23. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Summary of Meeting: First Round Panama Canal Treaty Negotiations, March 2, 1977, 9:05–9:45 a.m.


  • President Jimmy Carter
  • Vice President Walter Mondale
  • Ambassador Sol Linowitz
  • Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • Robert A. Pastor (note taker)

Status of Negotiations

The negotiators said that they had clearly indicated to the Panamanians that the United States would not be able to agree to the year 2000 as the termination date for a Canal Treaty, unless Panama gave us what we needed in the areas of neutrality and post-Treaty defense. Panama, on the other hand, said that it could not accept a treaty which gave the U.S. the “unilateral right to intervene” in its internal affairs or hinted that the U.S. would retain perpetual rights. The negotiations [Page 98] soon reached an impasse. President Carter said that his interpretation of what occurred was that Torrijos was playing to his domestic audience. Ambassador Linowitz said that one of the reasons negotiations bogged down was because this was the first time that both sides had really zeroed in on the three critical questions of neutrality, duration, and post-treaty defense rights. He also said that considerable progress was made just in identifying the positions of both countries. Furthermore, this was the first round of negotiations for the new Administration, and there was an inevitable testing of each side by the other.

Neutrality: The Question of Ambiguity

The toughest question is whether we can find language which will be satisfactory to two very different constituencies: The Congress wants a continuing right by the U.S. to guarantee the neutrality of the Canal, and Panama demands an end to perpetual U.S. rights. Dr. Brzezinski suggested that Panama and the United States could agree that the U.S. would issue a statement that we had a unilateral right to intervene to protect the Canal. But there was no need for the Panamanians to accept that. We can agree to disagree in advance. Linowitz said that he did not think it would be a good idea for Panama to reject the critical provision of the treaty publicly right after the treaty was signed.

The President suggested that if we get down to this last point, perhaps he could agree privately with Torrijos that for the sake of the U.S. Congress, we would have to make a public interpretation that gives us this unilateral right, and they would not contradict our interpretation. Dr. Brzezinski said that we could go even further than that. The Panamanians do not have to agree with what we decide to say, or even remain silent; they could even contradict us if they wished.

On the question of the necessary ambiguity for the neutrality provision, Vice President Mondale said that a Panama Canal Treaty would be different than the Shanghai Agreement or UN Resolution 242 in that it would require ratification of the Senate.2 He said that he thought that the more ambiguous the language the less chance it would pass the Senate.

Selling a Treaty to Congress

President Carter said that he felt confident that if we could get a right to guarantee the neutrality of the Canal after the year 2000, that [Page 99] he could sell the treaty to the Senate. He said that he would be willing to talk with any Senators to the left of Jessie Helms, and particularly with people like Senator Jackson.

Vice President Mondale said that we do not need to speak to Helms, but we needed to attract his audience. Linowitz said that he thought that Senator Harry Byrd would be able to support a new treaty if he was briefed properly, and that Senator Barry Goldwater has already indicated his possible support. President Carter said that if we could get their support, it would shock the extreme conservatives in the Congress.

Military Presence Beyond the Year 2000

President Carter asked about the kind of military presence which the United States would need after the year 2000. Ambassadors Linowitz and Bunker said that General Brown of the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated in a conversation the day before that no military presence by the United States would be required beyond the year 2000, and in fact General Brown felt that continued military presence beyond the year 2000 might well be a disadvantage.3

Regime of Neutrality

Ambassador Linowitz said that he had proposed on an exploratory basis that together Panama and the United States would agree to establish and maintain a regime of neutrality and to ask all members of the OAS to subscribe to the provision. The Panamanians did not say no to this proposal, nor did they suggest the United Nations as an alternative, as they had once before. President Carter, who had earlier suggested the idea of having the UN guarantee the neutrality of the Canal, said that his first preference would be to use the OAS in the way that Ambassador Linowitz suggested.

Visit With Other Latin American Leaders

Ambassador Linowitz said that several Latin American leaders, like the Presidents of Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and Costa Rica, had indicated interest in the negotiations, and suggested that if agreeable to President Carter, he and Ambassador Bunker could meet them on the President’s behalf to report to them on the negotiations. Since President Perez has already invited Ambassador Bunker and the other Presidents had sent a letter to President Carter indicating that they consider the negotiations a test of the sincerity of the Carter Administration, Ambassador Linowitz said that the Negotiators could go there as a personal response on behalf of the President to their letters. The President said we were fortunate that our closest friends in Latin Amer[Page 100]ica—Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Colombia—also seemed to have the greatest influence over Torrijos, and he said that he thought the visits would be a useful idea. He left the question of the timing of such visits to the discretion of the Negotiators.4 The President said, however, that it would be a good idea to make such a visit with a low profile and only after telling Torrijos. He said that we should be very careful not to have these trips perceived as a way to apply pressure on Torrijos.

Letter to Torrijos

President Carter asked the Negotiators whether they thought he should send another letter to Torrijos. Such a letter would be firm, but also would state our continued willingness to negotiate. Ambassador Linowitz said that Torrijos is expecting a response to his message5 and he also said that he had not delivered the previous letter from President Carter because it had arrived too late to be used effectively.6 Therefore, such a letter now would be very desirable. President Carter agreed, and said that the letter should be a personal one and should include portions of the previous letter.7 He said that the idea of a joint signing of the treaty should be included in such a letter because it would appeal to Torrijos as well as to other Latin leaders. After sending the letter, the Negotiators should wait for a time and only after waiting, they should return to Panama and negotiate.

The President also said that if the Negotiators reached a critical juncture in the negotiations, and they felt they needed his help, that they should not hesitate to call him directly.

Meeting in Miami

Ambassador Linowitz suggested that a brief, informal and very private meeting between the Chief Negotiators of the United States and of Panama should be held somewhere in the United States—perhaps in a Miami hotel—just to get a better sense of where the negotiations were headed. (Ambassador Bunker later suggested that New York would be a better place, because of its convenience and because the Latin community in Miami might discover it more easily.) He thought that such a meeting at this time would be very useful, and President Carter agreed.8

[Page 101]

Meetings With Congress and the Press

President Carter agreed that it would be useful for the two Negotiators to meet with members of Congress as well as with the press as soon as possible. Indeed, the President said that they should treat their conversations with members of Congress as conversations with the press, as it is likely to be on the front page of the Washington Post anyway. Vice President Mondale suggested that the Negotiators talk to Senator Robert Byrd first, tell him what they intend to do, and get his views. President Carter suggested that they speak to Representative Tip O’Neil as well, and asked them which Committee they should testify before.9 He said that he thought one appearance should be sufficient. President Carter said that he did not think the Negotiators should meet with the Canal Treaty opponents, like Senators Helms and Thurmond, at this time since the Senators would unquestionably make statements afterwards, and might be interpreted as voices of the Congress on this issue.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Pastor, Country, Panama, PRM–1, 2–4/77. Secret.
  2. Presumably a reference to the Joint Communiqué of the People’s Republic of China and the United States issued in Shanghai on February 27, 1972. For the text of the communiqué, see the Department of State Bulletin, March 20, 1972, pp. 435–438. For the text of U.N. Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967, which expressed the U.N. Security Council’s concern with the situation in the Middle East, see Yearbook of the United Nations, 1967, pp. 257–258.
  3. See Document 22.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 31.
  5. See Document 20.
  6. See footnote 3, Document 14.
  7. See Document 25.
  8. The meeting took place in Washington. See Document 27.
  9. According to a March 4 memorandum from Bunker and Linowitz to Vance, Bunker and Linowitz met with O’Neil on March 4 and were seeking appointments with Byrd and Humphrey to ascertain their views on what would make a treaty acceptable to Congress. (Department of State, Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, Office of the U.S. Permanent Mission to the OAS, Einaudi Country Files, 1977–1989, Lot 91D371, Box 6, Panama 1977)