Mythologizing the Panama Canal

This essay was originally published in the April 17, 1978 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed on line here

Getting the first Panama Canal treaty through the Senate last month was roughly the equivalent of putting a big tanker through the waterway: there was no room to spare. The second treaty, providing for the gradual transfer of authority to Panama by the year 2000, is expected to have an equally narrow passage when it comes up for a vote on April 18. Opponents of the treaty have intensified their pressure on wavering Senators, and a defeat of the second treaty would force renegotiation of the entire agreement, with potentially explosive consequences. Seldom, in fact, has a project that is so clearly in the national interest faced such a desperate fight for approval.

The opposition to the treaty is a curious mixture of cynicism and conviction. After a period of many setbacks overseas. Americans have been in no mood to accept what seemed to be another reversal. Moreover, the canal is fixed in the popular imagination as a memorable achievement of American vigor and know-how. Why, people asked, should it be given away under any circumstances? There were reasonable answers to such a question, but they were not provided by the superpatriots of the hardcore right wing, who thought they had a sure-fire issue and promptly started paganda barrage has often made a hash of the facts. Many people have been led to believe that the treaty constitutes some kind of massive giveaway that will leave the esteemed and still vital waterway in the clutches of rapacious crypto-Communists who will thereupon thumb their noses at the helpless giant to their north. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The pact profoundly commits the U.S. to the defense of the canal from here to eternity. Until 2000, the U.S. maintains control of the waterway; at the turn of the century, Panama takes over, but the U.S. has the right to keep the canal open and functioning. Indeed this provision has been strengthened because of the doubts among treaty opponents. Responding to their pressure, the White House accepted two reservations that clearly state that the U.S. can send troops into Panama to protect the canal if it is shut down for virtually any reason.

The treaty, in fact, gives the sanction of law to U.S. intervention if the need arises. This provision has been made so explicit by the reservations that Panama now has sent a letter to other Latin American nations suggesting that it may not be able to accept the treaty in its present form. Rather tolerant through all the tumultuous and sometimes insulting Senate debate, Panamanians have been pushed close to their limits; and there are, after all, two parties to the treaty.

The second Senate vote does not come at the best of times. The Soviet Union is rapidly building up its armaments and brazenly sending its Cuban allies into Africa to stir up trouble and challenge American interests. Many treaty supporters, including Senator Henry Jackson, are understandably concerned that a ceding of the canal may be interpreted as another American retreat. But the U.S. is hardly backing down from a Soviet threat; it is rising to the occasion of settling a dispute with an ally. If it is a sign of weakness to capitulate to an enemy, it may well be an indication of strength to make timely concessions to a friend.

In the fulminations of the critics, Panama has been mythologized into a nation of peasants lusting to get their hands on the Canal Zone as soon as the U.S. relinquishes it. Panama, in fact, contains a substantial, sophisticated, much-traveled business community with close ties to the U.S. Its leaders are just as determined as anyone to gain control of the waterway that di ides their country in two. For them, it is a matter of national and indeed group pride. They feel they are perfectly capable of running the canal; it is a role for which they have been groomed in their dealings with the U.S. Approval of the treaty would probably strengthen their position in Panama, since the left wing would no longer be able to campaign effectively on a program to seize the canal. It is no accident that the opposition to the treaty is as intense among the left in Latin America as it is among the right in the U.S.

When treaty supporters make these facts known to their constituents, they find that opposition often melts away. As the issues have been clarified, the public has turned around in its opinion. Sentiment against the treaty is as strong in Arizona as anywhere in the nation, yet when Democratic Senator Dennis DeConcini went home over the Easter recess, he discovered that the “reaction was not nearly as hostile as I expected. I found pretty good acceptance.” Since he had sponsored one of the two reservations sharpening the treaty’s language, he could legitimately boast that he had improved the pact. When he got a phone call from Jimmy Carter in Nigeria asking for his vote on the second treaty, DeConcini replied that he would have a reservation or two to offer. Said the President: “My door is open.”

Another last-minute convert to the treaty, Montana’s Democratic Senator Paul Hatfield, ran into heavier flak among his constituents. He is particularly vulnerable because he was appointed to the Senate last January and is up for election in the fall. When a fellow Senator remarked to Hatfield’s wife Dorothy Ann that her husband was at least getting a lot of publicity from his ordeal, she snapped, “So did the Los Angeles strangler.” Nonetheless, Hatfield has learned that independence has its rewards. Elden Curtiss, the Roman Catholic Bishop of western Montana, publicly endorsed Hatfield’s vote as “courageous.” A bit belatedly, the President also called Hatfield from Nigeria to express his thanks for the vote that put the first treaty over.

Anxiety about the second vote raises anew the problem that confronted the great British Statesman Edmund Burke when he was elected to Parliament. In a speech to his Bristol constituents, he recognized that it was “his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions to theirs.” But he went on to say: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” On grounds of judgment alone, the Panama Canal treaty would probably have easily been approved long ago. Without pressure from their constituents, a sufficient number of Senators would doubtless have voted for the pact. Perhaps Senators would show more respect for their constituents by assuming that they, too, can understand the merits of the case if it is properly explained to them. By supporting the treaty at a time when leadership is urgently needed, the Senators under the sharpest attack may look back on this episode

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