710 Consultation 4/9–847

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Chairman of the United States Delegation (Marshall)

Participants: Secretary Marshall
Panamanian Foreign Minister Dr. Ricardo J. Alfaro
Other members of the Panamanian Delegation present but not participating
Assistant Secretary Armour
Ambassador Dawson

In apartment of Dr. Alfaro, Hotel Quitandinha, August 20, 1947, 12 p.m.

I asked the Minister if he would comment on his impressions of the Conference. He replied that he felt that things were proceeding satisfactorily but was somewhat apprehensive lest matters be complicated by the introduction of extraneous questions such as the Ecuadoran- Peruvian boundary controversy, the Belt proposal, et cetera.

After some general conversation, Dr. Alfaro brought up the defense sites question88 by saying that two or three weeks ago an opposition group in Panama had recommended that Panama place the matter on the Rio agenda and decline to attend the Conference if this were not done. Dr. Alfaro said that his government rejected such a proposal as preposterous and that the Rio Conference was not a “court of justice” for the consideration of such matters.

He then said that Panamanian public opinion was perturbed over the delay in bringing the defense sites negotiations to a conclusion. He said that late in 1945 Panama had made clear its contention that the agreement required the return of the sites one year after the cessation [Page 50] of hostilities, that in the Panamanian view the sites not already returned were being held illegally since September, 1946, that Panamanian opposition groups were talking of organizing public demonstrations of protest, that there was much agitation in student circles, and that a difficult and unpleasant political situation existed. He referred to conversations held in May in Panama, in which Murray Wise of the Department of State participated. He said that certain proposals had been made at the time and that the Panamanian Government had heard nothing further from our Government since May 14. Dr. Alfaro stated that he had heard that the delay was due to discussions between the State and War Departments.

I told Dr. Alfaro that, while I was not informed as to the details of the present negotiations, I knew a good deal about the general problem since I had been on both sides of the fence. I said that, having accompanied General Pershing to Panama in 1920 when the Taboga incident89 was being agitated, I could appreciate his political problem. I reminded him of the great responsibility I had borne for the defense of the Canal and said that in my discussions with Sumner Welles90 I had found at the time that we necessarily approached the matter from different angles and did not speak the same language. I said that it was my understanding that a reply was being prepared about the time of my departure for Rio and might already have been sent to Panama; that we were looking into this; and that in any case I could assure him of my desire to expedite the negotiations and work out a mutually satisfactory solution.

Dr. Alfaro remarked that the U.S. authorities were inclined perhaps to overlook the psychological factor. He referred to the Taboga incident as an example and with respect to the current negotiations said that the United States was asking for permanent occupation of the defense sites. He said that no Panamanian Government could agree to permanent occupation and remain in office. He suggested that the agreement might provide for a three or four year term, adding that at the expiration of this period it should be possible to determine whether the international situation required further occupation or had so improved as to permit gradual disarmament. I told Dr. Alfaro that in my opinion he was unduly optimistic and that even in the improbable event that peace treaties could be concluded within six months their implementation would be a long process. I said that disarmament would have to come slowly and step by step and that, as [Page 51] long as I was Secretary of State, I should use every effort to prevent a repetition of the mistake made after the first World War—a mistake which had cost us 1,200,000 casualties and $350,000,000,000. I said that a short-term agreement—three years or five as Dr. Alfaro suggested subsequently—would create a difficult situation if on its expiration world conditions required its extension.

In addition to stressing his desire for expeditious conclusion of the negotiations and for a short-term agreement, Dr. Alfaro mentioned incidentally the possibility of reducing the number of defense sites.

(In recognizing Panama’s domestic political problem, I referred confidentially—stating that it was of course understood that my remarks would not be repeated—to Greenland and the very similar and more serious problem confronting the Danish Government).

  1. For documentation on the defense sites question, see pp. 881 ff.
  2. Taboga Island, known at one time as a favorite playground of Panamanians, was temporarily occupied by United States military forces. Panamanian protests resulted in the return of the Island, with the exception of a small part, to Panama.
  3. Former Under Secretary of State.