On April 18, 1978, sixty-eight U. S. Senators risked political suicide by voting for final approval of the highly controversial Panama Canal treaties. Four decades later and at a time of increased stridency in the conduct of American foreign policy, the ramifications of this relinquishment of U.S. control over the vital waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans can be assessed with the advantage of greater hindsight.
President Lyndon Johnson began negotiations with Panama to turn over the Canal to the host country. His successors Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford would continue the negotiations. The three presidents feared that the world regarded U.S. ownership as a form of anachronistic colonialism, and that America’s continued hold over the Canal was undermining relations within the Western Hemisphere. They also recognized that the commercial and strategic value of the traffic through the Canal had declined over the years and that violent protests in Panama might require U.S. military intervention.
These early efforts failed to produce a signed treaty. U.S. insistence on total access to the Canal clashed with rising Panamanian nationalism. The capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese army in April of 1975 further complicated matters by stoking fears that withdrawal from Panama might be part of a global loss of American influence.
Campaigning for the 1976 Republican nomination for president, Ronald Reagan lambasted the Ford administration for negotiating over the Canal, calling it an example of “placating potential adversaries” and “reluctance to assert our national interests in international relations.” On the stump, he often repeated his mantra: “We bought [the Canal]. We paid for it. It’s ours, and we aren’t going to turn it over to some tinhorn dictator.” He fell just short of upsetting Ford for the party nod, but his attacks on the negotiations had invigorated his late-surging campaign.
After defeating Ford in the general election, Jimmy Carter decided to make a treaty with Panama an early priority of his presidency. Carter was well aware of the challenges of convincing the American public that such action was warranted. As an added complication, more than enough senators than were needed to block approval had already announced that they would oppose giving up the Canal.
The former Georgia governor negotiated a treaty, signed in September of 1977, that turned over control of the Canal to Panama, with the provision that the transition would not be completed until the end of the century. A second treaty provided for the neutrality of Canal operations under Panamanian management and unfettered access for Americans ships.
With constituent mail and public opinion polls revealing widespread opposition to the treaties, lining up the two-thirds of senators needed for approval proved a formidable task. After intense lobbying and last-minute horse trading, Carter secured passage with just one vote to spare. The next day, he wrote each supporter to praise them for their “statesmanship and political courage” on an “important issue fraught with so much potential political sacrifice.”
For Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, Republican of Tennessee, the decision posed a major threat to his ambitions for higher office, with one staffer warning that it “lends a chilling quality to the ‘Would you rather be right than President’ cliché.” Baker not only voted for the treaties but helped line up some of the fifteen other GOP votes critical to their passage.
On the Democratic side, Frank Church of Idaho helped lead the effort to approve the treaties, arguing that the United States needed to adapt to current realities rather than cling nostalgically to the days of global empires. Like other senators with rural constituents, he drew major flak from voters in his home state.
As former New York Times reporter Adam Clymer chronicled in his book “Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch,” there was a symbiotic relationship between public angst at the turning over of a major symbol of American power and the rise of new organizations on the right stirring up opposition to senators supportive of the treaties while building up their mailing lists for battles on other hot-button issues. One group -- the National Conservative Political Action Committee founded in 1975 by Charles Back, Roger Stone, and Terry Dolan -- used targeted ad campaigns around the country to blame treaty supporters for “giving away” the Canal.
Forty-five of the senators who supported the Canal treaties were up for re-election in 1978 and 1980. Most did not make it back. Eight of them retired. Then, in a stunning rejection of incumbents, 20 of the 37 who did run for re-election lost their seats. Clymer shows that in many of these races, the Canal vote was a fringe factor, if any factor at all. But in other states, it was a major wedge issue and helped bring down some of the titans of the Senate (including Church). Baker held his senate seat in 1978 but entered the 1980 presidential contest in weakened condition and made an early exit. Looking back in a 2010 forum with Baker at the Carter Presidential Library, Carter called Senate action on the Panama Canal, “the most courageous vote in the history of the U.S. Congress.”
Over the years, the specter of an America in decline because of the loss of Canal has failed to materialize. The transition to Panamanian control of the Canal ran smoothly and, at the very least, negated the need for American troops to protect it. It also enhanced U.S. stature in the Western Hemisphere. Communists and other anti-American forces lost one of their most effective arguments and, for a good time, democratic institutions were on the rise.
It would have been hard to imagine in 1978 how much the commercial operations of the Canal would improve under Panamanian management. Removal of the major source of controversy created a more stable environment for long-term investments to upgrade infrastructure. New financing spurred construction of wider locks, completed in 2016, that allowed passage of larger ships with bigger cargoes. American businesses are among the beneficiaries of the increased efficiency in transportation.
The peaceful resolution of a dispute that could have led to armed conflict in Panama, and the later commercial advantages of transferring ownership of the Canal, could not have been achieved without several key ingredients. Carter and Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos had to defend the vital interests of their countries, while at the same time avoiding extreme nationalistic rhetoric that might inflame the other side. It was a delicate dance but necessary to achieve benefits for each side. In the Senate, many members had to look beyond the short-term electoral calendar to the long-term impacts on national security and the economy of a deal that would not be consummated until 1999. Skilled negotiations and political courage, as it turned out, produced a diplomatic achievement that has met the test of time.
Jay Hakes is a historian who specializes in energy policy and the American presidency. From 2010 to 2013, he served as director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta. The views expressed are the author's own.