77. Memorandum From the Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Smith) to the Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Holcomb)1


  • Views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on a Panama Canal Treaty

1. In response to the NSC staff request earlier today2 for the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on a Panama Canal Treaty by COB today, the information below is provided. General Brown, following agreement by the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, forwarded on 28 July a letter on this subject to Senator J. Bennett Johnston, with copies to [Page 243] Senators Robert C. Byrd, Cranston, and Chiles.3 The relevant part of the letter is quoted as follows:

“The position of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is that the Panama Canal is a major defense asset, the use of which enhances United States capability for timely reinforcement of United States Forces. Its strategic military advantage lies in the economy and flexibility it provides to accelerate the shift of military forces and logistic support by sea between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and to overseas areas. United States military interests in the Panama Canal are in its use, not its ownership. Any new treaty must assure that access to and security of the Panama Canal are protected in time of war and peace. This assurance may be met by a permanent, joint US-Panamanian guarantee that the canal will remain open to all world shipping at reasonable tolls, without discrimination, in accordance with specific rules of neutrality agreed to in the guarantee, and that Panama would take no action that would hamper efficient operation of the waterway. The strategic value of the canal is not expected to change substantially throughout the life of a new canal treaty and beyond so long as it provides the sole means of transiting ships across the American continent.

Defense of the Panama Canal has two components, i.e., internal security and external defense. Internal security under the current treaty is the responsibility of the Canal Zone Police and security forces reinforced by United States military units assigned to US Southern Command. Internal security is a problem of surveillance and control. In a hostile environment, even under the current treaty, continued operation of the canal cannot be guaranteed. Under a treaty which recognizes Panamanian sovereignty and jurisdiction over the canal, internal security would be the responsibility of the Government of Panama which has a vested interest in the continued operation of the canal. A period of transition would allow for a gradual assumption of that responsibility by Panama. A permanent joint guarantee of neutrality assures that the United States can act to protect its interests if required.

External defense of the canal under the current treaty is the responsibility of the US. Current plans provide for rapid reinforcement of Canal Zone forces from CONUS; the size and nature of these forces are dependent on the threat. Under any new treaty, the US will have primary responsibility for defense of the canal in conjunction with the Panamanian Forces during the period the US operated the canal. The Panamanian Guardia Nacional and the appropriate United States forces commander would develop plans in concert to provide for mutual defense. Provision for reinforcement from the United States would [Page 244] continue to ensure the United States interest in access to and use of the canal are preserved.

The preferred protection and defense of the canal would be in conjunction with a friendly Panama. A new treaty which provides a basis for development of a continuing friendly relationship between the United States and Panama is of significant importance in insuring that the Panama Canal will be available to the United States when needed. An effective neutrality guarantee, in conjunction with US defense rights and military presence throughout the period the US operates the Panama Canal, would adequately protect US military interests.

Once the US no longer operates the canal, an effective neutrality guarantee will provide adequate basis for safeguarding our interests in the canal.”

2. I trust this meets your requirement.

W.Y. Smith
Lieutenant General, USAF
Assistant to the Chairman, JCS
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files, FRC: 330–80–0017, Panama 821(16 July-Aug 1977). No classification marking. In an August 8 covering memorandum forwarding this memorandum to Dodson, Holcomb mentioned she had requested the statement of the views of the JCS on the treaty earlier that day and indicated the memorandum was “signed by the Chairman’s assistant, in General Brown’s absence, after checking with the Chiefs.” (Ibid.)
  2. See footnote 1 above.
  3. Not found.