James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: The Fight over the Panama Canal Treaties

by James M. Lindsay
March 16, 2011

President Jimmy Carter at the White House discussing the Panama Canal Treaty. (Courtesy National Library of Congress)

President Jimmy Carter at the White House discussing the Panama Canal Treaty during a nationally televised fireside chat. (Courtesy National Library of Congress)

President Obama begins his Latin America trip on March 19. When he stops in Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador the official business will range from trade to energy to regional security. One issue that won’t be on the agenda is the Panama Canal. That is because on this date in 1978 the Senate narrowly passed the “Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal,” thereby removing what had been a long-standing irritant in U.S. relations with Latin America.

The Panama Canal Zone, which cut a ten-mile wide path across the middle of Panama, was a source of controversy in Latin America from its creation. Theodore Roosevelt had initially negotiated a treaty with Colombia to build a canal across the Panamanian isthmus. The Colombian Senate rejected the treaty, however, as lop-sided in favor of the United States. TR, deciding that there was more than one way to skin a cat, encouraged Panamanian separatists who wanted to be free of rule from Bogota to revolt. When the rebels succeeded, in part because the U.S. Navy prevented Columbian troops from landing in Panama to put down the uprising, TR struck a deal with the new government to build a canal.

The Panama Canal was a point of great pride for the United States, but trouble was brewing. In 1964, anti-American riots broke out in Panama, killing twenty-three Panamanians and three Americans. The violence was ostensibly triggered by reports that U.S. high school students in the Canal Zone had desecrated a Panamanian flag. But the deeper issue was that many Panamanians saw U.S. control of the canal as an affront to Panamanian sovereignty—“a foreign flag piercing its own heart,” as a later Panamanian leader, General Omar Torrijos, would put it.

The Johnson administration and then the Nixon administration talked with Panama about writing a new treaty. But those negotiations had failed to produce an agreement by the time Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977. So it fell to Carter to strike a final deal. Although he had argued against giving control of the canal to Panama earlier in his career, he had come to the conclusion that the canal was no longer vital to U.S. strategic and trade interests and that a failure reach an agreement with Panama would jeopardize America’s political and economic relations with all of Latin America.

Carter moved quickly. In August 1977, U.S. and Panamanians announced an agreement. The deal they struck consisted of two treaties. One, which is sometimes called the “Panama Canal Treaty,” terminated the original 1903 treaty and established a process for handing complete control over the canal to Panama by December 31, 1999. The other treaty, usually referred to as the “Neutrality Treaty,” gave the United States a right in perpetuity to protect the canal’s “neutrality,” that is, to ensure that any and all countries could use it.

Latin America hands praised Carter for resolving a budding crisis in the region. Unfortunately for the man from Plains, Georgia, Latin America hands were not nearly as numerous or as vocal as the conservative, pro-canal lobby in the United States. They hated the deal. Coming as it did on the heels of the ignominious U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, they charged Carter with appeasement and assailed America’s “retreat” from the world.

A leading voice for the anti-treaty forces was Republican presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan. For the Gipper, the Canal Zone was “sovereign United States territory just the same as Alaska. . . and the states that were carved out of the Louisiana Purchase.” Or as he liked to say in a line in his stump speech that brought his conservative audience to its feet: “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we’re going to keep it.” Reagan’s fellow California Republican, Sen. S. I. Hayakawa, had a slightly different take—America had a right to the canal because “we stole it fair and square.”

As a matter of law and history, Reagan and Hayakawa had it wrong. The Canal Zone was not sovereign U.S. territory, whether taken fairly or unfairly. As Ellsworth Bunker, the distinguished U.S. diplomat who helped to negotiate the treaty, argued:

We bought Louisiana; we bought Alaska. In Panama, we bought not territory, but rights . . . . It is clear that under law we do not have sovereignty in Panama.

Whatever the facts, much of the public sided firmly with Reagan and Hayakawa. A poll taken in September 1977 found that only 23 percent of Americans supported the treaties, while 50 percent opposed them. The breadth and depth of opposition to the treaties unnerved some senators, perhaps none more so than Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.) He told Carter that while he was personally inclined to support the treaties, most of his fellow Nebraskans weren’t. Caught between his own policy preferences and those of his constituents, he announced that he would vote for the treaties if the administration could persuade a majority of Nebraskans that it was the right thing to do.

Worried about where public opinion would lead Senator Zorinksy and others, Carter set out to make the case for the treaties to the public. He gave a major presidential address on the importance of approving them. The Committee of Americans for the Canal Treaties, composed of Cold War luminaries, influential labor leaders, and other opinion shapers, was formed to support passage. Major corporations that worried about what would happen to their investments in Latin America if the treaties didn’t pass, as well as liberal religious groups seeking to wipe away the stain of “colonialism,” also joined the fray.

Carter also got a surprising boost from an unlikely source in Hollywood—Marion Robert Morrison. Better known to the world as John Wayne—yes, that John Wayne, the star of Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Green Berets, and True Grit, among other classic films—he had become friends with the Panamanian leader, General Torrijos. And he didn’t take kindly to Reagan criticizing his friend. He publicly challenged the Gipper “point by God damn point in the Treaty where you are misinforming people.”

Carter’s team at times took a page out the John Wayne macho handbook in defending the treaties. When Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was asked how the United States would respond if Panama closed the canal on the pretext of conducting repairs, his response was blunt (and not well-received in Panama City): “According to the provisions of the Neutrality Treaty, we will move in and close down the Panamanian government for repairs.”

The debate came to a head in March 1978. Here Carter was helped by Senator Minority Leader Howard Baker. (Chalk one up for bipartisanship.) As the historian George Herring tells the story,

The key to the administration’s eventual narrow victory was the passage of two amendments [to the Neutrality Treaty] carefully crafted and shepherded through the upper house by Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee. The first gave the United States explicit rights after the year 2000 to intervene militarily to keep the canal open and for U.S. ships to move to the head of the line in times of crisis. Originally a memorandum of understanding, this amendment was formally incorporated into the treaty after quite extraordinary negotiations between Senator Baker and Torrijos.

On March 16, the Senate voted to approve the Neutrality Treaty by a margin of sixty-eight to thirty-two, just one vote more than the two-thirds majority needed. (Polls showed that Nebraskans opposed the treaty. Senator Zorinksky kept his word and voted no.) Along the way, the Senate rejected seventy-seven amendments, most of which were designed to make the treaty unacceptable to Panama. A month later the Senate passed the Panama Canal Treaty, and the process of handing control of the Panama Canal over to Panama was set in motion.

The battle over the Panama Canal treaties illustrates two broader lessons about the politics of American foreign policy. One is that presidents at times have won over the Senate even when they failed to win over the American public. Polls taken in the spring of 1978 showed that support for (30 percent) and opposition to (53 percent) the treaties had not budged since the previous summer, despite Carter’s full-court press on the public relations front. (I said in yesterday’s post that today’s TWE Remembers would provide an example of how presidents can move public opinion. Scratch that.) An interesting question to ponder is whether a president today could get the Senate to approve any treaty that a substantial portion of the public opposed. Polls showed substantial support for the New Start Treaty, and it still almost landed on the ash heap of history.

The other lesson is that prevailing on Capitol Hill does not mean that a president necessarily prevails politically. Carter later lamented that “some fine members of Congress had to pay with their political careers for their votes” on the canal treaties. But in many ways he did as well. He may have done the right thing in settling the Panama Canal issue—and the fact that we virtually never talk about the canal suggests he did—but he reaped few political benefits from his victory and more likely hardened the convictions of his opponents to unseat him in 1980.

Postscript. Carter’s problems with the Panama Canal did not end with Senate passage of the treaties. He also had to persuade Congress to appropriate funds to carry out the treaties’ provisions. This gave members of the House an opportunity to vent their spleen over the fact that the Constitution does not give them a role in treaty-making. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) castigated a round of Carter administration officials sent up to Capitol Hill to defend the request for the funds:

We in the House are tired of you people in the State Department going to your tea-sipping friends in the Senate. Now you good folks come up here and say you need legislation [to implement the treaties] after you ignored the House. If you expect me to vote for this travesty, you’re sorely in error.

When the conference committee set up to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the implementing legislation issued its first report on the bill, the House rejected it. The House reversed itself only after Carter launched an intensive lobbying effort that involved former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and other Republican notables. Perhaps it is not surprising that most administrations wish they didn’t have to deal with the Hill.

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  • Posted by Sage Observer

    Adam Clymer wrote a great “little book” about the canal a few years ago — “Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch” — and the role that it played in RWR’s campaigns in 1976 and 1980. As he observed, ““The uproar over the canal foreshadowed the single-issue attacks over intense, emotional issues from abortion to gun control to same-sex marriage that have become a constant refrain in elections for offices high and low.”

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