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


  • Panama

Two issues will very soon require your decision:

What to do about President Arias, still a refugee in the Canal Zone.
Recognition of the new provisional government.

[Page 956]

Arias’ Future

Ten days after taking refuge in the Zone, Arias still refuses to leave the Zone voluntarily, either to seek asylum in other countries (several have offered it) or in the US. The OAS refuses to become involved. Bob Anderson is trying today to persuade him to come to the US. There is some chance he may succeed.2

We have progressively tightened control on his visitors and communications. Yet despite his repeated assurances of “good behavior” to Governor Leber, he continues political activity which threatens to incite violence. Recent examples include:

  • —telegrams to you, other American Presidents, the UN, and the OAS Council; (Tab A)3
  • —a press conference Saturday by his principal advisor;
  • —supply of money and encouragement to supporters in Panama;
  • —calls via clandestine media for violent resistance to the Guard.

Initially stunned and disorganized by the National Guard’s coup, Arias’ supporters are regrouping. A general strike today is eighty percent effective in Panama City; some skirmishes with the Guard have occurred; tension is rising, and a spark could ignite serious bloodshed. Arias now has no chance to return to office except through violence. Should it erupt while he is in the Zone, the National Guard will blame the US and might well stand aside from protecting US installations.

According to Governor Leber, Ambassador Adair and General Porter at CINCSOUTH, Arias’ presence in the Zone can be tolerated only 2 or 3 more days at most.4 If persuasion fails, forcible expulsion would raise the spectre of a western hemisphere “Dubcek case.” Army and State are working on “scenarios” in which we would expel him using plausible legal procedures to minimize the “kidnapping” appearance. Nonetheless, involuntary removal would undoubtedly be widely condemned, no matter how justified.

[Page 957]


Several factors bear on the timing of diplomatic recognition:

  • —no other governments have yet recognized and they are moving slowly so long as Arias is in the Canal Zone.5
  • —rapid recognition by the US will imply to many Latins US support for the military coup and probable connivance.
  • —prompt recognition would reassure the new government that we are not favoring Arias and would calm their nerves (they are getting extremely nervous and unpredictable).
  • —early recognition might make expulsion of Arias easier to justify, since he would no longer be a President still technically in his own country.

In light of the conflicting arguments, Secretary Rusk has not yet decided to recommend early resumption of relations.6

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Panama, Vol. X (Part 3 of 3), May–December 1968. Secret. A note on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. Another copy of this memorandum records Lewis as the drafter. (Ibid., Memos to the President, Walt W. Rostow, Vol. 100, October 16–22, 1968)
  2. Rostow reported that evening that Arias “will leave voluntarily for the U.S. tonight by U.S. military aircraft.” He added: “Bob Anderson’s telephone call apparently did the trick.” (Memorandum from Rostow to President Johnson, October 21, 8:10 p.m.; ibid.)
  3. Attached but not printed.
  4. In a meeting between U.S. military authorities in the Canal Zone and General Torrijos on October 19, Torrijos pressed for “help of U.S. military and other U.S. Government agencies” to “get Arias out of Canal Zone promptly.” Torrijos argued that Arias’ presence in the Canal Zone was a “threat to political stability in Panama,” a threat to regularizing commerce and the Panamanian economy, a threat to U.S.-Panamanian relations, and a threat to Junta plans for returning the government to civilian constitutional control. ([text not declassified]; Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Operations, [file name not declassified])
  5. In an October 19 memorandum to Rusk, Oliver noted: “I have managed fairly wide communication through the Latin Americans of the dilemma, and I am now beginning to get some promise of results as to resumption of relations by Latin American countries. I should like to see Japan, the U.K., and the EEC countries act fairly soon.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL PAN–US)
  6. At the Tuesday luncheon meeting on October 22, Rusk reported: “Arias left the Canal Zone. We can now hold up on recognition of the government.” Later in the meeting, President Johnson responded: “Okay on that, holding off for a while.” (Notes on President’s Tuesday Luncheon, October 22; Johnson Library, Tom Johnson Meeting Notes)