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

[Omitted here is a brief conversation not related to Panama. The President then read Senator Russell a press statement on Panama he planned to make. Johnson subsequently issued the statement on Panama, slightly revised but with no substantive changes from the text as described to Russell, to news correspondents on January 23. (Department of State Bulletin, February 10, 1964, pages 195–196)]

Russell: Well, I guess that’s all right, if you feel like you’ve got to issue a statement.

President: Well, I think we’ve got to get back to—

Russell: [Unintelligible] come in there and march across the Zone [unintelligible] across the Panama Canal Zone.

President: No, we’re not. They’re—

[Page 810]

Russell: Come and walk across—go swimmin’ in the locks if he wants to.

President: Yeah, but our people—no, we don’t. We don’t want ‘em to leave. They think they can put that Canal out of commission—6 months mighty easy, and we got to be awfully careful about security. And they’re not goin’ to let any mobs come in there, and they’re not goin’ to let Castro set up a new government, although every night they think he’s goin’ to—and we’re tryin’ to get the thing back.

Russell: I wish to hell he’d—Castro’d seize it. Then, maybe, dammit, those people in the State Department and these weepin’ sob sisters all over the country would let us go in there and protect our rights. I wish old Castro would seize it.

President: Well, now, this is pretty—don’t you think this is a pretty good statement? This is not State Department talk.

Russell: I know it.

President: It’s right out of my office here with Jack Valenti and Ted Sorensen.

Russell: [Unintelligible] you feel like you had to issue any statement.

President: Oh, I think I have to try it or do all I can to bring about an adjustment of some kind—

Russell: There’s people who are hurting—we ain’t hurting—we’re not—

President: Yeah, but—yes, we are hurtin’, Dick. We’re hurtin’ in the hemisphere and we’re hurtin’ in the world. That damn propaganda is all against us, and it’s just everywhere, it just looks—

Russell: I read a piece in the Manchester Guardian, and one in this London paper, and they both said that we ought to have learned by one mistake in Cuba not to make another now by surrendering here in Panama.

President: Well, we’re not surrendering. But I think that there are a good many chicken things that we can do and should do, and Vance thinks so, and thinks that we should have done ‘em, and—for instance, we think that we’ve got a very archaic Board—Panama Canal—we think our governor is no good, he’s an old ex-military fellow. That Board of Engineers—that’s not up to it. Nobody thinks it is—Vance, General O’Meara.

Russell: Well, we’ve been retiring them off down there for a long time.

President: And we know our Ambassador wasn’t worth a damn. He just sold out to the Panamanians a hundred percent. Came back and denounced everybody, and that’s why he got fired—because he wanted to run for governor of West Virginia on the Republican ticket.

[Page 811]

But he said that he wanted—he’s one hundred percent Panamanian, and he was just raisin’ hell about what the Zonists were doing. We’ve got a list of things that’s two pages long2 that we can do and we ought to do, and that don’t sacrifice anything. But, there is some merit to their side—not in violence, not in shootin’ people, but what I think is—I don’t think I can get by with a press conference without this question comin’ up. I just think it’s as sure as the sea. I’ve got to see the Peace Commission in the mornin.’3 I’ve got to follow some kind of a discussion with ‘em, and this has been pretty much my line.

Russell: Yeah, you’re not changing your position any. I just thought I’d let him sweat for a while there.

President: Well, I am. I’m lettin’ him sweat.

Russell: Have you withdrawn your aid yet?

President: Yeah, we’re not giving them a damn thing, and furthermore, just confidentially, I’ve moved all of our dependents—I’m movin’ ‘em out to South Carolina.

Russell: Well, if you’ve done that, you’ll hear from Chiari before long and he’ll be on his knees. I just wouldn’t be too swift if I were you.

President: I’m not. I’m goin’ to wait until day after tomorrow. I’m goin’ to wait another day or two. But—

Russell: Hold it just as long as you can, Mr. President. You’ve got all the cards—and this damn yappin’ over here about this OAS—it don’t amount to a thing—just because they feel like they’ve got to stick together whenever one—you got to get down and really talk to ‘em underneath the bed sheets, they say. Well, I don’t blame you a damn bit.

President: I came back here last night from the Canadian Embassy and Rusk and the whole outfit met with me and I stayed up until 2:00. I was at the desk at 1:00, and I was the only man in the room that said, “No.” I didn’t have Vance and McNamara, but I told every one of ‘em—

Russell: Rusk belongs to the New York Times, Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

President: I said I am not about—not one goddamned bit—as long as I’m President, which is goin’ to be for 11 months, gentlemen—I’m not about to get on my knees and go crawlin’ to him and say I want [Page 812] to apologize to you for you shootin’ my soldiers; by God I ain’t goin’ to do it. I wasn’t raised in that school, and they hushed up and didn’t say anything. But I’m gettin’ ready to have a press conference and I got to be prepared—and I’m goin’ to be prepared on everything if I can, and this is one of the things to be prepared on. And I just want to check it with you before I—

Russell: Well, if you got to issue a statement, that’s about as good as you can make.

President: All right. Okay. You know anything else?

Russell: I was hoping you might defer it.

President: Well, I’m goin’ to defer it. I’m goin’ to defer it.

Russell: I think you’ve got all the cards, and the little flurry here in the States—Rusk and that crowd, I imagine, Cousin Adlai—I haven’t seen or heard from him, but I imagine Cousin Adlai is—

President: I haven’t heard a word from him. I haven’t heard a word from him.

Russell: But the people of this country are just one million percent back of your position.

President: Well, I don’t know whether they know it or not, but I did get a poll in Pennsylvania today that shows—

Russell: I know it—you ask any Congressman or Senator about his mail.

President: Do you know what Pennsylvania—a fellow running up there for Senate took the most reputable poll in Pennsylvania today and you know it shows I get more Republicans than the Republicans get, and I beat Scranton 79 to 20. I beat Goldwater 82 to 17 in Pennsylvania.

Russell: You just go on and do what is in this country’s interest, and tell Rusk and these other fellows to jump in the lake, and it’ll stay that way. The American people have been crying for somebody that had some of the elements of “Old Hickory” Jackson in him. They thought they had him in old Ike, but Ike had to be a captive of those people because he didn’t know what else to do. You know this government; you know the world. Ike—he was limited in his experience and afraid of himself, so he leaned completely on John Foster Dulles.

President: Well, everybody is when you get—

Russell: I know, but somebody down there just got to take the bull by the horns one of these days and play the part of old Andrew Jackson—say, “well gentlemen, this is it.”

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Panama.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of telephone conversation between President Johnson and Richard Russell, Tape F64.07, Side A, PNO 3. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
  2. The Department of State plan described 14 specific actions which could be taken in the Canal Zone to improve relations with Panama, 8 potential minor revisions to the Canal Treaty that would have the same effect, and discussed a potential sea level canal. (Attachment to a covering memorandum from Read to Bundy, January 21; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL PAN–US)
  3. The President received the Inter-American Peace Committee at the White House at 10:40 a.m.; the meeting lasted no later than 11:05 a.m. (Johnson Library, President’s Daily Diary) No other record of the conversation has been found.