67. Address by President Carter to the Nation1
Panama Canal Treaties
Seventy-five years ago, our Nation signed a treaty which gave us rights to build a canal across Panama, to take the historic step of joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.2 The results of the agreement have been of great benefit to ourselves and to other nations throughout the world who navigate the high seas.
The building of the canal was one of the greatest engineering feats of history. Although massive in concept and construction, it’s relatively simple in design and has been reliable and efficient in operation. We Americans are justly and deeply proud of this great achievement.
The canal has also been a source of pride and benefit to the people of Panama—but a cause of some continuing discontent. Because we have controlled a 10-mile-wide strip of land across the heart of their country and because they considered the original terms of the agreement to be unfair, the people of Panama have been dissatisfied with the treaty. It was drafted here in our country and was not signed by any Panamanian. Our own Secretary of State who did sign the original treaty said it was “vastly advantageous to the United States and . . . not so advantageous to Panama.”3
In 1964, after consulting with former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, President Johnson committed our Nation to work towards a new treaty with the Republic of Panama. And last summer, after 14 years of negotiation under two Democratic Presidents and two Republican Presidents, we reached and signed an agreement that is fair and beneficial to both countries.4 The United States Senate will soon be debating whether these treaties should be ratified.[Page 319]
Throughout the negotiations, we were determined that our national security interests would be protected; that the canal would always be open and neutral and available to ships of all nations; that in time of need or emergency our warships would have the right to go to the head of the line for priority passage through the canal; and that our military forces would have the permanent right to defend the canal if it should ever be in danger. The new treaties meet all of these requirements.
Let me outline the terms of the agreement. There are two treaties—one covering the rest of this century, and the other guaranteeing the safety, openness, and neutrality of the canal after the year 1999, when Panama will be in charge of its operation.
For the rest of this century, we will operate the canal through a nine-person board of directors. Five members will be from the United States and four will be from Panama. Within the area of the present Canal Zone, we have the right to select whatever lands and waters our military and civilian forces need to maintain, to operate, and to defend the canal.
About 75 percent of those who now maintain and operate the canal are Panamanians; over the next 22 years, as we manage the canal together, this percentage will increase. The Americans who work on the canal will continue to have their rights of employment, promotion, and retirement carefully protected.
We will share with Panama some of the fees paid by shippers who use the canal. As in the past, the canal should continue to be self-supporting.
This is not a partisan issue. The treaties are strongly backed by President Gerald Ford and by Former Secretaries of State Dean Rusk and Henry Kissinger. They are endorsed by our business and professional leaders, especially those who recognize the benefits of good will and trade with other nations in this hemisphere. And they were endorsed overwhelmingly by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which, this week, moved closer to ratification by approving the treaties, although with some recommended changes which we do not feel are needed.5
And the treaties are supported enthusiastically by every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—General George Brown, the Chairman, General Bernard Rogers, Chief of Staff of the Army, Admiral James [Page 320] Holloway, Chief of Naval Operations, General David Jones, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and General Louis Wilson, Commandant of the Marine Corps—responsible men whose profession is the defense of this Nation and the preservation of our security.
The treaties also have been overwhelmingly supported throughout Latin America, but predictably, they are opposed abroad by some who are unfriendly to the United States and who would like to see disorder in Panama and a disruption of our political, economic, and military ties with our friends in Central and South America and in the Caribbean.
I know that the treaties also have been opposed by many Americans. Much of that opposition is based on misunderstanding and misinformation. I’ve found that when the full terms of the agreement are known, most people are convinced that the national interests of our country will be served best by ratifying the treaties.
Tonight, I want you to hear the facts. I want to answer the most serious questions and tell you why I feel the Panama Canal treaties should be approved.
The most important reason—the only reason—to ratify the treaties is that they are in the highest national interest of the United States and will strengthen our position in the world. Our security interests will be stronger. Our trade opportunities will be improved. We will demonstrate that as a large and powerful country, we are able to deal fairly and honorably with a proud but smaller sovereign nation. We will honor our commitment to those engaged in world commerce that the Panama Canal will be open and available for use by their ships—at a reasonable and competitive cost—both now and in the future.
Let me answer specifically the most common questions about the treaties.
Will our Nation have the right to protect and defend the canal against any armed attack or threat to the security of the canal or of ships going through it?
The answer is yes, and is contained in both treaties and also in the statement of understanding between the leaders of our two nations.6
The first treaty says, and I quote: “The United States of America and the Republic of Panama commit themselves to protect and defend [Page 321] the Panama Canal. Each Party shall act, in accordance with its constitutional processes, to meet the danger resulting from an armed attack or other actions which threaten the security of the Panama Canal or [of] ships transiting it.”
The neutrality treaty says, and I quote again: “The United States of America and the Republic of Panama agree to maintain the regime of neutrality established in this Treaty, which shall be maintained in order that the Canal shall remain permanently neutral. . . .”
And to explain exactly what that means, the statement of understanding says, and I quote again: “Under (the Neutrality Treaty), Panama and the United States have the responsibility to assure that the Panama Canal will remain open and secure to ships of all nations. The correct interpretation of this principle is that each of the two countries shall, in accordance with their respective constitutional processes, defend the Canal against any threat to the regime of neutrality, and consequently [shall] have the right to act against the Canal or against the peaceful transit of vessels through the Canal.”
It is obvious that we can take whatever military action is necessary to make sure that the canal always remains open and safe.
Of course, this does not give the United States any right to intervene in the internal affairs of Panama, nor would our military action ever be directed against the territorial integrity or the political independence of Panama.
Military experts agree that even with the Panamanian Armed Forces joined with us as brothers against a common enemy, it would take a large number of American troops to ward off a heavy attack. I, as President, would not hesitate to deploy whatever armed forces are necessary to defend the canal, and I have no doubt that even in a sustained combat, that we would be successful. But there is a much better way than sending our sons and grandsons to fight in the jungles of Panama.
We would serve our interests better by implementing the new treaties, an action that will help to avoid any attack on the Panama Canal.
What we want is the permanent right to use the canal—and we can defend this right through the treaties—through real cooperation with Panama. The citizens of Panama and their government have already shown their support of the new partnership, and a protocol to the neutrality treaty will be signed by many other nations, thereby showing their strong approval.
The new treaties will naturally change Panama from a passive and sometimes deeply resentful bystander into an active and interested partner, whose vital interests will be served by a well-operated canal. This agreement leads to cooperation and not confrontation between our country and Panama.[Page 322]
Another question is: Why should we give away the Panama Canal Zone? As many people say, “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours.”
I must repeat a very important point: We do not own the Panama Canal Zone. We have never had sovereignty over it. We have only had the right to use it.
The Canal Zone cannot be compared with United States territory. We bought Alaska from the Russians, and no one has ever doubted that we own it. We bought the Louisiana Purchases—Territories from France, and that’s an integral part of the United States.
From the beginning, we have made an annual payment to Panama to use their land. You do not pay rent on your own land. The Panama Canal Zone has always been Panamanian territory. The U.S. Supreme Court and previous American Presidents have repeatedly acknowledged the sovereignty of Panama over the Canal Zone.
We’ve never needed to own the Panama Canal Zone, any more than we need to own a 10-mile-wide strip of land all the way through Canada from Alaska when we build an international gas pipeline.
The new treaties give us what we do need—not ownership of the canal, but the right to use it and to protect it. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said, “The strategic value of the canal lies in its use.”
There’s another question: Can our naval ships, our warships, in time of need or emergency, get through the canal immediately instead of waiting in line?
The treaties answer that clearly by guaranteeing that our ships will always have expeditious transit through the canal. To make sure that there could be no possible disagreement about what these words mean, the joint statement says that expeditious transit, and I quote, “is intended . . . to assure the transit of such vessels through the Canal as quickly as possible, without any impediment, with expedited treatment, and in case of need or emergency, to go to the head of the line of vessels in order to transit the Canal rapidly.”
Will the treaties affect our standing in Latin America? Will they create a so-called power vacuum, which our enemies might move in to fill? They will do just the opposite. The treaties will increase our Nation’s influence in this hemisphere, will help to reduce any mistrust and disagreement, and they will remove a major source of anti-American feeling.
The new agreement has already provided vivid proof to the people of this hemisphere that a new era of friendship and cooperation is beginning and that what they regard as the last remnant of alleged American colonialism is being removed.[Page 323]
Last fall, I met individually with the leaders of 18 countries in this hemisphere.7 Between the United States and Latin America there is already a new sense of equality, a new sense of trust and mutual respect that exists because of the Panama Canal treaties. This opens up a fine opportunity for us in good will, trade, jobs, exports, and political cooperation.
If the treaties should be rejected, this would all be lost, and disappointment and despair among our good neighbors and traditional friends would be severe.
In the peaceful struggle against alien ideologies like communism, these treaties are a step in the right direction. Nothing could strengthen our competitors and adversaries in this hemisphere more than for us to reject this agreement.
What if a new sea-level canal should be needed in the future? This question has been studied over and over throughout this century, from before the time the canal was built up through the last few years. Every study has reached the same conclusion—that the best place to build a sea-level canal is in Panama.
The treaties say that if we want to build such a canal, we will build it in Panama, and if any canal is to be built in Panama, that we, the United States, will have the right to participate in the project.
This is a clear benefit to us, for it ensures that, say, 10 or 20 years from now, no unfriendly but wealthy power will be able to purchase the right to build a sea-level canal, to bypass the existing canal, perhaps leaving that other nation in control of the only usable waterway across the isthmus.
Are we paying Panama to take the canal? We are not. Under the new treaty, any payments to Panama will come from tolls paid by ships which use the canal.
What about the present and the future stability and the capability of the Panamanian Government? Do the people of Panama themselves support the agreement?
Well, as you know, Panama and her people have been our historical allies and friends. The present leader of Panama has been in office for more than 9 years, and he heads a stable government which has encouraged the development of free enterprise in Panama. Democratic elections will be held this August to choose the members of the Panamanian Assembly, who will in turn elect a President and a Vice President by majority vote. In the past, regimes have changed in Panama, [Page 324] but for 75 years, no Panamanian government has ever wanted to close the canal.
Panama wants the canal open and neutral—perhaps even more than we do. The canal’s continued operation is very important to us, but it is much more than that to Panama. To Panama, it’s crucial. Much of her economy flows directly or indirectly from the canal. Panama would be no more likely to neglect or to close the canal than we would be to close the Interstate Highway System here in the United States.
In an open and free referendum last October, which was monitored very carefully by the United Nations, the people of Panama gave the new treaties their support.
The major threat to the canal comes not from any government of Panama, but from misguided persons who may try to fan the flames of dissatisfaction with the terms of the old treaty.
There’s a final question—about the deeper meaning of the treaties themselves, to us and to Panama.
Recently, I discussed the treaties with David McCullough, author of “The Path Between the Seas,” the great history of the Panama Canal.8 He believes that the canal is something that we built and have looked after these many years; it is “ours” in that sense, which is very different from just ownership.
So, when we talk of the canal, whether we are old, young, for or against the treaties, we are talking about very deep and elemental feelings about our own strength.
Still, we Americans want a more humane and stable world. We believe in good will and fairness, as well as strength. This agreement with Panama is something we want because we know it is right. This is not merely the surest way to protect and save the canal, it’s a strong, positive act of a people who are still confident, still creative, still great.
This new partnership can become a source of national pride and self-respect in much the same way that building the canal was 75 years ago. It’s the spirit in which we act that is so very important.
Theodore Roosevelt, who was President when America built the canal, saw history itself as a force, and the history of our own time and the changes it has brought would not be lost on him. He knew that change was inevitable and necessary. Change is growth. The true conservative, he once remarked, keeps his face to the future.
But if Theodore Roosevelt were to endorse the treaties, as I’m quite sure he would, it would be mainly because he could see the decision as [Page 325] one by which we are demonstrating the kind of great power we wish to be.
“We cannot avoid meeting great issues,” Roosevelt said. “All that we can determine for ourselves is whether we shall meet them well or ill.”9
The Panama Canal is a vast, heroic expression of that age-old desire to bridge the divide and to bring people closer together. This is what the treaties are all about.
We can sense what Roosevelt called “the lift toward nobler things which marks a great and generous people.”
In this historic decision, he would join us in our pride for being a great and generous people, with the national strength and wisdom to do what is right for us and what is fair to others.
Thank you very much.
- Source: Public Papers: Carter, 1978, Book, I, pp. 258–263. All brackets are in the original. The President spoke at 9 p.m. from the Library at the White House. His remarks were broadcast live on radio and television. In his diary entry for January 11, the President noted: “Senator Byrd suggested that instead of having a fireside chat on Panama that I deliver the speech in the Senate chamber. George Washington did this a couple of times, and Byrd said he’d be willing to have television cameras there to cover it as a news event. First he wants to check with [Alan] Cranston, Baker, and the others, but it’s an intriguing and interesting proposition.” (White House Diary, p. 163)↩
- See footnote 6, Document 33.↩
- Reference is to John Hay.↩
- See footnote 11, Document 56.↩
- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave final approval to the treaties (Exec N, 95th Cong. 1st Sess—Exec Rept 95–12) on January 30. (Robert G. Kaiser, “Senate Unit Gives Strong Approval To Canal Treaties,” The Washington Post, January 31, 1978, pp. A–1, 10) The treaties then went to the floor of the Senate the first week of February. (Congress and the Nation, vol. V, 1977–1980, p. 54)↩
- A joint statement of understanding was issued on October 14 after a meeting between Presidents Carter and Torrijos; for the text, see Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book II, p. 1793. For the texts of the Panama Canal treaties, see Department of State Bulletin, October 17, 1977, pp. 483–501.↩
- Carter met with Latin American leaders in September 1977 during the signing ceremonies for the Panama Canal treaties.↩
- The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977).↩
- Reference is to Roosevelt’s 1899 speech entitled “The Strenuous Life.”↩