401. Editorial Note
On March 21, 1964, President Johnson informed Secretary Rusk that he had decided to make a public and background statement on Panama. The President wanted to clear the air and put the issue in perspective by focusing on the positive aspects of U.S.-Panamanian relations throughout history. He told Rusk that he intended “to invite the press in and spend 10 to 15 minutes with me, just talking with me, off the record.” He read a draft of the public statement to Rusk, who thought it was “very constructive.” The text of the statement released on March 21 is printed in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–64, Book I, pages 404–405. Johnson then told Rusk he thought he would say to the press on background:
“I’ve seen a lot about this Panamanian situation—I’ve seen a lot of speculation and discussion, back and forth. This is a very important problem for both countries and I’ve given a lot of thought to it. Our situation has never changed since Secretary Rusk and McNamara and I met the first morning, and I called the President of Panama. And I said, then, in effect this and I have repeated it ever since. But [Page 852]somehow or other, I’m not sure that everybody understands it, and this is our position then and this is our position now.” (Recording of telephone conversation between President Johnson and Dean Rusk, March 21, 12:16 p.m.; Johnson Library, Recordings and Transcripts, Tape F64.18, Side B, PNO 2)
Mann agreed with Rusk that the President’s proposed statement was all right to be presented to the press as background. Mann reported that Rusk had just met with Ambassador de Lavalle, Chairman of the OAS, who had asked for suggestions on how relations between Panama and the United States could be restored and suggested going back to the two paragraphs on which the OAS Committee had almost succeeded in obtaining an agreement earlier in the month. “We can’t do that after we’ve broken up, and after they leaked everything to everybody,” Johnson told Mann in a telephone conversation. “We can’t ever agree on those two paragraphs. They ought to know that—or we would have agreed to ’em the other day.” Mann suggested getting the OAS to work with them on alternatives. Johnson indicated that his preferred alternative was “one, to resume relations; two, discuss everything— review everything.” (Recording of telephone conversation between President Johnson and Thomas Mann, March 21, 1:25 p.m.; ibid., Tape F64.19, Side A, PNO 3)
After his conversation with Mann, the President consulted Senator Russell, who asked why Johnson felt it was important to issue a statement. “It’s made only, Dick, to try to get off of dead center.” Johnson continued: “The Secretary of State has really had no authority in this thing—and Assistant Secretary of State either—because I told ‘em that I’m not goin’ to agree to negotiate a new treaty, and so it’s been more or less taken out of their hands, and the ball’s in my court.” The President indicated that the OAS should go back to Chiari. He told Russell: “What I’m going to do when I make this statement—I’m going to give it to the head of the OAS and I’m going to say to the OAS, ‘now goddammit, I’ve gone as far as a human bein’ can go. You got to make this fellow go.’ I’m gonna put the ball back in his court.” Russell assured Johnson that if he felt compelled to make a statement, “I think it’s all right.” (Recording of telephone conversation between President Johnson and Richard Russell, March 21, 1:32 p.m.; ibid., Tape F64.19, Side A, PNO 4) The portions of the conversations printed here were prepared in the Office of the Historian specifically for this volume.
The President issued his statement at a press conference held at 1:45 that afternoon at the White House. Later that afternoon, he told Mann that “he had a hell of a good press conference,” and read the complete transcript of the press conference over the phone. Mann said that the statement “may help to clarify things over there.” He told the President: “I don’t mind fighting the Panamanians—rather enjoy it, but I don’t want to fight this whole OAS.” He indicated that if the United [Page 853]States had to negotiate an agreement with the Panamanians, “we’ll go carefully.” (Memorandum of conversation, March 21, 3:35 p.m.; ibid., Papers of Thomas C. Mann, Telephone Conversations with LBJ, January 14, 1964–April 30, 1965) A portion of the conversation was recorded and is ibid., Recordings and Transcripts, Tape F64.19, Side B, PNO 2.