443. Action Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1

SUBJECT

  • Panama Situation

The Panamanian electoral crisis is coming to a head2 with the impeachment trial of President Robles now slated to begin on Monday, March 25.3 I recommend you devote a few minutes of today’s luncheon meeting to a review of this problem.4

The Present Situation

Neither President Robles nor Opposition Candidate Arias give any sign of backing off from their intransigent positions. Robles keeps putting pressure on National Guard Commander Vallarino to side with him, but so far Vallarino has kept strictly neutral.

The trial may force Vallarino’s hand. Arias will expect him to carry out the National Assembly’s verdict and whatever orders the new President gives him. Robles will not step down. He hopes the Supreme Court will invalidate the Assembly’s action and Vallarino will close the Assembly.

Under these circumstances, the pressure on Vallarino will be to say plague on both houses and take over the government. There are some unconfirmed indications he is planning such action if the politicians do not compose their differences.

What We Have Done

We do not want to take sides, nor become too heavily engaged in any mediation effort. We believe a face-saving formula for all parties would be to have the OAS send electoral technicians and observers to [Page 942]help in arranging honest elections. The OAS has done this in several Caribbean countries.

At our urging, the Colombians and Costa Ricans have proposed electoral specialists, but gotten nowhere. We have encouraged Archbishop Clavel and his “third-force” group of civic and business leaders to advance the idea, but they have had no success. There are indications that Arias would probably accept outside observers if Robles and his candidate, Samudio, would. Anything that promotes fair elections favors Arias’ election. But Robles last weekend publicly stated that observers were not necessary because the elections would be “free and pure”.

What We Might Do

State has so far approached the problem with extreme caution.5 While I think prudence is called for, I also believe some modest risk-taking might spare us from a military coup in Panama and possible bloodshed.

The key is Vallarino and his National Guard. Only he has the power to enforce a settlement on both sides or take over the government.

So far we have not dealt directly with Vallarino. Last week he expressed a desire to see CINCSO Commander General Porter, but word was sent back that he should deal with Ambassador Adair on political matters. Ambassador Adair has instructions to urge Vallarino—if he comes calling—to push both sides into accepting outside observers.

What I would like to have Secretary Rusk explore with his advisers is for us to take the initiative with Vallarino and press him to use the OAS observers formula as the way out of the impasse. If he is agreeable and asks for our help, we should be prepared to support his efforts with Robles, Samudio, Arias and the Archbishop.

Should it become public that we have taken this initiative, I do not see that we have lost anything. For, we are not taking sides, we are supporting constitutional government, we are encouraging free and honest elections using a method already employed by four other Caribbean countries, and we are trying to head off either a bloody clash between the contending parties or a military coup.

W. W. Rostow 6
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, SIG, 32nd Meeting, March 21, 1968, Vol. 4. Secret.
  2. In telegram 125046 to Bogota, San José, and Panama City, March 5, the Department pointed out that “while a physical clash between the opposing Arias and Samudio [Robles’ successor candidate for President] factions has been averted, the underlying issue of control of the electoral machinery—and hence the outcome of the May 12 elections—has not been resolved. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before the political cycle produces another crisis.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 14 PAN)
  3. Telegram 128456 to Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and San José, March 12, provides background on the onset of the impeachment crisis. (Ibid.)
  4. Johnson Library, Tom Johnson Meeting Notes)
  5. In a March 19 note for Rostow, Bowdler pointed out: “I have not gotten very far in persuading ARA to take more initiative in the Panamanian situation.” Bowdler continued, “I am not a wild-eyed interventionist. But remembering what neutral inactivity cost us in the DR, I would like to try an additional low-risk initiative.” (Ibid., National Security File, Agency File, SIG, 32nd Meeting, March 21, 1968, Vol. 4)
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.