The Chargé in Panama (Blocker) to the Secretary of State
[Received September 21.]
Sir: In bringing up to date developments in the defense sites situation here in Panamá, I have the honor to report that in compliance with the Department’s telegraphic instructions of September 6 (telegram No. 47115), I called on Foreign Minister Alfaro at 11 a.m. on the morning of the 7th (Embassy’s telegram No. 574, September 715), and after a very interesting and friendly conversation—which was realized by all concerned as serious—I left with him an informal copy of the Department’s proposed press release on the defense sites problem.[Page 1110]
During the course of our discussions I became convinced that Dr. Alfaro felt beyond a doubt that two mistakes had been made on the part of my Government:
First. That we had failed to challenge his interpretation of the termination of the Defense Sites Agreement in May last when he expressed his views to the Assembly.
Second. We waited until the last moment to present a note requesting the opening of negotiations for a new Agreement invoking Article I of the Agreement of May 18, 1942.
Dr. Alfaro explained in detail that in making these errors we had placed him personally and also the administration of President Jimenez in a very embarrassing position, because of the nationalistic feeling incident to political agitation over the presidential campaign that is now under discussion by the various political groups in the Republic. He said that it was not necessary to go into detail since the Embassy was well informed regarding the activities of the leftist groups, although in the minority as yet, and of the Arnulfo Arias16 following which was giving the Government considerable concern and obviously gaining strength throughout the country. These groups of political agitators always led in Panama City by opportunists, Communists and anti-American rabble-rousers, were taking advantage of the opportunity to make a political foot ball out of the defense sites situation by belittling the Jiménez administration before the people, thus forcing the Government to fall in line with the nationalistic trend to control support of the masses, or else subject itself to mass criticism. He said the Government had to bear in mind, and he thought the United States should give serious consideration to a study of this possibility, that the reaction of any forced retention of the bases without some good reasonable cause acceptable to the other Latin American Republics would be detrimental to United States prestige in the Western Hemisphere. He went on to discuss the possibility that Panamá would be placed in the position of being accused of assuming the role of a dependency of the United States whose sovereignty would be looked upon as a sham in the eyes of her brother members of the Good Neighbor group. He said that he fully realized the need of bases and that Panamá was obligated not only under treaty but in the protection of her own national life to cooperate closely with the United States, but in view of the delicate situation existing the problem had to be handled with dignity and “amor propio” and he could not see how this could be done if Panamá acquiesced in accepting our interpretation of the dates of termination of the Defense Sites Agreement. I was extremely surprised when he looked at me [Page 1111] very seriously and said without hesitation, calmly and frankly, that if we invoked Article I of the Agreement and notified the public of our interpretation thereof the present administration would collapse in twenty-four hours. During the course of the conference I repeatedly pointed out, as I mentioned in telegram No. 574 of September 7, that Panamá was responsible in the defense of the Canal not only under the treaty but as a protection of her own national life and for that matter would, if persistent in denying defense sites, place herself responsible in the protection of the entire Western Hemisphere, and that I was somewhat surprised that a more realistic view had not been taken by the Panamanian people on this very vital question. He thoroughly agreed with me but said that now since the situation had gotten so far out of hand and completely saturated with political intrigue we had to find a solution that would “save face” for the Jiménez administration, which was thoroughly pro-American and willing to cooperate in every way possible in meeting our needs, and he offered several suggestions, as set forth in my telegram No. 574 of September 7.
Little or no news appeared in the press this morning but on Saturday evening a demonstration was held obviously sponsored by the administration against the retention of the defense sites. The parade was led by the Bomberos Band and banners were carried calling for the return of the defense sites and the maintenance of Panamanian sovereignty. There appeared in the parade one Communist banner with the Soviet emblem appearing thereon. Apparently there were not over 1,000 people in the parade and not over two or three hundred who gathered in de Lesseps Park where the rabble-rousers made a few speeches. A segment of this crowd proceeded to the Star & Herald office where opportunist orators from leftist groups accused the Star & Herald of being a traitor to Panama and demanding that it change its editorial policy on defense sites. A couple of rocks were thrown through the windows but otherwise no damage was done. The police although not making any arrests kept the rabble fairly under control until they dispersed after about half an hour of shouting “vivas” and hurling epithets against the Star & Herald as being the tool of the United States. This morning Mr. Jules du Bois, Editor of the English section of the Star & Herald called on me and stated the paper was more determined than ever to defend its position and that favorable editorials would continue as heretofore. He also stated that he had discovered in the morgue of the paper a very interesting statement made in 1939 by Harmodio Arias, publisher of The Panama American, when he interviewed a delegation of American newspaper men at Quarry Heights. Harmodio Arias, is quoted as saying that [Page 1112] he had been discussing with General Stone, then Commanding General, The Panama Canal Department, the possibility of building a large permanent air base at Rio Hato and that he was working hand in hand with several influential men in the Panamanian Government to find a way wherein the United States could acquire 17,000 acres for this base. He stressed at length upon the need of such a base in the protection of the Canal Zone and of Panamá. Colonel du Bois said that he had now made his mind up to publish this interview by Harmodio Arias on the front page of the Star & Herald and in La Estrella de Panamá as he felt it would soften the Latin American attitude toward the defense sites situation and also place Harmodio Arias on the defensive from that of aggressor. Colonel du Bois expressed the view that there was only a small clique of opportunists, Communists and anti-American agitators behind this movement but it had reached the point now, particularly since the admission of President Jiménez through Dr. Alfaro that they had stuck their necks out so far, that the matter had to be settled very diplomatically and with “face saving” to the present Government.
We were talking off the record and I stated that I had nothing I could say on the subject except that we hoped a very satisfactory solution to the best interests of all concerned would be reached as rapidly as possible.
Newspaper clippings are attached hereto on this subject of September 7, 8, 9 and 10.17
The Department will be kept informed of developments as they occur.