53. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Briefings for Senators on Panama Canal Negotiations

Fourteen Senators attended the briefing by Ambassadors Bunker and Linowitz organized by Senator Robert Byrd in his office on June [Page 166] 16.2 Senators present besides Byrd were Bellmon, Case, Cranston, Curtis, Eastland, Goldwater, Humphrey, Jackson, Laxalt, Long, Sarbanes, Sparkman and Tower. Army Secretary Alexander, Army Chief of Staff General Rogers, and General Dolvin represented the Defense Department.

The meeting was productive in clarifying issues that will be key to Senate approval of a treaty. The whole spectrum of Senate sentiment on the Panama question was represented. In general, treaty supporters had few questions or comments. Discussion focused on problem areas and addressed questions raised by those skeptical or opposed to a treaty. Highlights included Senator Jackson’s commentary on neutrality and Senator Goldwater’s strong expression of support for treaty revision. General Rogers was effective in explaining the defense implications of a new agreement.

After a brief introduction by Senator Byrd, who noted that the Senate’s constitutional role included advice as well as consent on treaties, Ambassadors Bunker and Linowitz reviewed agreements reached to date and issues still pending. In the subsequent discussion:

Senator Jackson, noting the history of the SALT I agreement, emphasized the importance of having U.S. rights under a neutrality agreement set forth in the treaty in language “which a fourth-grader could understand”. Jackson made clear that he understood the difficulty of making the U.S. right to take action against Panama too explicit. However, his initial reaction was that the neutrality language “was not good enough”, and he was skeptical about relying on the negotiating record as a basis for unilateral U.S. action against Panama. After further discussion, he said he would defer judgement pending a look at the full text of the neutrality agreement, including the specific neutrality rules. He also advised that joint defense arrangements under a new treaty be written to provide the United States with the flexibility needed to act as it deemed necessary.

At the same time, Jackson firmly supported treaty revision. He noted the dubious origin of the 1903 Treaty,3 the history of racial discrimination in the Canal Zone, and the vulnerability of the Canal to sabotage.

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Senators Curtis, Long, Tower, and Eastland all expressed strong reservations or outright opposition to a new treaty. Long was the most outspoken. He expressed apprehension over the consequences for U.S. foreign relations if a treaty were rejected by the Senate and urged the Administration to be sure it had the votes before submitting a treaty. He said that he could not support a treaty and thought that we had made a mistake in following a policy of concessions to Panama beginning with the agreement to fly the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone in the early 1960’s.4 His opposition was partly due to the feeling that the Canal Zone was United States territory, and he listened closely (though remaining skeptical) to Ambassador Linowitz’ explanation of the special status of the Zone.

Senator Tower asked several questions about the degree of U.S. control over operation and defense during a new treaty. He observed that Senator Jackson’s reservations would seem mild compared to many that would be raised in the Senate.

Senators Eastland and Curtis both questioned the need to negotiate a new treaty. Curtis saw no reason to make concessions to Panama and was concerned that an agreement made with the Torrijos Government would not be honored by future regimes.

Senator Goldwater, responding to Senator Curtis, said that he had changed his position at least 150 if not 180 degrees. As he saw it, with the War Powers Act5 in effect, it would be very difficult for the U.S. to take necessary action to protect the Canal if relations with Panama deteriorated. Under these circumstances, concessions to Panama to ensure a friendly environment for the Canal were essential.

Responding to questions about the military’s views, General Rogers stated that the Joint Chiefs supported the neutrality agreement and were satisfied that the necessary lands and waters would be available for defense of the Canal. He also carefully explained the difficulties that would be encountered in keeping the Canal operating in a hostile environment.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Official and Personal Files of Ambassador at Large Ellsworth Bunker, Lot 78D300, Box 3, Panama, Congress. Confidential. Drafted by Guthrie on June 29. The meeting took place in Byrd’s office.
  2. On June 23, Bunker and Linowitz provided a similar briefing for 10 freshmen Senators. Schmitt commented on the difficulty of explaining a new Panama Canal treaty to his constituents. Cranston remarked that many Senators faced this problem and it was “important to point out to the people at home that the U.S. interest was not in operating or owning the Canal but in being able to use it.” The memorandum of conversation of that briefing is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Box 39, Pastor, Country, Panama, 4–6/77.
  3. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty is discussed in Document 3.
  4. For background and further explanation of the agreement to fly the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone, see Panama Odyssey, pp. 28–37.
  5. The War Powers Act of 1973 limited the President’s ability to send U.S. troops into combat without congressional approval.