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

The President: (after exchange of greetings) I was very pleased to receive your letter of last week.2 The Senate has now begun debate on the Treaty between us for the rest of the century. Yesterday two amendments were submitted and were rejected.3 We are attempting to have the vote take place sometime during the second week of April.

General Torrijos: Yes. I have been reading the Congressional Record, and specifically the statement of Senator DeConcini in explanation of [Page 404] his vote. It is very strong. The language is really very very strong.4 It endeavors to change the meaning of the memorandum of understanding which we signed together. I would like you to know that during the course of this week I have been making great efforts to improve matters in order to be able to reply to sectors of public opinion which have been trying to orchestrate a campaign to make necessary a second plebescite. If one were held now, the treaties would not be approved because this is a very sensitive issue. Any further amendment to the language would not be approved.

Therefore we must stay in close touch, in close communication so that the treaties which emerge will be instruments of work and not elements of perturbation. What Mr. DeConcini has said runs counter to the principles and provisions of the United Nations and of the Organization of American States, both bodies to which Panama belongs and for which it has deep respect.

It is really very strong language, so strong that one would not think it could deal with a friendly country. Only if we keep in touch can we hope to have a treaty—I know that your intentions are good. You are a moral man, and I know that there are things that you cannot control, just as there are things we cannot control here. Our people are reading the Congressional Record.

For all these reasons, I should like to request your authorization to make your letter5 public as a way of attenuating this problem and of helping the people of Panama.

The President: I understand very clearly what you have said and I understand the reasons for your concern. But what must be assessed is the final language of the treaties. The DeConcini interpretation is not an official interpretation. For example, Senator Church, who is our floor leader in the Senate, has made a statement placing a different interpretation and construction on the conditions.6 The ultimate judg[Page 405]ment as to what is to be included and the conditions attached will be made by the Government of the United States and the Government of Panama.

The main point is that we must wait until the end to see how the whole thing fits together. At that point I am certain that both you and I will then see that the actions of the Senate will have been constructive and adequate to alleviate all these concerns. For it is obvious that we have no intention whatever of intervening in Panama, not in this century and not in the next. The American Government and people have absolutely no desire to do so. And this statement was reconfirmed by the 68 Senators who voted yes last Thursday.7 There is no doubt that this is the belief of the Government and people of the United States.

Now treaty opponents are grasping at any sign of disagreement between you and me in order to defeat the treaties. Your advice to be calm and to cause no disturbance was very sound advice8 which I have been trying to follow here, matching what you have been doing in Panama.

You are most welcome to use my letter in any way you wish in order to reconfirm our mutual respect for the Panamanian people and our firm intention to honor the agreement reached between us and the provisions of the treaties.

The friendship and mutual respect between the peoples of Panama and the United States and the mutual trust between you and me are very strong and sufficient to overcome any temporary disturbance, any speeches, statements, or votes of individual Senators.

The main thing to remember is that I am following your advice to be calm in order to be constructive. If you do the same, I am sure that the final action taken by the Senate will lead to a good resolution of the issues still pending regarding the treaties.

General Torrijos: All right. We will stay within this framework of communication, but with a view to finding formulas to compensate for the language in that explanation of vote.

The President: I am very pleased to have talked to you again, and I believe that my statement following the Senate vote, my letter to you, and the statement by Senator Church do compensate for statements opposing the treaty.

Good luck to you and I hope to see you again personally without too much delay. Have a good day. Muchas gracias.

General Torrijos: Very well. Good-bye.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan’s Subject Files, Box 5, Panama Canal Treaty (CF, O/A 413) 1. Secret.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 156
  3. See footnote 4, Document 158.
  4. A reference to DeConcini’s Senate floor statement about the reservation he proposed and that the Senate adopted with the Neutrality Treaty. The reservation outlined the right of the United States to take unilateral action in Panama, including the use of military force, after the year 2000 if the Canal was closed for any reason. For excerpts of DeConcini’s statement, see telegram 67894 to Panama City, March 16, in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Box 41, Pastor, Country, Panama, 3/78. Senate and administration treaty supporters urged DeConcini to revise his proposed reservation to make it more palatable to the Panamanians, but he refused to do so. (Memorandum by Christopher, March 21; Department of State, Records of Cyrus R. Vance, 1977–1980, Lot 84D241, Box 10, Interviews III)
  5. See Document 158.
  6. Presumably a reference to Church’s statement made just prior to the vote on the DeConcini reservation, which telegram 73218 to Panama City, March 22, transmitted. Church argued that the reservation must be considered as a restatement and an elaboration of the leadership amendment already adopted by the Senate to Article IV of the Neutrality Treaty and therefore deemed it acceptable and worthy of adoption by the Senate. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780125–0833)
  7. March 16.
  8. See Document 156.