367. Memorandum of Telephone Conversation1
- Conversation between General Taylor and General O’Meara
Gen OMeara: Some Panamanian school kids came up into the area in the afternoon and tried to plant a Panamanian flag on the Balboa High School Flag Pole. The crowd built up but the Panamanian police were able to eject them from the Zone.
Gen Taylor: When did it all start?
Gen OMeara: It started about 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon.
Gen Taylor: Was this carefully premeditated?
Gen OMeara: It was spontaneous to begin with. I have no indication that this was a planned operation, however, during the evening when the kids went back to the school, the mob started forming. They got beyond the competence of the Canal Zone Police to handle it. Reports we have were that some of the police were physically attacked and used their weapons to defend themselves. Apparently, there were some wounded. At 1959 (local) the Acting Governor asked me to assume Command which I have done (Fleming, by the way, is on his way to the States). We immediately moved troops into position. The initial reports we get are that wherever troops have made contact, the mob has fallen back, without any difficulty. As far as I can determine now, there are not many Panamanians in the Canal Zone though some of them who are there have set some fires. That is the situation as of this moment.2
Gen Taylor: Have you any estimate of the size of the mob involved?[Page 771]
Gen OMeara: Yes, there are varying estimates. They say Fourth of July Avenue is pretty well jammed. There are some estimates of 4000 people. A lot of these reports we are getting are rather exaggerated. Some of them have established to be false, once we got our own people on the ground to look the situation over. However, it is unquestionably a sizable mob. We got an intercept from the CZ police about 20 minutes ago and orders went out to the Guardia Nationale to clear the mob from Panama without using gunfire if possible. About 5 minutes ago we got a report that the Acting Governor had talked to Diarino?3 (spelling) and asked him if he would break up the situation. Viariano as you know is the Commandant of the Guardia Nationale. He said it was much too large for him to handle and he was not moving on it. This is certainly a contradiction of what we heard over the radio but that doesn’t mean that both things are not correct. Viarino is not a terribly courageous man. Some of his underlings are much stronger.
Gen Taylor: This is a picture of considerable disorder in Panama itself and all along the borders.
Gen OMeara: Probably some buildings have been set fire to but so far as we know everything is under control. Some fires have been set within the Zone. Some automobiles have been burned along Fourth of July Avenue. These were probably Panamanian automobiles.
Gen Taylor: Meanwhile your troops are being used simply to back up the —?
Gen OMeara: No, I have taken over completely. Wherever the troops appear on the scene, the CZ police fall back and come under the command of my troop commanders. I am in complete command.
Gen Taylor: You are in command of all forces now?
Gen OMeara: I am law and order now. I am in command of the Canal Zone.
Gen Taylor: Of course, you are keeping all your people out of Panama and defending only the Canal Zone.
Gen OMeara: That is correct. We will not move out of the Canal Zone boundaries. I made an announcement over the radio telling all people to return to their quarters and anyone not living in the Zone, working in the Zone, or going to school in the Zone to leave the Zone immediately.
Gen Taylor: Is there anything we can do up here?
Gen OMeara: No, I don’t think so. I think we will have the situation well in hand in less than an hour. If not, I will certainly call you back.[Page 772]
Gen Taylor: Your estimate is that this was spontaneous and gradually building up?
Gen OMeara: We have no evidence that it is other than spontaneous. This is very hard to assess at this time. There is no evidence that this was an organized affair. Though it is possible in view of the large numbers who developed between 1800 and 2000 local.
Gen Taylor: Has this flag affair been an issue before?
Gen OMeara: Yes. It started in the Zone with the school kids when the flags were taken down in front of the school the—US flag. US school kids made a big fuss about it and after about 3 days fussing in the papers, the Governor who is arriving in Miami now, has been handling this and I have not been involved at all—this is not my business. After about 3 days of furor in the local papers the Panamanian students today finally entered into the thing and started putting some Panamanian flags on the grounds of the American High School in Balboa. This is what really triggered the affair.
Gen Taylor: This is a question of whether they have a Panamanian flag flying in front of the High School in Balboa. Was that the start of it?
Gen OMeara: The Governor has 16 sites which by the agreements between the two governments, confirmed by the two Presidents, at which the Panamanian flag will be flown with the American Flag. The US schools were not included. The issue of whether the US flag would be pulled down was raised by the US students. Several of them raised flags where they had previously been taken down. That’s been the fuss over the last three days. Today the Panamanians joined in the fun.
Gen Taylor: Are these Panamanian students who are attending American Schools?
Gen OMeara: No, these are Panamanians who came from Panama.
Gen Taylor: Let me know if I can be of any help.
Gen OMeara: I believe we will have it in hand in the next hour.
Gen Taylor: Has Secretary McNamara called you?
Gen OMeara: No one has called me except you.
Gen Taylor: I will block him off then.
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Panama II, Part B, January–February, 1964. No classification marking. Taylor was in Washington; O’Meara was in Panama.↩
- Background information on the riot and a report by Colonel David Parker, Acting Governor of the Canal Zone, is in “Panamanian Situation Report for the President of the United States,” prepared by the NSC, January 10, 4:30 a.m. (Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC Histories, Panama Crisis, 1964) An initial report on the riot was transmitted in telegram 305 from Panama City, January 10, 5:53 a.m. (Ibid.) Director of the Office of Central American and Panamanian Affairs V. Lansing Collins’ account of his actions during the evening of January 9 is in a January 10 memorandum for the record. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL PAN–US)↩
- Commander Bolivar Vallarino, Commandant of the National Guard.↩