84. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • The Sea-level Canal Provisions of the New Treaty

Our Negotiators have learned that General Torrijos is essentially indifferent to the two formulations of the sea-level provision of the new treaty. He will take the two-sentence option (No. 1) or the four sentence option (No. 2), whichever you prefer.

Ambassadors Bunker and Linowitz also do not have a preference for one option or the other, but both recommend that you make the decision as soon as possible so that the appropriate language can be incorporated in the new treaty.

Option No. 1:

“The Republic of Panama and the United States of America, foreseeing the possibility that in the future a sea-level canal in Panama may have importance for international navigation, commit themselves, after the Panama Canal treaty enters into force and during its lifetime to study jointly the feasibility of a new interoceanic waterway on Panamanian territory. Therefore, if the parties agree that such waterway is [Page 256] necessary in the interest of the Republic of Panama, the USA and world commerce, both countries will undertake to negotiate mutually agreeable terms pertaining to the construction of the new waterway.”

Option No. 2: Includes Option No. 1, plus:

“No new interoceanic canal will be constructed on the territory of the Republic of Panama during the lifetime of this Treaty except as herein provided or as the two governments may otherwise agree. During the lifetime of the canal-treaty the United States will not negotiate with third countries any interoceanic canal through any other route in the territory of the Western Hemisphere.”

In making your decision, you may want to take into account two items of information, which will probably be known by avid opponents of a treaty. First, under the Treaty of 1903 (Article V),2 Panama gave the United States a permanent monopoly over the “construction, maintenance, and operation of any system of communication by means of canal or railroad across its territory between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.” This is one of many rights we will be giving up with the new treaty.

From the other side, however, the Panamanian route for a sea-level canal was judged to be the best. The 1970 Report of the Canal Studies Commission3 chose among eight routes, and they follow in order of preference:

1970 Prices

1. No. 10 Route—10 miles West of present canal (“the most advantageous sea-level canal route”)—$2.9 billion

2. No. 14 Route—right alongside present canal (less desirable because it would disrupt shipping during construction)—3.0 billion

3. No. 25 Route—through Colombia—would require nuclear excavation but geological structure makes it unsafe (by nuclear explosions)—2.1 billion

4. No. 23 Route—through Panama and Colombia: By conventional means—5.3 billion With partial nuclear explosions—2.4 billion

5. No. 17 Route—in Panama (East of Canal): With partial nuclear explosions—11.0 billion

6. No. 8 Route—Nicaragua and Costa Rica: By conventional explosions—11.0 billion By nuclear explosions—5.0 billion

7–8. Through Nicaragua and Panama—both were conventional lock-type canals.

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Given the strong recommendation of the Canal Studies Commission for the Panama route and the importance which the Congress might attach to the right of first option, it might make more sense to choose Option No. 2. The disadvantage, of course, is that that option flags the entire issue, which may conceivably not become an important issue.


That you approve Option No. 2.4


  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Box 38, Brzezinski Office File Country Chron, Panama, 6–9/77. Confidential. Sent for action. Forwarded to Tarnoff under an August 19 covering memorandum from Dodson. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 61, Panama: Canal Treaty of 1977, 8/77)
  2. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903.
  3. See footnote 4, Document 76.
  4. Carter checked the approve option and wrote “JC” beneath the recommendation.