Memorandum by Mr. Howard H. Wilson of the Division of Caribbean and Central American Affairs

In attached memorandum of February 27, 1945,75 delivered to the Secretary by the Panamanian Minister of Foreign Relations, Panama boldly ignores the existing agreement of 192976 for the control of aviation in the Republic, as well as the Aviation Board subsisting [Page 1258] thereunder, and proposes that in time of war (only) aviation would be regulated by a mixed commission to be appointed by the President of Panama; but in time of peace a “different” system would apply, which would guarantee “the unquestionable right of Panama to regulate aviation in its own territory”.

By a Foreign Office Note of October 18, 1944,77 Panama unilaterally denounced the agreement of 1929 on the ground of constitutional limitations. The United States did not admit Panama’s legal freedom to do so, but made no written reply. However, the Foreign Minister, Samuel Lewis, was informed officially and verbally at Blair House, on December 11, 1944,78 that this Government did not recognize such unilateral denunciation.

At about the time when Panama denounced the agreement, United States authorities on the Isthmus submitted to General Brett certain recommendations as to the controls which should be required in the event that an international commercial airport were established on Panamanian territory. The controls recommended were very thoroughgoing and they included a bilateral international board; but they had reference primarily to a state of peace. It was assumed that it was not necessary to make such arrangements for time of war, or other emergency, since it was believed that existing treaties give the United States adequate rights of control at such times. On January 2, 1945, the Secretaries of War and Navy by a joint letter79 informed the Secretary of State that they agreed that the said recommendations should be approved. They also stated that it was advisable “that the Aviation Board, established by an exchange of notes dated April 22, 1929, and recognized by the Defense Sites Agreement of 1942,80 should be retained until the permanent United States—Panama Aviation Commission is established”.

The attached memorandum states that Panama has begun the construction of an airport, and hopes that as soon as the airport is finished the United States will suspend commercial air traffic in the Canal Zone. The memorandum alleges that if the United States permitted commercial planes to continue to use Albrook Field, which is in the Canal Zone, this Government would be acting contrary to Section 5 of Article 3 of the Treaty of 1936. This section concerns the establishment of private business enterprises in the Canal Zone.

In this memorandum Panama appears to be almost exclusively concerned with the economic benefits which she may derive from the [Page 1259] Canal, and scarcely at all with its protection. I think Panama should be told that in interpreting the Treaty of 1936, Section 5 of Article 3 is necessarily governed by the provisions of Article 2, by which the two Governments are bound to take the measures necessary to insure the protection of the Canal. All such economic benefits must depend for their very existence upon the successful fulfillment of the “joint obligation”, laid down in that Article, “to insure the effective and continuous operation of the Canal …”

Should it appear likely that Panama would not be sufficiently cooperative in negotiating and complying with the necessary controls, consideration could be given to the advisability of stimulating the development of an adequate airport in a neighboring country, or else to the development of such an airport in the Canal Zone as would render the projected Panamanian Airport superfluous. As Panama is interested in developing a great tourist business in connection with the airport, arrangements might then be made whereby there would be little conflict between military considerations and economic aspirations. While such arrangements would not satisfy Panamanian nationalists, and might sour our general relations somewhat, the Canal would apparently be safer than it would be under the proposals which Panama now advances.

  1. Supra.
  2. By exchange of notes dated April 22, 1929; for texts, see Foreign Relations, 1929, vol. iii, pp. 728729.
  3. Note No. 1487 transmitted to the Department in despatch 597, October 19, 1944, not printed.
  4. Memorandum of conversation, December 11, 1944, not printed.
  5. Not printed.
  6. Agreement of May 18, 1942; for text, see Department of State Executive Agreement Series No. 359, or 57 Stat. (pt. 2) 1232.