10. Letter From the Commander in Chief of United States Southern Command (McAuliffe) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Brown)1

Dear General Brown,

Colonel John Conlin of your Staff Group has informed me that the NSC Policy Review Committee has reached agreed broad negotiating positions on the duration of US defense rights pertaining to the Panama Canal and its neutrality.2 As I understand it, US defense responsibilities and operations under the treaty would end on 31 December 1999. However, for the period after 31 December 1999, both the US and the Republic of Panama would commit themselves to protect and defend the Canal and assure its neutrality. In addition, Panama would agree not to challenge the US interpretation that it could exercise this responsibility unilaterally.

I fully support these positions. The position on neutrality has the strength of not only protecting essential US interests in the years ahead, but also providing leverage to assist in treaty ratification.

Concerning the duration of US defense responsibilities, there is a pertinent and I believe useful provision in the 1974 Threshold Agreement3 to the effect, “Panama shall confer on the US use rights for the purpose of protecting and defending the waterway . . . which . . . shall lapse at the end of the treaty’s lifetime unless the two parties agree otherwise through negotiation to be held five years before the expiration of the treaty.” I would very much like to see such a provision in the new treaty.

I continue to believe that the exercise of the US right to respond unilaterally to a challenge to Canal neutrality should be accomplished by maintaining a residual US force in Panama beyond the treaty period. I visualize a small ground-air force, not more than a battalion in strength, with a supporting base structure which would permit ready access to reinforcing forces if they were needed to meet a threat to the neutrality of the Canal. While I recognize the political problem in [Page 58] attempting to insert language to this effect in the treaty, I do urge that it be pursued through a bilateral mutual defense agreement.

With a new treaty apparently imminent, I consider that there is an immediate requirement for an assessment of the mission to be assigned to the US military commander in Panama during the treaty period. The size of his forces and the supporting base structure, as well as the definition of lands and waters for defense, are dependent on the extent to which that mission includes unilateral and combined defense aspects. This is also a prerequisite to the development of the defense concept and the development of the Guardia Nacional’s (GN) force capability for combined defense of the Canal. The treaty should provide that the US commander will validate the capability of the GN to contribute to Canal defense as a condition precedent to any US force reduction or US base relinquishment during the treaty period.

In addition to the positions addressed above, it is important that a close look be given to negotiators’ proposals for a shedding of certain of the logistic and administrative functions of the present Panama Canal Company/Canal Zone Government to the Department of Defense (DOD). For example, present proposals are that DOD assume responsibility for health and education services for all members of the military forces, dependents and employees as well as for the employees of the Canal entity and their dependents. If performed by DOD, these major support activities would require, among other aspects, a larger amount of housing to be placed under US military control than we now plan, as well as an evaluation of the statutory basis of providing these services to non-DOD personnel.

While not a central defense issue, I believe it pertinent to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff to urge an early guarantee of the rights of the employees of the Panama Canal Company. Such a public assurance from the United States Government while the negotiating and ratifying process is going on would do much to neutralize the expected disquiet of the employees and, concomitantly, reduce a possible threat to the security of the Canal.

I appreciate this opportunity to consider the latest DOD position on defense and neutrality of the Panama Canal, and I am prepared to participate in a continuing review of these and other Canal defense matters.


D.P. McAuliffe
Lieutenant General, USA
Commander in Chief
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, IA Region Files, 1974–1979: FRC 330–87–0068, 1974–1978 JCS Defense Concepts. Secret. On February 7, an unknown hand wrote: “DJS approve action incl. draft reply” on the memorandum. A stamped notation reads: “No foreign dissem.”
  2. See Document 8.
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXII, Panama, 1973–1976, footnote 2, Document 47.