442. Information Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1

SUBJECT

  • Panama: Politics and the Treaties

Five months ago we were ready to sign the new Canal treaties. Today it is clear that the lameduck Robles Government will not be able to follow through on signature.2 The treaties will pass to the successor administration which assumes office on October 1, 1968. It is a safe bet that this administration will want to put its stamp on the treaties. So renegotiation to some degree early in 1969 is a virtual certainty.

This turn of events has worked out well for us:

  • —we will have gained 5 years of relative stability following the 1964 riots.
  • —the generous treaties which Bob Anderson negotiated have disarmed our critics.
  • —the delay in signature is not due to us but to failure of Robles to prepare the way for action in Panama—this is well understood.
  • —the delay removes the treaties from the Panamanian electoral campaign (elections are on May 12, 1968) as well as our own, which is to our advantage.

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At Punta del Este Robles urged you to ask the US negotiators to step up the pace of the negotiations so that he could sign and obtain National Assembly ratification before the 1968 political campaign got underway. You obliged him. But he had not done his homework with his congress. He ran into trouble, temporized, and ended up unable to muster sufficient support to put the treaties through.

The electoral campaign caught up with him. What little chance he had at least to sign the treaties vanished when he mishandled the selection of his successor by his loosely-knit coalition. As a result, four of the parties bolted and joined his arch-rival Arnulfo Arias. If the elections are anywhere near honest, the charismatic Arias is bound to win.

Arias—who was twice elected President and both times deposed by the National Guard—is a flamboyant and erratic leader. His problems with staying in power have been with his own people rather than with us. Whether he has mellowed with the years, we don’t know. We have followed carefully his attitude toward the treaty negotiations. In this he has been most prudent. He has aimed his criticism at Robles as a president who had no right to negotiate the treaties because of his fraudulent election in 1963 [1964]. But he has carefully avoided attacking us or the contents of the treaties.

A year from now when the treaties are looked at again, there may be substantial reasons for a major overhaul. Assuming Arias wins and is allowed to take office, he may seek substantial changes. But we may also want to reconsider the approach in the light of what the Plowshare experiments demonstrate and the Canal Study Commission may have concluded by then on the best route to follow.

Walt
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Panama, Vol. IX, June 1967–April 1968. Confidential. A handwritten notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.
  2. In a November 13 memorandum to Helms, Director of the Office of National Estimates Sherman Kent stated, “the political maneuvering now underway in Panama in preparation for the presidential election of 1 May 1968 is increasing the chances of civil disorder and has virtually eliminated any chance of progress on the draft Canal treaties— at least until after a new Panamanian president takes office in October 1968.” Kent indicated that Arnulfo Arias was “the odds on favorite” to be the next president if elections were free and fair. He would be “sticky” to deal with. The Robles government, according to the memorandum, was in no position to press approval of the treaties, especially because popular, nationalistic opinion was increasingly opposed to them. (Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330 72 A 2468, Panama 000.1, 1967)