113. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Panama Canal Treaties, Etc.


  • United States

    • The President
    • Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
    • Ambassador Sol M. Linowitz, U.S. Negotiator
    • Anthony Hervas, Interpreter
    • Robert A. Pastor, NSC Staff Member (Notetaker)
  • Panama

    • Brigadier General Omar Torrijos Herrera, Chief of Government, Panama
    • Romulo Escobar Betancourt, Panamanian Negotiator
    • Colonel Ruben D. Paredes, Minister of Agriculture
    • Fernando Manfredo, Minister of the Presidency
    • Gabriel Lewis, Panamanian Ambassador to the U.S.

Oval Office Meeting

President Carter and General Torrijos met privately for approximately 40 minutes from 8:00–8:40 a.m. in the Oval Office. According to the interpreter, the President and General Torrijos reviewed the latter’s trip to the Middle East and to Europe.2 The rest of the conversa[Page 319]tion was summarized by President Carter at the beginning of the meeting in the Cabinet Room.

Cabinet Room Meeting

President Carter: General Torrijos and I have had a very good conversation. He described his trip to the Middle East and Europe and the widespread approval which the new Panama Canal Treaties have received. The leaders whom he met have deep understanding of the embarrassment to Panama of the existing treaty arrangements. I agree with that assessment as did my three predecessors as President and the Secretaries of Defense and of State.

But we have a problem. Although there was a good reaction to the signing ceremony and to visits by Latin American leaders, there is still a very strong opposition in our two countries to the treaties themselves. For example, our mail in the White House is running approximately ten-to-one against the treaty. The opposition is very well organized, but even polls by a private organization I often use show that only 30–35 percent of the American people favor the treaties, while as much as 65–70 percent oppose them. It is true that most leaders approve of the treaties, but the general public does not. I am determined to do whatever I can to secure ratification of these treaties, but I recognize the difficulties for a Senator to vote against the will of such a large proportion of his constituents.

We estimate that there are about 55 Senators who will vote for ratification at this time; about 20 are opposed, and the others are still in doubt. Some who had promised to favor the treaties now have great doubts because of two very serious points, and because some of the statements that have been made in Panama by Escobar have caused problems here at home.3

I don’t believe there are actually differences between the United States and Panamanian positions, but I recognize that important questions have been raised on two crucial points: the defense of the Canal and the related question of intervention, and the rights of expeditious passage.

On the first item, there are two related problems. We ourselves have been embarrassed by U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and it is very important that General Torrijos and I both state clearly that the U.S. has no desire to intervene in Panama’s internal affairs. But we must have clarification with regard to the duties and rights which the U.S. has to guarantee that the Canal will remain open and neutral for all ships after the year 2000. General Torrijos’ statement at the signing [Page 320] ceremony4 confirmed that there was no difference between our two countries on this point, but doubt still remains, and this doubt must be removed.

On the question of interpreting the right of expeditious passage, we must clarify this point so that, when necessary, U.S. and Panamanian ships should be able to go through the Canal without delay even if it means that we go to the head of the line. I believe it is necessary to clarify this point.

General Torrijos and I agreed in our conversation that there is no difference between us on either of these two points, and the Panamanian and the American people would respond well to a declaration along these lines if it were issued today.

General Torrijos told me, however, it would not be good for him to sign an agreement. But he has no objection to a joint oral statement by myself and by him on these two points. I told him that we could not secure ratification unless there is eventually a written understanding along these lines, but I would remain opposed to any change in the language of the treaty or any addition to the treaty. However, it may be that in spite of my opposition to such changes, that the Senate might still add their interpretation at the time of ratification. But the language which the Senate uses will be the same as what we use in our oral statement.

(At this time, Hamilton Jordan gave the President a note. Hamilton Jordan had asked me previously whether the President was aware that Romulo Escobar was sitting across from him, and whether I thought that Escobar might be upset by the President’s specific mention of his name. I said that I didn’t know whether the President knew who Escobar was, but I did think that Escobar might take offense at the President’s remarks, and perhaps we should try to do something about the President’s previous statement.)

The truth is that the statements that I have made here as well as those statements made by Ambassador Linowitz and others have caused problems for you in Panama, just as statements by you have caused problems here in the United States. Both of us, I am sure, have interpreted the treaties correctly. I have talked for a long time, but feel free to correct me if I have misinterpreted anything in our conversation. Although the debate which is going on is quite serious, I believe that the outside world should see clearly the friendship between the two of us and between our two countries.

[Page 321]

General Torrijos: What I have to say is for internal consumption only. I informed President Carter that it would be political suicide for me to sign something before October 23. But we should maintain a great reserve capacity to be able to respond to unforeseen developments in the debate in our two countries. I believe that we can make a joint declaration on the two points that President Carter mentioned. First, that the U.S. would not abandon us if someone tries to disrupt the peaceful transit through the Canal. I believe that there is an understanding on our part on this issue. Secondly, that our warships should be able to transit quickly if they need to.

When there is a good understanding, it is very easy to add an autograph afterwards.

Romulo Escobar Betancourt: I believe that both of your statements are correct. There is no difference in interpretation on the rights of the United States in the Neutrality Treaty. The only problem that we have at this time is that of timing and also the way that our understanding is handled.

The U.S. Senate is not intending to ratify the treaty at this time, but our plebiscite is quite near. Therefore, if we could in Panama place greater emphasis within the same interpretation on those provisions which are most favorable to us before the plebiscite ten days from today, then the two sides can place greater emphasis on the other provisions after the October 23 plebiscite. In other words, if we could reemphasize that provision of the understanding which refers to your intention not to intervene in the internal affairs of Panama, we would be the beneficiaries of much greater support in the ratification in Panama. Then, after the twenty-third, it will be much easier for General Torrijos to lend greater support to you.

However, if we both emphasize all the points now, we would not benefit from that. Though both General Torrijos and President Carter can refer to this overall understanding at this time, we would appreciate it if you place greater emphasis on the non-intervention provision now. And after the twenty-third, we would be able to help you much more.

President Carter: It is important for our people and for the Senate especially to know that the Panamanian people will vote on October 23 for treaties which are understood in the same way by the people of the United States as they are by the people of Panama. It is also better to get 70 percent of the vote in Panama in favor of the treaties and get ratification in the United States, than to get 90 percent in favor of the treaties in Panama and not obtain ratification in the U.S. So there must be some balancing of the explanation at the same time in both countries.

Let me just outline the approach that we might take, and I would like Ambassador Linowitz to comment.

[Page 322]

First, we should agree to the exact language of our understanding, but it will not be necessary to publicize that understanding today.

Then, we must give the most careful attention by myself and the people in my Administration and you, your negotiators, and the people in your government not to say anything which will in any way contradict the meaning of the understanding or contradict each other.

Then, we can announce that I will be writing to General Torrijos using exactly the language which we have agreed to today.

Then General Torrijos, if he chooses, at whatever time he finds convenient, could announce that he has received a letter from me, and that he has no disagreement with the contents of that letter.

Later, General Torrijos would respond to my letter in writing, confirming the exact text of the understanding. At that point, it could be made public. This exchange of letters could be completed after October 23. But it would be clear before the plebiscite that there is no disagreement between the two of us as to the meaning of the treaties. And the more that you could make public about these letters, the better in my opinion it would be. But that is your judgment. It would help also if you or Escobar could say publicly that each country has the right to defend the Canal and the right of peaceful transit by all the world’s commerce, that the United States rejects the right to intervene, and that we both agree on the right to defend the Canal beyond the life of the basic treaty.

I saw Ambassador Linowitz shaking his head, and I would like him to comment and to be as frank as possible.

Ambassador Sol Linowitz: My concern is that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wants to be certain that the people of Panama and the people of the United States have the same understanding of the treaties. One way to obviate that concern is a clear statement by both countries at this time.

President Carter: I agree, but General Torrijos said it is impossible for him to sign such a statement before the twenty-third, and I respect that.

Ambassador Linowitz: I understand that, but perhaps there is room for compromise. Suppose that you and General Torrijos both made a statement that you had agreed on many of these provisions which President Carter has outlined.

General Torrijos: (At this point conferred with Escobar, and then said:) “We have an answer to your proposals.”

Romulo Escobar: Our suggestion would be that General Torrijos would make a statement when he returned to Panama that the Treaty on Neutrality does not signify, nor should it be interpreted, as a right of intervention by the United States in the internal affairs of Panama. It should, however, be interpreted as the right of the United States to [Page 323] take action against a threat to destroy the Canal or to impede passage through the Canal. On the question of expeditious passage, he would say that both countries’ ships would have the right to rapidly transit without any barriers or impediments, and in case of need or emergency, such ships could go to the head of the line.

Ambassador Linowitz: One reason that we are able to complete the negotiations so quickly, Mr. President, was because Romulo (Escobar) was so creative in coming up with compromise solutions. He was always searching for ways to find common ground between the two sides. I think we’re close to agreement on the second point. On the first point in the statement, we dealt with the right of the United States to take action to defend the Canal’s neutrality, and then said that we don’t want to interfere in the internal affairs. We used the same language, but the order that we use is reversed.

President Carter: Perhaps Ambassador Linowitz and Romulo Escobar can draft the specific language, and when they agree, the two of us can take a look at it.5 If the two negotiators cannot agree, then we will meet again this afternoon. But we do need approval of the language today. And there can be no secret interpretations; it must be made public in some form. How much time do you think you will need to negotiate the text?

Ambassador Linowitz: I think we could probably do it in 15 or 20 minutes.

President Carter: I don’t mind if it takes a bit longer, and the two of us can make the statement together, or however you prefer. Perhaps I could do it here and then you could do it in Panama. Whatever your preference is. My preference would be for a joint statement here. But I would like a clear understanding and agreement on the text, and also that we will later exchange in writing the major points in letters between the two of us. If you would prefer the exchange of letters to take place after the plebiscite, that is all right with me.

Romulo Escobar: If we can reach agreement, the political impact would be better if you do it here and General Torrijos did it when he arrives back in Panama.

General Torrijos: After making these statements, then all the statements that we make in Panama as well as those you make in the United States can follow the general outline suggested by this general language.

President Carter: It does not matter to me whether or not the announcement is made simultaneously, but the crucial point is that [Page 324] we agree on exactly the same language. The important thing is for my people and for yours to know that we agree so that there is no misunderstanding, and so that they know that we are working in friendship. This is a matter of equality and friendship, and both of us need to clarify the language.

General Torrijos: I think that this can be taken care of quickly, and that we can leave this room with smiles on our faces.

(Later, in a conversation between Romulo Escobar, Ambassador Linowitz and myself, Escobar confirmed the interpretation which Ambassador Linowitz and I had of the last part of the conversation in the morning. To us, the clear implication of the last part of the conversation was that General Torrijos would agree to an exchange of letters at an appropriate or convenient time, and Romulo agreed that was his interpretation as well.)

Robert A. Pastor
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Box 38, Brzezinski Office File Country Chron, Panama, 10–12/77. Secret. Drafted by Pastor on October 19. The meeting took place in the Oval Office and in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
  2. See footnote 3, Document 103.
  3. See footnote 3, Document 105.
  4. For the text of Torrijos’s remarks at the signing ceremony, September 7, see the Department of State Bulletin, October 17, 1977, pp. 482–483.
  5. The Joint Statement of Understanding was issued following the meeting. See footnote 8, Document 106.