117. Editorial Note

As a result of conversations with Colombian President Lleras Restrepo on June 12 and 13, 1969 (see Document 12), President Nixon decided to help finance construction of the last major unfinished section of the Pan American Highway through the Darien Gap in southern Panama and northern Colombia. The President’s interest in this highway reflected his personal bias on development projects. He wrote on a May 7 memorandum to him from Henry Kissinger summarizing an AID [Page 274] paper opposing a shift of AID funds from housing to the highway sector: “In all our Latin programs I want to turn away from housing and other welfare handouts—and toward highways, etc.—which produce wealth and where we know our money does something tangible.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Country Files—Latin America, Box 797, LA General, Volume I 1-7/69)

The total cost of the Darien Gap road was estimated to be about $150 million, $90 million for the Panamanian section and $60 million for the Colombian portion. The Departments of State, Transportation, and the Treasury, the Bureau of the Budget, and the Export-Import Bank reviewed the issue and offered their views and recommendations. All these Executive agencies saw serious drawbacks in going forward with the project under any financing formula. Nevertheless, Kissinger believed that “it would be desirable on foreign policy grounds for the United States to assist in the completion of the Pan American Highway.” (Memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, October 2; ibid., Volume II Sept-Oct 1969)

On November 24 President Nixon wrote President Lleras informing him that he was seeking legislative authority for the U.S. Government to assist in financing the Darien Gap Highway. In his December 1 response, President Lleras reconfirmed Colombia’s readiness to assume one-third of the cost of the Colombia portion and to work with Colombia’s neighbors to assure the greatest possible freedom of transit and cooperation on health and customs matters and to provide for adequate maintenance of the highway. (Both letters ibid., RG 59, S/S Files: Lot 72 D 320) In a status report as of July 15, 1972, to President Nixon, John N. Irwin, Chairman of the NSC Under Secretaries’ Committee, noted that the U.S. Congress authorized $100 million in grants for the highway in 1970, and appropriated $5 million in FY 1971 and $15 million in FY 1972. (Undated memorandum; ibid., S/S Files: Lot 81 D 309, NSC-U/SM 100E)

On May 6, 1971, Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, Panamanian Minister of Public Works Fabrega, and Colombian Minister of Public Works Duran signed an agreement that would enable the governments “to begin construction of the last major section—the Darien Gap—needed to link together existing sections of the Pan American Highway System.” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1971, pages 622-623) Henry Kissinger followed with National Security Decision Memorandum 109, dated May 25, 1971, to Secretaries Rogers, Laird, and Volpe, indicating that the President had directed that priority attention be given to accelerating construction of the Darien Gap Highway, that the State Department undertake consultations with the Governments of Colombia and Panama to obtain their approval for and cooperation in the accelerated schedule, and that the [Page 275] State and Transportation Departments consult with Congressional Appropriations Committees to obtain their cooperation in expediting action on pending and future appropriations requests for the project. (National Archives, RG 59, S/S Files: Lot 83 D 305, NSDM 109)

In 1971 and 1972 the Nixon administration became increasingly concerned about the possible spread of hoof-and-mouth disease from Colombia northward into Central America with the construction of the Darien Gap Highway. When efforts at the diplomatic and technical levels to get the Colombian Government to adopt an effective control program had failed by the fall of 1972, President Nixon sent a letter to Misael Pastrana Borrero, President of Colombia, on November 7, 1972, indicating that he was instructing Ambassador Saccio “to discuss with you the seriousness with which I view this danger and the measures my Government considers essential to its prevention,” and offering to assist with the difficulties and costs in carrying out some of the required measures. (Memorandum from U. Alexis Johnson, Acting Chairman of the NSC Under Secretaries’ Committee, to President Nixon, October 23, 1972; ibid., S/S Files: Lot 81 D 309, NSC-U/SM 100G, and letter from President Nixon to President Pastrana; ibid., S/S Files: Lot 73 D 288, USC Miscellaneous Memoranda)

Additional documentation is in the Washington National Records Center, Department of the Treasury, Secretary’s Memos/Correspondence: FRC 56 74 A 7.