541. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1 2

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  • Report of the Atlantic Pacific Interoceanic Canal Study Commission

Attached at Tab A is a classified letter from the Atlantic-Pacific Canal Study Commission transmitting to you the Commission’s report (Tab B). The report was delivered to my office because Robert Anderson, who was Chairman of the Commission, was unable to present it to you on November 30 because of the death of his mother. The chief conclusions of the report are:

The United States should control and defend the Isthmian canal for the foreseeable future.
Revision of our 1903 Treaty relationship with Panama is probably unavoidable.
Provision of capacity greater than the maximum potential of the existing Panama Canal may be deferred to the end of this century without significant harmful effects on world commerce. Earlier construction of capacity for ships larger than can be accommodated by the existing canal would be desirable but not justifiable on economic grounds.
A sea-level canal would be far less vulnerable to interruption by sabotage or military attack than any lock canal and hence would contribute to the national security of the United States.
Nuclear excavation of a sea-level Isthmian canal is not now feasible. It is unlikely to become so in Panama in the future. A sea-level canal in Colombia, partially excavated by nuclear explosives, might someday be technically feasible. However, construction of a new canal outside Panama would entail prohibitive political and military costs for the United States.
A sea-level canal constructed by conventional means in Panama on Route 10 near the existing canal would be the most practicable and enduring solution to United States Isthmian canal requirements. It should be constructed before the end of this century if treaty arrangements acceptable to Panama can be established which insure continued United States control and defense for a very long period. The lead time for planning and construction is approximately 15 years.

In its letter of transmittal, the Commission concludes that the US should look to the long-term solution of political, military and canal capacity problems offered by a sea-level canal rather than to the temporary solution of capacity problems alone that might be offered by construction of additional locks for the present canal. The Commission notes that any new works to meet further capacity needs should be constructed and operated under treaty arrangements acceptable to Panama, and that the treaty terms finally negotiated will have a controlling influence upon the feasibility of construction of a sea-level canal by the US. The Commission’s recommendations are based on the assumption that, in the treaty negotiations, we would obtain definite definitive and irrevocable rights to:

  • —build a sea-level canal on Route 10 in Panama;
  • —annex the existing canal and the new sea-level canal as a single system;
  • —enlarge the present lock canal by adding or replacing locks, etc., in the event a sea-level canal is not built;
  • —control and defend the canal areas and system for at least 60 years after a sea-level canal or additional locks are part of the operation.

Implementing the Commission’s recommendations depends on negotiation of new treaties with Panama. As you will recall from your conversations with President Lakas, the Panamanians want to resume negotiations. You indicated to Lakas that you would be willing to try to sell a new treaty arrangement to the Congress if a satisfactory deal could be worked out. There are indications that the Panamanians are preparing a detailed proposal for resumption of negotiations.

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Last June you authorized exploratory talks to enable us to reach a judgment on prospects for a treaty and tasked the NSC Under Secretaries Committee to recommend to you whether and when to open formal negotiations and what our specific treaty objectives should be (NSDM 64 at Tab C). Ambassador Anderson had one substantive meeting with the Panamanian Ambassador, but very little actually transpired on exploring the treaty question, largely because Panama has not yet pulled together its own position and State’s posture has been that we should wait for Panama to come to us before doing anything further.

The problem we face, however, is one of timing—if a treaty is to be ratified by the Congress before the 1972 election campaigns, it must be negotiated and submitted to the Congress by the summer of 1971 at the latest. Moreover, the longer things drift, the greater the chances that Panama’s political frustration will force the Panamanian Government to take more irrational and nationalistic positions, which will make a successful negotiation difficult. Therefore, I believe we should move forward to develop a strategy and timetable for negotiations. I recommend that you ask the Under Secretaries Committee to review the Commission’s report and recommendations, consider its implications for the United States position in the treaty negotiations, and call for submission of a strategy for negotiations by next month.


That you approve referring the Commission’s report to the NSC Under Secretaries Committee for review and consideration of its relation to the US position on treaty negotiation, and that the Under Secretaries Committee be asked to submit to you for approval a strategy plan for treaty negotiations no later than January 20, 1971.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–216, NSDM Files, NSDM 64. Secret. Sent for action. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates that the President saw it. Nixon initialed his approval of the recommendation. Attached but not published are Tabs A and B. Tab A is a classified letter from the Atlantic-Pacific Canal Study Commission, and Tab B is the December 1 Commission Report. Tab C is published as Document 536.
  2. Kissinger recommended that President Nixon ask the Under Secretaries Committee to review a report by the Atlantic-Pacific Canal Study Commission, consider its implications for the U.S. position in treaty negotiations, and call for submission of a strategy for negotiations by next month.