Memorandum to the Secretary of State by the Assistant Secretary of State for American Republic Affairs (Braden)


Article I of the 1942 Defense Sites Agreement with Panama reads in part as follows:

“These lands shall be evacuated and the use thereof by the United States of America shall terminate one year after the date on which the definitive treaty of peace which brings about the end of the present war shall have entered into effect.”

The meaning of this text is clear. Dr. Alfaro, nevertheless, claims that its spirit and intention was that we should have turned back all sites in Panama one year after the surrender of Japan. Mr. Sumner Welles,49 under whose supervision the agreement was drafted, stated to the Panamanian representative during the negotiations that a state of emergency and general unsettled conditions might well continue after the cessation of hostilities and that a period of from five to ten years might elapse before the final treaty of peace would be drawn up. He said that during this time it obviously would be unwise to leave the Canal undefended. It was on this basis that the word “definitive” was inserted in the text.

Without prior consultation with this Government concerning the termination of the 1942 Agreement, Dr. Alfaro in November 1945 stated his position before the National Assembly of Panama. On November 7, when asked by a correspondent about Dr. Alfaro’s statement, you answered that our withdrawal from Panama was covered by an agreement in writing and that we would abide by whatever was in it.50 On November 17 the Panamanian Foreign Office forwarded to our Embassy, which in turn transmitted it to us, a copy of the interpretation made by Dr. Alfaro before the National Assembly. Dr. Alfaro’s interpretation was not challenged by us officially until August 1946, for it was felt then, during a political tempest in Panama, that a challenge would evoke an open controversy which might be avoided if we made no reply. Subsequent events made it necessary for us to declare our position.

During the war we obtained 134 defense sites in Panama. In accordance with the spirit of the 1942 Agreement (temporary use only) the Army through continuing processes over a period of many months, [Page 1136] beginning even before the surrender of Japan, as of October 1 had returned 98 of these sites. Of the 36 remaining about 18 are radar stations. The others consist of the large air base at Rio Hato and smaller airfields, gun emplacements and the like, considered essential for the current security of the Canal.

We are willing to terminate the 1942 Agreement simultaneously with the signing of a new defense accord. Dr. Alfaro has expressed his objection to negotiating a new agreement while we remain on the bases. It is hoped that this objection may be overcome, however, since to withdraw now and reoccupy under a new arrangement would be laborious, expensive and from the standpoint of protection, impractical. To stay on without a covering agreement would expose us to criticism and leave us without legal rights in the sites.

We are ready to negotiate a new defense sites agreement immediately. A new document which can be used as the basis for beginning negotiations has been drafted jointly by State, War and Navy. The War Department has given General Crittenberger full authority to represent its interests in Panama. We are likewise prepared to negotiate in Panama. The sooner we get over the present impasse the better.

To meet Panamanian sensitiveness on the sovereignty issue we are prepared to offer the following:

to reroute the Inter-American Highway around the Rio Hato base at an expense which has been estimated at some $150,000;
to agree that on all military sites in Panama the flags of both countries will fly side by side on individual poles of equal height.
to agree to name all sites outside the Zone in accordance with the desires of Panama and to print all signs in Spanish and English, the former taking precedence;
to welcome, if Panama so desires, the assignment of a Panamanian liaison officer to the Headquarters, Panama Canal Department, for the purpose of facilitating the operation of the new agreement; and
to agree, should we withdraw at any time from any airdrome, and should Panama desire to operate them with Panamanian personnel, to provide on-the-job training at bases and, furthermore, to conduct training of individuals in technical specialties either in the United States or in the Pan-American School of the Caribbean Defense Command.

In view of possible Panamanian objections to the desired duration of the leases it is considered advisable, if possible, to avoid discussion of this point now. However, should Dr. Alfaro raise this question, the War Department has indicated that it would require a minimum period of thirty years. This is a reduction from the War Department’s original proposal of 99-year leases.

Spruille Braden
  1. Former Under Secretary of State.
  2. In the minutes of a meeting of the Secretaries of State, War, and Navy, December 18, 1946, Mr. Byrnes is recorded as saying: “… he thought that there was a lot more to Alfaro’s complaints than the State Department had led him to believe … It may be one year or it may be five years before we reach any final peace settlement …. The intent really was that we should get out of Panama before that.” (811.002/1–2446)