Memorandum by the Secretary of State of a Conversation with the Panaman Minister (Alfaro), June 2, 1923

The Minister called at the Secretary’s request. The Secretary delivered to the Minister the Department’s memorandum of this date and stated orally the substance of it. The Secretary said that it appeared that the only obstacle to the resumption of diplomatic relations between Panama and Colombia was the question of boundary, and it further appeared that there was no difference as to this except [as] to a small portion. The suggestion of the United States as to this boundary had been accepted by Colombia and it was hoped that Panama would close the question and permit the resumption of relations with Colombia by a similar acceptance. The Secretary referred to the fact that the question had been discussed in 1906 and 1907 and that Mr. Root, in his letter to Mr. Cortes, the Minister of Colombia, under date of August 26, 1907, had stated that it was “the matured and definite position of the Government of the United States that the boundary between Colombia and Panama was that described in the law of New Granada of June 9th, 1855.” Mr. Root had sent a copy of this letter to the Panaman Legation in February, 1908. The Secretary referred to the subsequent controversy over the Juradó territory and to the Treaty of 1909 by which the boundary from the Heights of Aspave to the Pacific was to be settled by arbitration; that this treaty failed and that some time later the United States had opened negotiations to secure the recognition by Colombia of the independence of Panama. These negotiations had resulted in the treaty between the United States and Colombia of 1914. In these negotiations Colombia had made certain extreme claims and had proposed the 79th Longitude West of Greenwich as the boundary. The United States had stated that the line fixed by the law [Page 338] of New Granada, above-mentioned, was the only boundary recognized by the United States Government. The Secretary said that he had in mind the decree issued by President Mosquera on August 7, 1847. But this decree could not influence the conclusion because the matter had been settled pursuant to the amendment to the Constitution of New Granada of February, 1855. This amendment had provided that “a subsequent law will fix at once limits which should divide it (the State of Panama) from the rest of the territory of the Republic.” The Secretary said that it was quite apparent then that the controlling law was the subsequent law. The Secretary then referred to the provisions of article 7 of the law of June 9, 1855. He said that he was aware that it was suggested by Panama that this provision was only incidental to the granting of a concession to the Panaman Railroad, but the Secretary said that it was entirely competent for Colombia to fix the boundary in connection with that concession, if it wished to do so, and the only question was whether it had done so. The Secretary said that it was conclusively brought out that the boundary had thus been established because the Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Granada at once informed the Foreign Office that the boundary had been thus established. The Secretary had the original volume of communications from New Granada of this period and showed to the Panaman Minister the original communication from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Granada to the Government of the United States, under date of June 18th, 1855. The Secretary said that in the face of this the subsequent statement by the Superior Chief of State of Panama had no effect, its only significance having been to direct attention to what had actually been accomplished. In this light the Secretary said there could be no question that the boundary had been fixed according to the amendment of the New Granada Constitution and hence when Panama in her own Constitution had referred to the boundary of the State of Panama it had referred to the boundary as thus established by the law of 1855, which followed the New Granada Constitution. The Secretary then referred to the fact that when the treaty between the United States and Colombia was pending in the Senate President Porras had written to the Department withdrawing his objection which he had previously raised with respect to the boundary and hence the United States had proceeded in accordance with the actual facts in the case and with the determinative law and with the acquiescence of President Porras. In these circumstances the Government of the United States must renew its statement that the boundary as stated in the treaty with Colombia between the United States and Colombia was the true Panaman boundary and it was earnestly hoped that the Panaman Government would facilitate the resumption [Page 339] of relations with Panama by proceeding on the basis of the acceptance of this boundary. The Secretary then called attention to the fact that the territory in question was almost worthless and certainly not important enough to justify a dispute between Panama and Colombia and the prevention of the resumption of friendly relations which were so important to both. The Secretary emphasized strongly the desirability of a settlement.

The Panaman Minister referred to Mr. Root’s letter and said that subsequently he had written to the representative of Panama stating that in view of the special considerations relating to the Juradó territory the Government of the United States would use its good offices to have the question of the boundary from the Heights of the Aspavé to the Pacific settled by arbitration, and it was with this view that the treaty had been made. The Minister emphasized the fact that this showed that Mr. Root had not adhered to his original position, but had regarded the question of the Juradó territory as open to further consideration. The Minister referred to the law of New Granada of 1855 and said that this only fixed the boundary of certain territories as stated and not the boundary of the State of Panama.

The Secretary replied that so far as Mr. Root was concerned what he had done had been in the interest of a settlement but did not change his opinion which he had expressed as the matured and definite opinion of this Government as to what the boundary was; and that after the arbitration treaty had failed and this Government took up the matter again it had no basis for any other conclusion than that the boundary was that fixed by the law of New Granada of 1855. Having obtained the acceptance by Colombia of this boundary and believing it to be the true boundary, this Government thought that it should be accepted by Panama. The Secretary then said that with respect to the language used in the law of 1855 it was sufficient to point out the construction at once placed upon it by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Granada. The Secretary again called attention to the Minister’s communication to the United States Government on this point stating that this law defined the boundary of the State of Panama.

The Panaman Minister said that all his Government desired was an opportunity further to discuss the matter with Colombia; that if relations were resumed he believed there would be no difficulty in reaching a settlement; that the territory was not worth much, indeed it was not worth the time that the Secretary and he were giving to it in the course of discussions, but the fact remained that it was a question with the Panaman people and had a good deal of political importance. The Panaman people had believed that they [Page 340] were entitled to go to the line of Atrato and that when this was given up by taking the line of the mountains from the Atlantic to the Heights of the Aspavé they wished to show that they had something for it and they wished to have some further negotiations with respect to the rest of the line. The Secretary pointed out that the line from the Atlantic to the Heights of the Aspavé, fixed in accordance with the law of New Granada of 1855, had been accepted by Panama; that there was no basis for any contention with regard to it. The Minister said that the point was that Panama should have an opportunity to continue to negotiate; that if they reported to their people that they had settled this matter and had relinquished their point there would be great criticism. The press at this time was vigorously attacking the Panaman Government and it would be impossible for them to surrender their position. On the other hand, if Colombia would resume relations there would not be the slightest difficulty for the Panaman Minister at Bogota in effecting a settlement, even though he got only one-twentieth part of the territory that was involved. The Minister suggested that the Government of the United States might endeavor to persuade Colombia not to insist upon this point but to resume relations.

The Secretary said that the Department had been doing its best to bring the two Governments together but Colombia absolutely insisted upon the recognition of the boundary described in the treaty; that it was impossible for the United States to ask Colombia to withdraw their contention when the boundary thus described was the boundary which the United States had no question was the true boundary. The Minister said that he feared the suggestion could not be accepted, but he would report the communication to his Government.