369. Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell 1

President: Dick?

Russell: Yes sir.

President: I want to talk to you—off the record a minute—about this Panama situation. What do you think about it?

Russell: Well, Mr. President, I predicted as far back as 1956 that something like this was going to happen. I’m not at all surprised. I don’t know all the facts of it—Harry McPherson talked to Bill Dodd on the phone and told him something about it, but I just don’t know. ’Course, I know that nobody is going to agree with this except me, but I think this is a pretty good time to take a strong stand; people in this country, I think, are ready for it. I may be a fool, but if I had said anything, if I were the President, I’d just tell them—I’d say this is a most regrettable incident and it will be thoroughly investigated, and—however the Panama Canal Zone is a property of the United States, the Canal was built with American ingenuity and blood, sweat, and sacrifices, that it was of vital necessity for the economy and defense of every nation of this hemisphere and that under no circumstances would you permit the threat of interruption by any subversive group that may be undertaking to establish itself in this hemisphere. I’d give a little lick to Castro in there. I don’t know what the State Department—I suppose they have suggested you make an apology.

President: No, but it looks like—it doesn’t look good from our standpoint.

Russell: Well, it started with a bunch of school boys, from what I hear about it, and those people down there—they’ve had a chip on their shoulders for a long time.

President: Yeah, they have and we’ve known it.

Russell: And we’ve helped it on four different occasions, and if I made a statement, I’d point that out. We have voluntarily increased payments to them and they have that high standard of living there proportionally—not as compared with our country, but with the other Latin American countries—because I think that some 40–50 thousand of ’em worked on that Canal in conjunction with the operation, and [Page 776]one thing I certainly would do is—if it were me—that man—if the fellow got up in the United Nations and went to attack us on account of anything that happened about the Canal, I’d have Adlai Stevenson ask them if they’re willing to go back to the status quo. People that we did the injury [to in] connection with the Canal is not the Panamanians— we brought them out of the jungles, where they were hiding, thinkin’ that old Cortez was still trying to get ’em for slaves—several hundred years after Cortez’ death. People we did an injustice with was Colombia—took that isthmus away from ’em and set up that puppet government down in Panama. So anything that’s happened out of the Canal is more of an injury to Colombia than it is to Panama, and if I wanted to be Machiavellian about it, I’d get that Colombia delegate to get up and just raise the devil about that. It’s really injurious to Colombia to even have a Panama—that’s part of Colombia. I don’t know how the State Department is going to handle it—of course it does look like— but it all happened on American soil. That’s one thing, primarily, that you can—and it grew out of this agreement about the flag down there that started with Eisenhower, and I think Kennedy fortified it when he went down there, and that was a mistake to start with—but it was done. He insisted to the State Department that it increase payments every two years. What does the State Department think you ought to do about it?

President: We’ve had a meetin’ of the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, Cy Vance, Bundy, and the group that we normally meet with. Tom Mann says that—I talked to him a couple of times during the night,2 and he’s a pretty solid fellow, pretty strong, pretty pro-American—he says that our students went out and put up our flag in violation of our understanding. They started to put up their flag and we refused it, and we made our people take down our flag, and their rioters increased—Communists we know there, we’ve been having some contact with—they had a lot of Molotov cocktails and they’d planned this thing apparently just usin’ the flag as an excuse. But they would have kicked it off some other way some other time, but this was ideal. Then our damned fool police started shootin’ into ’em, and they say—

Russell: I hear they killed 13–14 Americans.

President: Yeah, yeah, when they started doin’ that, then snipers started pickin’ off American troops a little later. But we fired into our civil guard, which are our employees and Panama Canal Zone employees. They started firin’ into the crowd and shot off 4500 rounds of ammunition, and—

Russell: Well, if they’d stayed on American soil, and if there’s any one thing that is essential to the economic life as well as the defense [Page 777]of every nation in the hemisphere, it is the Panama Canal, and we can’t risk having it sabotaged or taken over by any Communist group. And there’s no question in my mind but what Castro’s—that’s his chief aim there.

President: That’s what he tells—that’s what he tells.

Russell: And I would certainly say that in any statement I made even if I had to be rather apologetic to the Panamanians in accordance with the State Department’s idea—undoubtedly was inspired—right after Castro came into power, you know, he sent a group down there and like to have taken the damn country over—they landed on the coast there.

President: I thought I might do this: I thought I might call—if I could talk to him—he claims he’s broken off diplomatic relationship— but I might call their President and say I regret it is a situation of violence that developed, and I thought we should do everything we could to restore quiet, and I appreciate his calling the Panamanian people last night to remain calm and hope he’ll do everything possible to quiet the situation, and I’ll do the same. And I’m going to send my trusted representatives, Tom Mann and other Panama Canal Board people in there today to assist in findin’ a solution to the situation, and both of us are aware of the possibility that the elements unfriendly to both of our countries are tryin’ to exploit the situation, and I want to keep in close personal touch with him. Then I thought I’d send Tom Mann and Ed Martin and the Assistant Secretaries, Cy Vance, on the Panama Canal Board, and probably this boy Dungan, who’s handled it here at the White House and who is a pretty level-headed fellow—used to be on Kennedy’s committee.

Russell: That’s sensible, but I—

President: Don’t know, I might ask Harry McPherson—he’s been down there and been awful concerned about it. I might ask him to go with ’em.

Russell: Well, you couldn’t get a better boy to come back and give you a clear report as an observer—he wouldn’t be stampeded in any way. I certainly take a chunk out of the Communists; you’re going to have trouble there all through your entire tenure as President—in that area down there. Castro is going to pick up the tempo of his activities down there, in his desperation, and that’s goin’ to be a trouble spot. I have held that opinion for several years, now, and especially when they extended—they increased the payments here the last time—in which I said that we were in danger there because if we [unintelligible] on the part of the Panamanians that we’ve done them some injustice. We’ve really done them a hell of a favor. They’re a whole lot better off than the Colombians. They have better income, everything else. Not that that satisfies ’em; the only way you can satisfy ’em is to give ’em the [Page 778]Canal and that wouldn’t completely satisfy ’em. You’d have to operate it for ’em too.

[Here follows conversation unrelated to Panama]

President: They’re going to get the President of Panama. I’ll call you back.3

Russell: All right.

President: Bye.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of telephone conversation between the President and Richard Russell, Tape F64.04, Side B, PNO 1. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. No record of the President’s telephone conversations with Mann has been found.
  3. The President called Russell again at 1:25 p.m. to inform him of the substance of the conversation with Chiari. The President told Russell that he informed his advisers, “I was damned tired of their attacking our flag and Embassy, and our USIA, every time somebody got a little emotional outburst—so they had better watch out.” Johnson informed Russell that Mann, Martin, and Vance were going to Panama and that, “Cy Vance can be pretty tough.” Russell responded that O’Meara was “a pretty good man.” Johnson stated that O’Meara “has had to order his people to start shooting again” and that it was “hot as a firecracker” in Panama. Johnson then told Russell that the “position we ought to be on the Hill” is that the administration acted swiftly and properly and was sending the right men there. Johnson remarked, “they tell me that everyone in Latin America is scared of this fellow Mann. They highly regard him because he’s a tough guy.” Russell responded that he hoped there was “iron” under Mann’s “velvet gloves.” (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of telephone conversation between President Johnson and Richard Russell, Tape F64.04, Side B, PNO 3)