150. Letter From Secretary of Defense Brown to Senator Robert C. Byrd1

Dear Senator Byrd:

Because, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I agree, passage of the Panama Canal treaties is important to our national security, I have followed the Senate debate on the new Panama Canal treaties with a great deal of interest. Having again reviewed the national security aspects of the new treaties in detail, I am acutely aware of the major defense issues which the Senate has focused upon in recent days. As a result, I would like to comment upon one facet of the defense issue that was not discussed during my testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee last September—the matter of a residual United States military presence in Panama after the year 2000.

The Department of Defense position on this issue is that we do not advocate a military presence in Panama after expiration of the defense treaty. The 1974 Tack-Kissinger Joint Statement of Principles2 established the fact that the Canal treaty would have a fixed termination date—which, in effect, terminates the legal basis for a United States military presence. Therefore, our primary post-treaty concern was to establish a legal right to defend the Canal, to include introduction of [Page 386] troops into Panama should the neutrality or security of the Canal be threatened. This issue was deliberated within the Defense establishment over a period of several years. These deliberations recognized that any United States military presence in Panama would require a termination date directly related to our responsibility for operation of the Canal.

This evolutionary process concluded with Panama’s finally accepting our draft neutrality treaty which permits the United States to guarantee the Canal’s neutrality unilaterally and to take action to enforce the related regime for an indefinite period of time. Thus, the JCS and I deemed it preferable, on balance, to accept a somewhat shorter period of U.S. military presence in Panama in exchange for a neutrality treaty with no termination date.

The Neutrality Treaty before the Senate contains the necessary legal authority for the United States to maintain the Canal’s neutrality—by force if necessary. An amendment to the treaty which gives the United States the unilateral right to continue its military presence in Panama after the year 2000 is not necessary from a defense standpoint. Such an unnecessary provision in the treaty would serve only to create friction and discord within Panama—avoidance of which is a major consideration in our modernization of the 1903 treaty.3 Under some scenarios, a residual U.S. military presence would perhaps facilitate re-entry, should that unlikely event be necessary for Canal defense; however, it is clearly not acceptable to Panama. Neither Panama nor any other nation would voluntarily accept the unilateral right of another to maintain a military presence within its sovereign territory.

There are a number of military reasons why a residual military presence is not necessary:

—Only the United States has the regional capability to guarantee the neutrality of the Canal by military force.

—The United States possesses the capability for timely deployment of superior forces by air and sea in the face of military opposition, and to employ them effectively to secure the Canal with or without Panamanian support.

—External security and protection of the sea and air approaches to the Canal will continue to be maintained by the United States from CONUS and bases in the Caribbean.

In summary, the United States will continue to have the capability to project forces from CONUS into the Canal area to meet threats to the neutrality regime. Successful defense of the Canal after the year [Page 387] 2000 is not dependent on residual base rights. It is more important from a Defense view to have the new treaties and a satisfactory climate in Panama rather than a base in Panama beyond the period that we operate the Canal. Our ability to defend and control access to the Canal is essential, but the issue is how that ability can be best assured—by a cooperative effort with a friendly Panama or by a garrison amid hostile surroundings. The treaties which you are debating provide real security, not paper claims. They offer the firmest and most practical guarantees obtainable that the Canal will remain operational, secure, and available to the United States and the rest of the world. I remain increasingly convinced that approval of the new Panama Canal treaties will best provide for our future national security.


Harold Brown
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files, FRC: 330–81–0202, Panama 821 (Jan-April 1978). No classification marking.
  2. See footnote 10, Document 3.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 84.