Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right

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Considered one of America's engineering marvels, the Panama Canal sparked intense debates in the 1970s over the decision to turn it back over to Panama. In this remarkable and revealing tale, noted journalist Adam Clymer shows how the decision to give up this revered monument of the "American century" stirred emotions already rubbed raw by the loss of the Vietnam War and shaped American politics for years.

Jimmy Carter made the Canal his first foreign policy priority and won the battle to ratify the Panama Canal treaties. But, Clymer reveals, the larger war was lost. The issue gave Ronald Reagan a slogan that kept his 1976 candidacy alive and positioned him to win in 1980, helped elect conservative senators who made a Republican majority, and fueled the overall growth of conservatism.

In telling the story of America's reconsideration of the 1903 treaty that gave it control of the Canal "in perpetuity," Clymer focuses on the perspectives of six key players: Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, political candidate Gordon Humphrey, and Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. His narrative illuminates many aspects of American politics during the Ford and Carter years-especially regarding Senate elections-that have been largely overlooked. And his chronicling of the emergence of political action committees on the right reveals their often-awkward relationship with the GOP and the uneasy alliances that helped the Republicans win control of the Senate in 1980.

Clymer explores how the uproar over the Canal episode foreshadowed perennial partisan attacks over intense, emotional issues from abortion to gun control to same-sex marriage. He also shows that people who hated the idea of giving up the canal gave birth to the NCPAC approach of beating up on an incumbent long before an election, often assisted by independent spending and outside advertising.

As Clymer argues, "The Panama Canal no longer divides Panama. But the fissures it opened 30 years ago have widened; they divide the United States." His even-handed account offers new insight into the "Reagan Revolution" and highlights an overlooked turning point in American political history.

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Editorial Reviews

H. W. Brands
Clymer…provides fascinating detail, in explaining how several conservative candidates for Congress successfully leveraged the canal against their more liberal opponents.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Former New York TimesWashington correspondent Clymer (Edward M. Kennedy) argues in this straightforward, able account that Jimmy Carter's loss in the 1980 presidential election can largely be attributed to his widely unpopular negotiations to return the Panama Canal to Panama. America was demoralized after Vietnam, and many citizens were opposed to giving up the canal, long a symbol of American progress and power. Conservatives seized on the issue. As early as 1975, Reagan condemned returning the canal as a sign of American weakness, declaring with his characteristic simple directness: "we bought it, we paid for it, we built it and we intend to keep it." Clymer also examines several Senate races in which incumbents who had voted to give up the canal were unseated by right-wingers. Although Clymer acknowledges that many forces contributed to the rise of the Right, his relentless focus on the canal is tendentious at times. Still, Clymer makes an innovative contribution to the growing literature that seeks to explain how conservatism triumphed after Goldwater. 20 photos. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700615827
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 2/26/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.31 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Former chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, Adam Clymer is author of Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography. His writing has also appeared in the Nation, the New Republic, the Progressive, Washington Monthly, and elsewhere.

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Read an Excerpt

By Adam Clymer
UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KANSAS Copyright © 2008 the University Press of Kansas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7006-1582-7



A canal through Panama, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and saving thousands of miles compared with journeying around Cape Horn, was an idea with origins in the days of Spanish exploration of the New World. It gained appeal because of the California gold rush of 1849. The French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, tried from 1882 to 1889, failing physically on the scene and financially in Paris. The United States used the gunboat Nashville to dislodge the restive province of Panama from Colombia in 1903, recognized the new nation two days later, and then essentially imposed a one-sided treaty on Panama to gain the authority to build a canal and maintain control of it and any part of Panama the United States wanted.

In the United States, the history of the Canal was the history of excavation and construction, overcoming repeated mudslides and fabricating locks and dams thousands of miles away that fit perfectly once shipped to Panama, and conquering yellow fever and malaria. The heroic names remembered for that triumph were President Theodore Roosevelt and Colonel George W. Goethals, the engineer who saw the project through, and Colonel William C. Gorgas, who ran the campaigns to exterminate the mosquitoes that spread disease.

But if there was one name that resounded in Panamanian history, and with no heroism attached, it was that of Philippe Bunau-Varilla. An engineer in the failed French effort and a part owner of the rights granted by Colombia to construct the Canal, Bunau-Varilla tried from St. Petersburg to Paris to Washington to find resources to see that the Canal was built. After the Colombian Senate, in August 1903, unanimously rejected a treaty under which the United States would pay $10 million to build a canal, Bunau-Varilla worked with would-be rebels in Panama and with Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay to consummate the rebellion as the Nashville and the head of the U.S.-owned Panama Railway kept Colombian troops away from the capital of Panama City. Then, under authority he had demanded from the rebels, the Frenchman negotiated a new treaty, even more favorable to the United States than the failed pact with Colombia.

In fact, some provisions written by Bunau-Varilla were more favorable to the United States than the draft that was prepared by Secretary Hay, who had started by expanding the projected Canal Zone from 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in width in the pact with Colombia to 10 miles. The Frenchman's version also gave the United States a permanent right to take any lands and waters outside the zone that it needed for the Canal-a provision that led to developing a number of American military bases.

Finally, his version gave the United States "in perpetuity" the near equivalent of sovereignty over the Zone, saying: "The Republic of Panama grants to the United States all the rights, power and authority within the zone mentioned ... which the United States would possess and exercise if it were the sovereign of the territory within which said lands and waters are located to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panama of any such sovereign rights, power or authority."

Although Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, his secretary of war and successor in the White House, agreed that the provision gave the United States something slightly less than real sovereignty, over time the distinction faded away in the United States until the debates of the 1970s revived it. In the Canal Zone, during the construction period and afterward, Americans lived well with cheap housing and a low-priced commissary. In 1941 John Gunther, whose best sellers explained the rest of the world to Americans, wrote in Inside Latin America that the Canal Zone "is as much a part of the United States as Omaha, Nebraska." A popular textbook for seventh and eighth graders published in 1950 said flatly, "The Canal Zone is United States territory."

While the new Panamanian government briefly objected to the treaty terms, it could do nothing about them because it depended on the United States to maintain its independence from Colombia. But there was another problem that surfaced promptly: the Americans looked down on the Panamanians. In a book published to celebrate the opening of the Canal in 1914, Willis J. Abbot wrote that "they hate us." He said, "The real, unexpressed reason for the dislike of the mass of Panamanians for our people is their resentment at our hardly concealed contempt for them." He said that a typical American-"with a lofty and it must be admitted a rather provincial scorn for foreign people"-looked down on all Panamanians. "From his lofty pinnacle he brands them all, from the market woman with a stock of half a dozen bananas and a handful of mangoes to the banker or the merchant whose children are being educated in Europe like their father are 'spiggotties.'" He said the word was derived from the "speaka-da-English" cry of a hack driver. The resentment occasionally boiled over, as it did on July 4, 1912, when Panamanian policemen shot and killed three unarmed U.S. Marines and arrested and beat others after being called to a whorehouse to break up a fight. That superior attitude did not go away. One children's book published in 1945 spoke of the "colossal ignorance and inertia of the Isthmian population" and said, "Natives of the country were indolent and undependable." During the debate over the treaties, Zonians argued that the Panamanians were too backward to run the Canal.

The anticolonialism that the United States championed during World War II began to be felt in Panama, with students at the fore. In 1947, they rioted against an agreement to extend temporary wartime base rights well outside the Zone. The National Assembly then voted unanimously against the pact. The president of the National Assembly, Harmodio Arosemana Forte, explained, "Nobody will vote for bases when he can look out the window and see ten thousand boys sharpening their knives." U.S. forces cleared out of the bases in three months. The New York Times reported that an underlying reason for the disturbances was the pay scale in the Zone, under which, for example, American teachers were paid three times as much as Panamanian teachers.

In 1955 the United States promised to establish an equal pay scale in the Zone. But Congress passed employment legislation only after Panamanian students, asserting their country's sovereignty, planted Panama's flag at fifty points in the Zone in May 1958. An official Canal spokesman told the New York Times the incident was ridiculous.

No one called the next flag incident ridiculous. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's brother Milton, a Latin American expert, had urged after the 1958 incident that Panama be allowed to fly its flag in the Zone. But nothing was done until waves of students celebrated Panamanian independence day on November 3, 1959, by trying to force their way into the Zone with flags. Rebuffed by Canal Zone police, they tore down the American flag at the U.S. embassy in the city of Panama and raised a Panamanian flag in its place. Rioting followed, American cars were burned, and U.S. companies' offices were wrecked. U.S. troops took over the defense of the Zone's border with Panama. There were thirty injuries but no deaths.

President Eisenhower, though he called the riots "puzzling" at a news conference, worked to accommodate Panama over the next several months. His own service in the Canal Zone in the 1920s had convinced him the original treaty was unfair. He told another news conference in December that "the question of the flag has never been specifically placed before me, but I do in some form believe we should have visual evidence that Panama does have titular sovereignty over the region." That angered the House of Representatives, which, in February 1960, passed a resolution against the idea of flying Panama's flag in the Zone. Eisenhower waited until September, when Congress was out of town, to order Panama's flag flown, together with the American flag, in a highly visible corner of the Zone (named for James Shaler, the railroad superintendent who kept the Colombian troops away in 1903), just across from Panama's legislative building. The Pentagon had objected that allowing the flag to be flown, the New York Times reported, would become a "wedge for a drive to oust the United States altogether." Before that, in April 1960, Eisenhower ordered wage increases and new housing for Panamanian workers in the Zone.

In September 1961, Panama's president, Roberto Chiari, wrote President John F. Kennedy to ask for a series of revisions to the 1903 treaty, calling it the result of "rapid collusion" between Hay and Bunau-Varilla, "which threw the new Republic of Panama, bound hand and foot, at the mercy of the Government of the United States." Kennedy took six weeks to answer and said he had ordered a "complete re-examination" of the issues. That was not enough for Chiari, who went to Washington the next June. He pressed those demands, especially the need to replace the "in perpetuity" clause of the 1903 treaty with a date on which U.S. control would end. Kennedy told Chiari he would not consider basic changes in the treaties, but a memo prepared by his aides and Chiari's a few days later did say "a new treaty will have to be negotiated." Both sides agreed to set up a commission to examine problems. Its one accomplishment was an agreement to fly both nations' flags at selected points in the Canal Zone. The commission was disbanded at Panama's insistence in August 1963.

* The American decision to surrender control of the Panama Canal really began to take shape on January 10, 1964. Chiari told Lyndon Johnson, who had become president after Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963: "What we need is a complete revision of all treaties which affect Panama-US relations because that which we have at the present time is nothing but a source of dissatisfaction which has just now exploded into violence which we are witnessing."

They were talking because of anti-American rioting that would kill four Americans and twenty-four Panamanians. The rioting began on January 9, 1964, two days after American high school students hoisted the Stars and Stripes at Balboa High School. The school was not one of the seventeen sites authorized for joint flag displays. On the ninth, Panamanian high school students marched into the Zone to protest the absence of their flag. They were surrounded by American students. Taunts were exchanged, then pushing and shoving. The Panamanian flag was torn, and police made the Panamanian students leave the Zone. The students smashed windows and cars on their way. Then thousands of students and others poured into the streets, as a radio commentator spurred them on with accounts of brutality against Panamanians. President Chiari and the National Guard stayed aloof, doing nothing to halt the disorder, then suspended diplomatic relations to protest U.S. gunfire, and Chiari complained to Johnson that despite his meetings with Kennedy, "not a thing has been done to alleviate the situation."

Johnson's response was firm. He insisted that calm had to be restored before any other matters were considered. But then, he said, "We will look at the facts and try to deal with the problem.... We will carefully and judiciously and wisely consider both viewpoints and reach an area of agreement." That comment, in a telephone call made public three decades later, did not show in his current posture. He would brag to his friend Senator Richard Russell of Georgia that "being firm with them caused them to cave."

But within a few months the Johnson administration concluded, as Mark Atwood Lawrence put it, "that ceding some rights in the Canal Zone, far from a sign of caving in to America's leftist enemies, would in fact help reduce the danger of radicalism in Panama by strengthening the rightist oligarchy that had served U.S. interests for decades." On March 21, 1964, Johnson said he wanted talks concerning "every issue which now divides us, and every problem which the Panamanian Government wishes to raise." On April 3, he announced the restoration of diplomatic relations and the appointment of Robert Anderson, a fellow Texan and former secretary of the Treasury, as a special ambassador. And on December 18, he announced a plan to build a new sea-level canal and said the United States would pursue "an entirely new treaty" on the existing Canal that "should recognize the sovereignty of Panama." Conscious of the political risks, Johnson had assured himself of Eisenhower's support for that statement after sending a CIA agent to meet the former president's train in Chicago and clear the announcement with him.

It took not the few months Johnson expected but until the summer of 1967 before new treaties were agreed on, under which U.S control would end no later than 2009. A major element of the negotiations dealt with the idea, which Eisenhower and Kennedy had encouraged and Johnson adopted wholeheartedly, of building a new canal at sea level, possibly using atomic bombs to do the digging. It would not necessarily be dug in Panama, but perhaps in Colombia, or Nicaragua.

But those treaties never went anywhere. The Panamanian political opposition said they gave Panama too little; congressional Republicans and the Chicago Tribune, which broke the details of the treaty before the administration was ready, said the pacts gave away too much. Johnson did not submit them to the Senate, and a Panamanian presidential election in May 1968 went to Arnulfo Arias. Arias was a critic of the treaties, which never went before Panama's National Assembly, either.

A military coup that autumn ousted Arias after less than two weeks in office and put Lieutenant Colonel Omar Torrijos Herrera, a high-ranking officer of the National Guard, Panama's mixture of an army and a national police force, in charge. He survived a countercoup the next year and made himself a general. Believing the United States was behind the coup, he was reluctant to deal with Washington. For his part, newly elected president Richard Nixon had Vietnam, Russia, and China on his mind and gave little attention to Latin America and none to Panama.

But the State Department worried that without moving forward, disruptions even worse than those of 1964 were probable. Secretary of State William P. Rogers, largely overshadowed by Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser, sought out Panama's foreign minister at a Washington meeting of the Organization of American States to assure him the United States wanted a new dialogue, and talks were renewed in April 1971. But for some time, nothing much happened; the United States' position seemed harder than it been during the Johnson administration, as it insisted first on a treaty with no date in it ending U.S. control of the Canal, and then on a treaty of very long duration. This was unacceptable to Panama, recalling the U.S. position under Johnson, but its negotiators had little that they were allowed to propose as an alternative.

Instead Torrijos was pushing to get international support. He arranged to have a UN Security Council meeting held in Panama in March 1973. The United States had to veto a resolution, demanding, "without delay," a new "just and fair" treaty that would "fulfill Panama's legitimate aspiration and guarantee full respect for Panama's effective sovereignty over all its territory." No nation voted with the United States; even Great Britain abstained. That meeting got Kissinger's attention. He and Nixon decided to look past the resolution itself and recognize they had a serious problem. In May, Nixon told Congress it was time for the United States and Panama "to take a fresh look at this problem and to develop a new relationship between us-one that will guarantee continued effective operation of the Canal while meeting Panama's legitimate aspirations." That summer a new U.S. negotiator was chosen to replace Anderson, who had been inactive since Nixon took office. He was Ellsworth Bunker, a veteran diplomat who had just returned from six years as ambassador to South Vietnam.

After a new set of talks that winter, Kissinger, by now also secretary of state, flew to Panama to sign a set of "principles" with the foreign minister, Juan Antonio Tack. Signed on February 7, 1974, they promised to replace the 1903 treaty with one providing a prompt end to U.S. control of the Canal Zone, a greater share of Canal profits for Panama, and a promise that Panama would join in the administration and defense of the Canal. It promised the United States the use of "lands, water and airspace" necessary to operate and defend the Canal. Most important, the document promised to abrogate the 1903 treaty and replace it with one having a fixed termination date. "The concept of perpetuity will be eliminated," it said.


Excerpted from Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch by Adam Clymer Copyright © 2008 by the University Press of Kansas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Preface: "Pluck and Luck Conquered All": A Canal for the American Century

1. "In Perpetuity": Years of Dispute and Diplomacy

2. "No Constituency to Help": President Ford Negotiates

3. "What a Shot in the Arm!" Ford Upsets Reagan Despite the Canal

4. "We Bought It. We Built It. It's Ours and We Are Going to Keep It": The Canal Issue Brings Reagan's Recovery

5. "Thank God for Those People in 1976 Who Headed Off That Loss of Freedom": Reagan Loses but Wins Republican Hearts

6. "Delay Invites Violence": Carter Inherits and Seizes the Issue

7. "I Wanted to Treat Panama Fairly": Carter Underestimates American Dismay

8. "Conservatives Can't Lose": The Canal Unifies the Right

9. "Draw the Line at the Big Ditch": The Anti-Treaty Message

10. "What If They're Right?": Reagan Holding Back

11. "Why Now? And Why Me?": Howard Baker and the Treaties

12. "Be Tolerant and Patient in Bringing People Around": Byrd's Advice While in Panama

13. "A Measure of Our Strength, Not Our Weakness": The Senate Advises and Consents

14. "Come On and Watch Me Lose My Seat": Gordon Humphrey and teh New Right Sink Tom McIntyre

15. "I Haven't Found Anybody in Iowa That's for the Treaties": Roger Jepsen on the Issue That Made the Difference

16. "We Supported the Tough Conservative, the Business PAC Was Always for the Establishment": The PACmen Come

17. "A Group Like Ours Could Lie through Its Teeth and the Candidate It Helps Stays Clean": NCPAC Takes on the Incumbents

18. "ACU Could Go Out of Business by Election Day": The Canal Cuts Both Ways

19. "I Hope That It's Over as an Issue": Reagan on the Canal after Ratification

20. "They Never Wanted to See Another Panama Canal Ad": The North Carolina Senate Campaign

21. "Is Idaho Up for Grabs?": The Canal, NCPAC, and Steve Symms Defeat Frank Church

22. "Cold Water on Some of His Supporters": The Canal Finishes a Weakened Talmadge

23. "A Senate Majority Made All the Difference in the World": Canal-Elected Senators and Baker GIves Reagan a Chance to Govern

24. "We've Made a Difference": Reagan Changed the Nation, without the Canal


An Essay on Sources



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