373. Editorial Note

On January 11, 1964, President Johnson considered instructions for Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Mann and his party for their discussions in Panama. In consultation with McNamara and Bundy, the Department of State prepared instructions that were based on Mann’s recommendation earlier that day as outlined in the last substantive paragraph of Document 372.

The President sought the advice of Senator Russell and read the draft instructions to him over the phone. According to their conversation, the draft instructions proposed that both sides agree on the facts surrounding the riots; that “we should be forthcoming on flag issues since our good faith is involved”; that, with regard to structural revision of the treaty, “we cannot agree to formal negotiation in which revision of fundamental relationships and responsibilities would be a pre-arranged and accepted objective,” but “that does not mean that there might not be certain aspects of the treaty of importance to Panama which could, after informal discussion, be taken up between the two governments.” The draft instructions urged Mann to “remind Chiari that considerable progress has been made on many points” as a result of his discussion with President Kennedy, and that after restoration of relations, if further progress is made in talks not earlier than February or March, and if “Chiari’s mood improves, it might be well to suggest that highly discreet cooperation between us about the Communists and especially Castro plotting, both against Panama and the United States, be continued and strengthened.” The instructions concluded that events taking place in Panama “have demonstrated clearly that the reality behind the reports pointed toward Panama as a special target of Communist conspiracy.” The draft instructions were not found.

In reviewing the draft instructions with Russell, the President voiced his concerns: “I’m a little bit dubious. I’m afraid that we’re going a little bit further than we ought to go, but it is pretty difficult to say to people that you just won’t talk, I mean, it won’t be courteous if you won’t listen to ‘em.” In particular, with respect to the instruction concerning structural revision of the treaty, the President said: “It seems to me that we’re kinda givin’ in there and respondin’ at the point of a pistol.” Johnson then stated: “What I am doing here, if I approve these instructions— I am agreein’ to discussion of the treaty.” He reflected, “I know damned well one thing—I can take the position of discussion—we’ll discuss it but we won’t do anything. But I guess if you’re goin’ to discuss it you ought to discuss it in good faith, and that’s what they want, and I don’t know how that’s goin’ to be interpreted in the public eye—whether they’ve got to kill a few American soldiers to get us to discuss somethin’—I don’t like that. On the other hand we’ve got to do somethin’.”

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Russell responded that the draft instruction to Mann was “a hell of a long thing you’re sendin’ down there. It would confuse me if I were down there with all the pressures that he must feel in that atmosphere down there.” Johnson reported that Mann and Vance “had a good talk” with Chiari and “both of ’em were awfully tough with him.” Johnson also pointed out the sensitive political aspects of the crisis: “Every damned one of ’em are runnin’ against us for their reelection. Six hundred of ’em stood outside and said ‘get out of here Gringos.’” Russell agreed: “They’ve been doin’ that—the one that denounces the colossus of the north most vociferously is the one that wins, and that’s been true the last three elections they’ve had. On the surface we haven’t got a friend there, but if we weren’t there they wouldn’t have anything. They would be livin’ out there half-naked in those swamps.... You can’t close the door to any negotiations, but you can certainly [say] that we can’t negotiate in this atmosphere, but we’ll talk to you some time later.”

In response to Johnson’s inquiry if the draft instruction was “softening up” what Mann had recommended, Russell said: “One or two sentences seem to me like it’s sort of puttin’ him in a halter.” “That’s what it seems to me” the President responded. Russell suggested that the President simply tell Mann that he agrees with his recommendation and that he’s “depending on your good judgment.” (Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of telephone conversation between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell, January 11, 1964, 1:05 p.m., Tape F64.05, Side A, PNO 2)

Johnson then called Bundy and told him that he had “confidence in Mann’s good judgment.” The President said that he would tell Mann:

“Tom, you are a man on the ground with common sense and we trust you and Cy Vance or we wouldn’t have sent you there, and we are prepared to support you, and we agree in essence with your recommendation. We—therefore—we’re not goin’ to discuss structural changes in the treaty at this point. However, you are at liberty to assure the President that under appropriate circumstances, we’ll be very happy to discuss any troublesome problems with them, but we’re not goin’ to do it at the point of a gun. We’ve got the rest of the world to live with. People just can’t take the law into their own hands and they didn’t protest what these kids did—they just started shootin’ and riotin’. And if we go in there and start opening up a treaty under those circumstances, we’d be the laughing stock of the world.” (Ibid., Recording of telephone conversation between President Johnson and Mc-George Bundy, January 11; 1:25 p.m., Tape F64.05, Side A, PNO 3)

Bundy included these points, along with concurrence in Mann’s proposed flag plan, in a revised instruction and told the President that he had been “up and down the question of all the other things that are at issue.” Bundy also had a January 11 memorandum from Gordon Chase on these matters. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country [Page 787]File, Panama, Riots, Part B, Vol. II, January–February, 1964) “Each and every one of them,” he told the President, “in one way or another, has a political hooker attached to it” and that “every one of them has either a Congressional obstacle or a legal obstacle and it’s a tricky business.” He suggested that Mann take up these matters at a later time. (Ibid., Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of telephone conversation between President Johnson and McGeorge Bundy, January 11, 1964, 1:25 p.m.) The portions of the conversations printed here were prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.