111. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Canal Treaty Misinterpretations

Yesterday, Ambassador Bunker, Warren Christopher, Hamilton Jordan, and Bob Pastor discussed the Joint Statement of Understanding with Panamanian Ambassador Gabriel Lewis and his aide, Jaime Arias. The Panamanians didn’t have any real problems with the three clarifications, but in an extended discussion, it became clear that two rather significant disagreements remained:

(1) The line which separates the concept of “defending the Canal’s neutrality” and “intervening in Panama” is a fuzzy one, and the Panamanians see it quite differently than we do. If the question were asked, “Can the U.S. land and station 50,000 U.S. soldiers near the Canal in case of an impending threat?”, we, of course, would say, “yes.” The Panamanians would say, “no.”

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Without probing the Panamanian position very hard, it seemed that the Panamanians believe we can only defend the Canal’s neutrality either by sea (on the Atlantic or Pacific sides of the Canal), by our Air Force (“the Pentagon umbrella”), or by a lightning strike into the Canal area, with a prompt departure after the crisis ends. They clearly do not contemplate the possibility of us keeping only troops there, particularly if there is no obvious international threat to the Canal. (They would probably deny the possibility that the U.S. can defend it from a Panamanian threat.) I suspect that most Americans interpret the neutrality treaty very differently.

(2) Who interprets when the neutrality of the Canal is threatened? While the Panamanians have accepted the principle that each country—the U.S. and Panama—can act when the Canal is threatened, there has not yet been agreement on the question, “Can each country interpret when the Canal is threatened?” A similar question relates to the provisions on “expeditious passage:” who interprets when it is necessary to transit the Canal more quickly than other nations’ ships? I suspect that the U.S. and Panamanian negotiators would answer those questions differently.

These two sets of questions have not yet been asked and we can hope that they remain undiscovered. But the more we wrestle with this treaty debate, the more I become convinced that the opponents of the treaty will not stop until they have exploited every possible weakness or vagueness in the treaty.

You have three possible options as they relate to your upcoming meeting with Torrijos.2

Option I—You can decide not to surface these issues, and deal only with the three points enunciated in the Joint Statement. It is quite possible that these two new issues will never become known, and there is little sense in causing additional problems when we haven’t resolved the three most important ones.

Option II—You can raise the issue with Torrijos and try to get an agreed interpretation. Then, you have an option of making this part of the Joint Statement or just getting agreement not to answer publicly those two sets of questions in ways which will permit the opponents of the treaty to exploit them.

Option III—Or you can raise the general issue of possible future misinterpretations. Having learned that in the era of mass communications, we are all now dealing with a single audience, we can no longer try to sell a different product to the U.S. than to the Panamanian audience. On new or potentially controversial questions, both sides should agree to consult and reconcile differences before making their answers public.

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It seems to me that these questions are likely to be discovered, and it would be extremely harmful to the Administration’s position to have to continually try to reconcile different answers by Panamanian and U.S. negotiators to the same questions. If anything, we want to get in front of this problem rather than constantly react and try to reconcile. I would therefore recommend Options II or III—either face the issues in private with Torrijos or maybe even set up an informal consultative mechanism for anticipating and reconciling potentially divergent responses.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 61, Panama: Canal Treaty of 1977, 10/1–30/77. Secret. Carter initialed the top-right corner of the memorandum and wrote: “Prefer III.”
  2. See Document 113.