390. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to President Johnson 1


  • Panama

I want to tell you quite privately that I agree with Dean Rusk that it would be good to get Panama off the stage for the present, if we can do so without retreat.2 The two basic elements which you have established and defended without a break since January 9 are that we will not agree in advance to revision of the treaties, and that we will not agree to “negotiate.” I believe that any form of language which leads to a resumption of relations and a beginning of talks is a victory for the United States and for you, if these two conditions are met.

There are rumors of deterioration in Panama, and we could well have trouble of various sorts between now and May. Of course these same rumors are helping to move Chiari—if he is moving. As long as the monkey is clearly on Chiari’s back, we can stand any trouble, but if we should have a chance to get language which meets our essential conditions and let it go, I think we could come under some attack. It is not yet clear that we have such language, and there is one word that [Page 829] I would change in the Costa Rican draft,3 the last word “negotiators.” But we are getting close.

I have always supposed that if we did get into talks with the Panamanians we would find ourselves able to agree to significant changes in our existing relations without giving way on gut issues like the perpetuity clause or our own ultimate responsibility for the security and effectiveness of the Canal. Your choice of Vaughan as your prospective Ambassador shows your own readiness to pick a man who has much more basic sympathy for the Panamanians than for the conservative Americans in the Canal Zone (almost too much so, in my judgment).

The talks can go on for a long time, and there should be a clear understanding on both sides that they will. But I myself think they can lead to a new level of understanding, provided we get past election year emotions on both sides.

We have been right so far, and there is nothing cosmic about this issue yet, but I do think it would be good to take talks with no retreat if we can get them.

McG. B.
  1. Source:Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Panama Riots. Vol. II, Part G, January–February, 1964. Bundy wrote the following note at the top of the page: “P[resident] read but doesn’t really agree.”
  2. Rusk, McNamara, Mann, and Bundy met with the President from 5:45 to 6:05 p.m. on February 25. (Ibid.; President’s Daily Diary) No written record of their conversation has been found, but it was at this meeting that Rusk presumably made this suggestion.
  3. The draft language reads: “The parties agree to appoint negotiators with sufficient powers to discuss and reconsider all aspects of United States of America-Panamanian relations, including the canal treaties, to seek the prompt elimination of the causes of the dispute with a view to harmonizing the just interests of both parties and their responsibilities to the Hemisphere and world trade. Both parties agree to discuss the differences existing between them without preconditions as to the positions they may consider necessary to adopt as a final result of the meetings that will take place between the negotiators.” (Telegram 3195 from USUN, February 26; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL PAN–US)