103. Memorandum From the Assistant to the President (Jordan) to President Carter 1


Along with Bob Pastor (NSC) and Terrence Todman, I had breakfast and a two hour meeting with Torrijos this morning.2 There were several things that were said that you should know about.

He is in this country in route to the Mideast and Western Europe. He is obviously trying to balance his trip earlier this year to Libya that was highly publicized.3

He is obviously very interested in the political situation here as regards to ratification, and I tried to give him a pragmatic assessment of the political situation in the Senate. I told them that our hope was still for an early vote on the treaty although we were less optimistic about this because of Senator Byrd’s recent statements.4

I outlined for him the things we were doing to insure ratification and spent some time reviewing the process by which the Senate would review the treaty. I tried to distinguish for him the difference in a “reservation” and an “understanding” so that these terms would be familiar to him and so that they would not overreact politically to their mention by Senators in the process of debating ratification.

As you know, their referendum on the treaty is in late October.5 Once the referendum is over, they will have acted officially on the treaty initialed by the two governments. This will leave Torrijos in the position of having to go back to his people for their additional approval if a “reservation” is added or agreed to by the Senate the first of the year. Torrijos said it will even be difficult to refrain from responding [Page 299] officially to an “understanding” if that “understanding” states in very explicit terms things that were only implied in the treaty already signed.

At any rate, we need to be continually mindful of the political pressures under which Torrijos governs. He obviously has a great deal more flexibility than we do, but we should also understand that there are limits to what he can do.

For the time being, I would strongly recommend the following in terms of our own strategy:

1. That we are opposed to all reservations. That we believe strongly in the treaty that has been negotiated and signed by the two countries. To suggest that we would even consider a “reservation” at this point suggests that we are ready and willing to make early political concessions. It should also be explained that the talk of a “reservation” jeopardizes the possibility of a new treaty as the Panamanians would have to vote twice on the treaty. Put more simply, you might pose the question as to how the Senate would feel if, after passing the treaty, they were asked to vote a second time on a less satisfactory treaty. The fact that Torrijos has political problems like this underscores the fact that he is not a dictator with total control of his country and unresponsive to public opinion. At the same time, we must be respectful of the Senate right to add reservations, but you should make clear to them the process by which you would agree to such an act.

2. That we are opposed generally to the addition of numerous “understandings” and would only look favorably on those that were necessary to clarify the true meaning of the treaty and the intentions of both countries. Again, to look favorably on “understandings” suggests a willingness on our part to compromise early and ignores the political realities that face Torrijos. We were only able to get a treaty because our defense rights after the year 2000 were implied and not explicit. If the opponents choose to state those rights explicitly, it will probably pick us up the votes in the Senate that we will need to win ratification. It obviously will create major political problems for Torrijos.

I posed the question as to whether General Torrijos might approve personally any “understanding” or even a “reservation” if it did not change substantively the meaning of the treaty and in that way avoid the need for a possible second referendum in Panama. He laughed and said that it was impossible for him to be a “democratic leader” for the first referendum and a “dictator” for the second.

In summary, I suspect the General has more political flexibility than he allows at this point, but we should not ignore the political situation he faces in his own country nor assume his willingness and/or ability to go along with any “understanding” or “reservation” the Senate might attach. Therefore, we should be very cautious in our [Page 300] public comments to discourage the idea of adding “reservations” or “understandings”.

My own sense of the thing is that we will probably have to agree to some “understandings” in the final stages to secure enough votes for passage, and that at that point it can be explained to Torrijos in a manner that he will find satisfactory. The addition of any “reservations” will require him to go back to his people and could be a major obstacle to getting a treaty. We should just keep his political situation in mind as well as our own as we go into the final stretch.

More importantly, we should take—for the time being—a hard line in opposition to any “reservations” and discourage Byrd and others from talking about them.6

  1. Source: Carter Library, Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan’s Confidential Files, Box 36, Panama Canal Treaty, 9/77. Confidential. Carter initialed the memorandum and wrote: “Ham Coord c” State.”
  2. The meeting took place on September 26.
  3. Torrijos visited Libya April 12–16. See footnote 3, Document 29.
  4. According to a September 25 Washington Post column, Robert C. Byrd told reporters at his September 24 news conference that the Senate would defeat the treaties if it was forced to vote on them that year. “Time is required to inform the American people,” Byrd said, “because as long as the polls are extremely negative, it would be just as difficult to get two-thirds of the Senate to go along.” Byrd said he planned to call the treaties up for a vote early in the next year. (Austin Scott, “Byrd: Panama Treaties Would Lose This Year,” p. 7)
  5. October 23.
  6. Jordan added a postscript which read: “P.S. Bob Thompson memo which follows explores these legalisms further.” See Document 104.