156. Transcript of a Telephone Conversation Between President Carter and General Torrijos1

The President: Good afternoon. I am calling you on some very important matters. I would like you to identify this as one of the most important conversations we have ever had. The vote on the Panama Canal Treaty to go into effect in the year 2000, the neutrality treaty, will be held tomorrow.2 The vote is very close and the results are in doubt, but I believe we will win if there is nothing to cause a disturbance in the Senate. Some reservations have been introduced which, sincerely, are not worded like I would have preferred, and which cause me some concern. But they do not violate the terms of the treaty as explained in our joint statement3—in other words, they are compatible with it. I realize from having spoken this afternoon to your Ambassador, Gabriel, and your Ambassadors to the OAS and the UN that you are concerned.4 I understand that. But these reservations, which have not been voted on yet, but which will be today and tomorrow, do not amend either Treaty.

If you are concerned by the action taken after the vote then you can, are free to, make whatever statement you may desire. I understand that. But it is extremely important that no statement is made before the vote, and I ask you please not to make any public statement on actions which the Senate may take in the future. After the vote I would like to send the Deputy Secretary of State, Mr. Christopher, and my assistant, Mr. Jordan, to Panama, to speak to you on Friday5 and to explain the Senate decision. Would that be satisfactory?

General Torrijos: That would be fine. But the root of the problem is basically the following: We consider that we have gone to the limit of the concessions we can make. A little bit more, and we will have a [Page 398] treaty which will comply with the dictates of formality but which will be no solution to the problem of peaceful and friendly coexistence between our peoples. I have been reading and following the debates in the Senate. Our entire people have been doing so as well. Some are of the opinion that the strong emphasis being given to changing a period or a single comma is just a disguise for retaining perpetuity, that principle which we have all fought so hard to erradicate. I am much more interested in approving a treaty which is really a working instrument and not one which will just cause problems. I am more interested as is my people, in having the United States guarantees be for transit through the Canal and not ownership of it. I do not want a treaty, I want The Treaty which my people approved in the plebescite.

I do promise, out of the respect, admiration, and affection I have for you as a moral man, that there will be total silence until after the vote is taken.

I was just now in the process of drafting a letter to you which will be taken to your Embassy as soon as it is ready to be cabled up to you. It is a confidential letter from you to me.6

I just have one last recommendation to make to you. Just let yourself drop with the parachute of dignity. All falls on the parachute of dignity land in the field of peace.

The President: That was extremely clear. I would just like to respond to two or three points if I may. First, nothing that the Senate is doing we anticipate will change any of the agreements or principles contained in the Treaty. Under the Senate amendments, the transfer of ownership to Panama, the removal of perpetuity, and the removal of all U.S. forces by the year 2000 are all preserved. After the year 2000, according to our joint statement and the amendments, the interest of the United States lies in the regime of neutrality; in open access to the Canal. None of these principles, made clear in the Treaty are being changed.

I would just make one other request of you. As soon as the vote is over, Mr. Christopher and Mr. Jordan will be leaving to fly to Panama to meet with you. I would ask you to make no public statement of condemnation or concern until after you talk to our officials. Then, of course, you are free to make any statement you wish, but after consulting with them, and after ratification of the Treaties. They will be there tomorrow night.

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General Torrijos: We will be pleased to see them. For us nothing has changed in what we signed together, and we will make no statement until we have talked to your people.

The President: That is excellent. There is just one other point. I have been working day and night for weeks and weeks on this matter. It has been more important to me than any other and is one of the most difficult political issues ever to face the American people. If the treaties are rejected now, it will be years and years, maybe 50 years, before any other president will wish to address the issue again. I believe we have excellent chances to win, in a way that will be a source of satisfaction to your people and a source of pride to you. I very much appreciate you willingness to trust me for a few more days, to wait and see what actions are taken by the Senate and by me.

Finally, I want you to know that your personal friendship is very valuable to me, as is that between the American and Panamanian peoples. And I believe that the Treaties will bind all of us together in permanent friendship. They are still in doubt, but we believe we will be successful. Thank you for your understanding of our domestic problems. Your decision today has been very valuable to us.

General Torrijos: Thank you for all the work you have done. And to say good-bye, let me say to you what I always say to myself: when you are a leader of men and those around you get bothered and upset, be serene.

The President: That is excellent advice and I have been trying to follow it the past few weeks but it is very difficult at times to do. But I feel a very close brotherhood with you and that has helped.

General Torrijos: Well, tomorrow is the vote. I trust your guiding hand.

The President: Thank you. Adios, amigo.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Office of the Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan’s Files, Box 5, Panama Canal Treaty (CF, O/A 413) 1. Secret. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the conversation began at 4:43 p.m. and ended at 5:06 p.m. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary)
  2. The Senate approved the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal (known as the Neutrality Treaty) by a vote of 68 to 32 on March 16. For the texts of Carter and Vance’s statements on the ratification of the Neutrality Treaty, see the Department of State Bulletin, April 1978, p. 59.
  3. See footnote 4, Document 113.
  4. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Carter met with these individuals from 4:40 p.m. to 5:19 p.m. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary)
  5. March 17. Carter wrote in Keeping Faith that Torrijos called Carter and asked that Jordan and Christopher not go to Panama. (p. 173)
  6. The March 15 letter from Torrijos to Carter, transmitted via telegram 1777 from Panama City, March 16, is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, President’s Correspondence with Foreign Leaders, Box 15, Panama: General Omar Torrijos Herrera 2/77–7/78.