney transplant.''
''But when we read that Congressman (Stephen) Solarz (Democrat of New York) had met the President,'' Mrs. Aquino added, ''my husband was quite relieved. He said that as long as the President is still in full control of the situation, he didn't think anything would happen to him.''
If he had been given any freedom of activity on his return, Aquino planned to start by playing a backroom role in Filipino politics, his widow said.
Marcos is reliably reported to have told a confidant last month that he viewed Aquino as his main contender in presidential elections planned for 1987.
''The trouble was,'' Mrs. Aquino said, ''he never knew if he would be qualified to run. During the last election (1981), the President simply changed the rules: He announced that the minimum age for a presidential candidate was 50 . My husband was 48.''
While in the US, Mrs. Aquino said that her husband had little contact with the Reagan administration. ''My husband didn't really believe in Reagan - the atmosphere under him was completely different from the Carter years, when the President really believed in human rights,'' Mrs. Aquino said. ''And my husband felt that Reagan was happy with Marcos,'' she continued.
The Reagan administration's tolerance of the Aquinos, moreover, seemed minimal. Visas were a problem, for example. ''Whenever we asked immigration officials in Boston about our visa requests,'' Mrs. Aquino said, ''we were told that Washington had not given an answer yet.'' ''But (my husband) always told us to differentiate between the American government and the people. And, looking back, I really appreciate our three years in the States, and I want to thank the American people for those good years.''
Mrs. Aquino would not discuss the motives of any assassin, but did repeat the questions she wanted answered. ''Why did they send only three men onto the plane? Before, when they moved him (during the years of his detention) - and when there were no death threats - they would surround him with dozens of men.''
''And why didn't they send officers who knew him? There are plenty of them. . . . Why did they just send three unknown noncommissioned officers,'' she asked. ''And how did the alleged assassin know which plane my husband was travelling on.?''
Since Mrs. Aquino's return, contacts with the government have been few. ''It seems that Prime Minister Cesar Virata came to the house to pay his respects just before I arrived,'' she said. ''At first, the people thought it was me and cheered. Then they saw who it was, and booed.''