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

President: Dick?

Russell: Yes sir.

[Page 830]

President: Getting a lot of power and pressure here on Panama, now, and I’ve got this thing down to about where it says practically what I’ve been saying all the time. I don’t know how I can resist it much longer when the Secretary of State, Defense, and Bundy, and all my advisers, think that we’re going to cause an explosion if we don’t sit down at the table with them. They’ve come in now with a Costa Rican proposal that is two paragraphs, and I want to read it to you. I think if you’ll take one moment I’ll read you what Bundy says to me. It is kind of a summary:

[The President read the text of Document 390.]

Now, he feels rather deeply there because I overrode all of them last night—in fact, this morning with this combined language:

[Omitted here is the language from footnote 3, Document 390.]

Russell: Well, of course, Panamanians are going to accept that as an assurance that we will make some substantial changes in the provisions of the treaty. I know you’re under a bit of pressure down there, Mr. President.

President: Well, I know, but as I see this, I don’t say I’m going to do a damned thing but discuss it, and that is what I’ve said the first moment I talked to him. And now maybe I read it wrong, but I’ve got it down to where that’s about what I say. I’m not going to have any pre-conditions whatever.

Russell: What’s the word after “pre-conditions”?

President: “Without pre-conditions as to the positions they may consider necessary to adopt as a final result of the meetings that will take place between the negotiators.”

Russell: The trouble is that this pressure is going to be relentless, and those negotiators will go down there and want to give something and then Bundy and Rusk and New York Times school of thought will put relentless pressure on you.

President: That’s right—there’s no question—they’ve been doin’ that for 2 months.

Russell: And they will not give the American people even a part of their view. It has never been mentioned here that the last time we had to settle with them we gave them about $40 million worth of property down there—just gave it to them out of hand. I don’t know what they’ve done with it. I reckon Chiari and these other Presidents have stolen it. You can steal it and get your hands on it once you’re in there. But we gave them a tremendous amount of property there and they’re going to expect something equally big or bigger out of this, and I don’t know how we’re just gonna get it. Of course, it could get it through a treaty or be taken out of the Alliance for Progress funds, but there’s never going to be a time that that group’s not going to be urging you to give in to Panama [unintelligible].

[Page 831]

President: We know that. We know that. Well, I’ll say Bundy has supported me on this all the way through. I’ve just taken it on and Mann has supported me—Tom Mann. Tom thinks it’s brought us a good deal of respect in the Hemisphere. Tom Mann thinks this has helped us. Tom Mann thinks we’re stronger in the Hemisphere today than we were 90 days ago because of what we’ve done in Panama and what we’ve done in Cuba. He thinks we’re in worse shape than we’ve been in 20 years, and that the Hemisphere is in a very dangerous position, but he thinks that these two little insignificant moves have let them know that—“don’t tread on me.” And he thought they needed to know that pretty much.

Russell: I can’t help but feel that it has helped us.

[Omitted here is discussion relating to Cuba and other parts of the Hemisphere.]

President: Now, let me go back again. I’ve got to sit down and talk to ‘em, and I don’t know how I can get by saying any less.

Russell: There’s just one thing in there that shook me a little bit. Go ahead and read it again.

President: “The parties agree to appoint negotiators”—I named Tom Mann—“with sufficient powers to discuss and reconsider”— they’ve got to say that they’ve got to have the power to discuss—“all aspects of U.S. and Panamanian relations”—I told them that from the first day I’ll discuss anything, anywhere, any time, but I wouldn’t agree on any pre-conditions before I sit down—they didn’t make me do that with the Russians in Berlin—“including the Canal Zone treaties with a view to”—doing what?—“to harmonizing the just interest of both parties”— I assume our men will look after our interests—we’ll just have to fight that—“seeking the prompt elimination of the causes of dispute—”

Russell: We being in there is the cause of it.

President: “and fulfill their responsibilities to the Hemisphere and world trade. Both parties agree to discuss the differences existing between them without pre-conditions as to positions they may consider necessary to adopt as a final result of the meetings that will take place between the negotiators.” Now, that adds up in one word—and I may not be—if I can read and understand—now, I’m not a lawyer, and I may not be—but I have not implied or said that I would do anything except discuss any problem they had.

Russell: It is all very clear to me except that word “reconsider.” I don’t exactly understand what you’re going to reconsider.

Johnson: Well, the first thing, we’ve got no diplomatic relations. We’ve got to start out—talk. They want so many employees. They say the Canal Zone has got all our people. They’ve got different wage rates. They’ve thought up a good many of these things and our people tell me that maybe we ought to have a civilian governor instead of some [Page 832] retired military man that knows nothing about it, that maybe we—Cy Vance says that he can take a list of 15–20 minor things that could create some of this friction with the workers.

Russell: They don’t know what they want, Mr. President. We pay them almost the same thing now. There’s little difference for the overseas. A Panamanian working for the Canal gets the same thing as a canal worker on a lock on the Savannah River in Augusta.

President: But some of them get a pack of cigarettes for 15 cents in the Zone and 50 cents some other places—got commissaries and all kinds of different cut-rates. Anyway, they think—the Army thinks— Vance thinks—and I think he’s pretty able about it—that we can find a good many things that would improve conditions, if we’d been alert to it. We ought to have a new Board and able Board with good men on it—Gene Black type of man, instead of some just honorary [unintelligible] deal, and they all understand that this is a real problem and we’ve got real interests to protect. Tom Mann thinks we ought to start taking some borings in Nicaragua for a sea-level canal, and he thinks that will put them in place a little bit. We’ve got a good many things that we think we can do that will help, but we’re just refusing to agree on any language now, and I have said I’ll discuss anything, any time.

Russell: Well, I think that’s all right, except when you get together, then the price is going to be—

President: Oh, hell, yes, that’s right. But I can’t fail to get together without hurting myself, can’t I?

Russell: Well, I don’t think you’re hurt up to now.

President: No [unintelligible]. Well, thank you my friend.

Russell: Yes sir.

  1. Source:Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Recording of telephone conversation between President Johnson and Richard Russell, Tape F64.14, Side B, PNO 1. No classification marking. This transcript was prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.