165. Transcript of Excerpts of a Telephone Conversation Between the Deputy Secretary of State (Christopher) and the United States Ambassador to Panama (Jorden)1

We have had a very rough 24 hours here Bill.

Candidly the activity of the Panamanians has been very counterproductive.2

Perhaps the low point or the high point was Walter Cronkite’s news show last night which as you know is seen by everybody and the correspondent reports that the Government of Panama is apparently laying the groundwork in case it should decide to reject the Panama Canal Treaty.

According to officials of Panama’s Embassy here in Washington General Torrijos has sent letters to Heads of State around the world3 and also sent messages to the UN. According to a spokesman at the Panamanian Embassy demonstrations are being held in Panama tomorrow and then Cronkite pans to Howard Baker who says:

“I have really gone out on a limb for these Treaties . . . . . I think our friends in Panama ought to know that just the twitch of an eyelid . . . .”4

[I did not take down the part of the article you read]

[Page 415]

There is now being circulated here the packet that was sent to all members of the UN General Assembly by their Ambassador. It is being interpreted wrongly I think but some are interpreting it as a rejection of the second Treaty although I think probably it is simply a preparation document preparing the way.

There has become available here this morning the letter from Torrijos to all the foreign heads of state5 and finally

Ambassador Lewis is making the rounds on Capitol Hill insisting that something be done during the course of the Senate action demanding that it be done.6 The high level of publicity that has been generated by them over the last 24 hours has reduced to Zero our chance of doing anything in the Senate. That is not just my judgment that is the judgment of all those who are (following it) . . . .

Anything we try to do would be greeted with suspicion and disdain. Indeed we are already having to stem the broad flow that is . . . .

They are asking why are we spending our time on them (the Treaties) if the Panamanians don’t like the Treaties.

Senate is . . . sick of the Treaties and they have a big backlog of legislation.

Lewis seems to be out so far ahead of the other people or at least some of the people down in Panama and I wonder if there is some way if we can let General Torrijos know two points

We understand their problem and have been working, planning, thinking as to how we can help them but the second point is that what has been done to give this such a high level of publicity focus and spotlight has limited our options rather than helping to increase them.

What we really need is to do what he initially said; the initial statement is exactly right, to wait until both Treaties are finished.7

I emphasize that I really, I am most sympathetic to them and we are . . . . . . our head as to the best way we can be helpful but we can’t be seen as sabotaging Senator DeConcini’s efforts.

[Page 416]

Because as I was told so many times yesterday that is what it is called but it reflects the views of a number of Senators who have been defending their votes on the basis of it.

It is, Bill, in the last paragraph is . . . we went through about 48 hours when it was not available and so you have the, Carl Rowen, speculating, no saying on TV that it was a rejection of the Treaty

Panama hasn’t bothered to consult us before they launched this crusade.

Bill, this is most helpful. I wonder if—have you seen that yesterday?

I think either by flash cable or telephone call

In essence: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is putting out a statement this morning for . . . that they have not rejected the Treaties and that they will be considering them after both Treaties have passed or the Senate has acted on both Treaties.8

Maybe you had a different readup to that. How did you characterize it?

That is just the entire statement and it is . . . . deny that they have rejected or reached any judgment and will not do so until later.

We need that. Yesterday or two or three days ago I was thinking of ways to improve the situation; now I am thinking of ways to [unclear] I know you will immediately sense how deleterious it might be if we are seeming to be critical of his Ambassador, but maybe you can put it in such a way that the direction of events have moved in a way that has limited our flexibility.

Would you expect to be able to have any contact with the General today? Or to get a message to him of any kind?

Can you get a reading, Bill, on whether anything additional is needed. Whether his state of mind is such that any additional personal contact is necessary? I think that you are the best one to exert this calming influence. Any further telephone calls at a high level are dangerous because they [unclear].

Baker did not say lightly that “just the twich of an eyelid, just the slightest provocation. . . .” it could go down.

[Page 417]

Only 150 or 200.

Well that is good.

Pray for rain.

Which group is that Bill?

This call has been very reassuring to me.

I am very glad to hear about that anticipated statement.9

A telephone call or flash cable, or somebody can read that on the open line.

If you can, report to me what the reaction is after you telephone the message that we very much want to be helpful but that high level publicity. . . . where we have not been . . . tends to be counterproductive and is counterproductive.

Because of these events the letter you were good enough to draft to send to DeConcini10 . . . it simply is not the right time to deliver that. It would only inflame him.

He is enjoying the bath of publicity. A good deal more than he ought to.

Incidentally the man he reached in the Embassy11 gave him a message that tended to reassure him that there was nothing wrong with the course that he was on. Well, people read things in a different way, and I am sure your man didn’t mean that. I don’t have it very reliably, but at least he is hearing only what he wants to hear.

I am sure we will be talking again before the day is out. Thanks so much.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary, Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 14, Historical Footnotes: Panama Canal. No classification marking.
  2. In telegram 2114 from Panama City, March 30, the Embassy reported on the uneasy and grim mood in Panama in the wake of the Senate’s approval of the Neutrality Treaty and, in particular, the DeConcini reservation. The reservation was published in all the newspapers, read on Panamanian television and resulted in emotional, angry, and frustrated responses and “adverse public commentaries.” The Panamanian government was making no effort to sell the Neutrality Treaty reservations to the people and appeared undecided on how it would progress. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780139–0128)
  3. In telegram 2299 from Panama City, April 6, the Embassy transmitted an informal translation of the text of a letter from Torrijos to the British Prime Minister. In the letter, Torrijos explained it was Panama’s duty to inform the British people and government of the DeConcini reservation, about which Panama had already publicly expressed its “deep concern.” The telegram reported that an identical letter had been delivered to at least one European embassy on April 6. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780149–0403)
  4. The rest of Baker’s quote, according to an April 9 Washington Post editorial, stated: “our friends in Panama ought to know that just the twitch of an eyelid, just the slightest provocation or expression that these treaties, or this treaty in this form, is not acceptable to Panama, and this whole thing could go down the tube.” (“Reservations About DeConcini,” p. C6)
  5. See footnote 3 above.
  6. According to an April 13 CIA intelligence memorandum, all government representatives from Panama were ordered by Torrijos to embark on a campaign to bring pressure on the United States to modify the Senate’s changes to the Neutrality Treaty. (Carter Library, Office of the Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan’s Confidential Files, Box 36, Panama Canal Treaty 1978)
  7. Presumably a reference to Panama’s official communiqué of March 16. See footnote 3, Document 158.
  8. In telegram 2346 from Panama City, April 7, Jorden transmitted the text of a statement that the Panamanian Foreign Ministry planned to release that day. The statement reaffirmed that the Panamanian government’s official position continued to be that of the March 16 official communiqué: Panama would withhold judgment of the treaties until the Senate had concluded discussion and votes on both treaties. The statement denied any news that the Panamanian government had taken an official position on the approval or rejection of the Neutrality Treaty. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780151–0112) In telegram 2381 from Panama City, April 7, Jorden reported that the Foreign Ministry had released the statement. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780151–0517)
  9. See footnote 8 above.
  10. The draft letter, transmitted in telegram 2301 from Panama City, April 6, was in response to questions from DeConcini and further outlined the difficult impact of the Senate debate over the Neutrality Treaty on Panama. In response to DeConcini’s inquiry about how his reservation had been accepted in Panama, Jorden wrote that members of the U.S. embassy had not encountered one Panamanian who felt “his country could possibly accept the reservation which they see as a clear denigration of their sovereignty.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780149–0486)
  11. DeConcini spoke with Paul Saenz of USAID on the phone. (Telegram 2301 from Panama City, April 6; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780149–0486)