New Book Finds Panama Canal Fight Critical to Conservative Success

“We built it. We paid for, it’s ours and we’re going to keep it.” No sooner had Ronald Reagan uttered those words in a speech in early 1975 than it became a conservative movement rallying cry. As author Adam Clymer, long a leading reporter for the New York Times puts it: “From the mid-70s to the early 80s, the Canal question, consistent with, but hardly central to, conservative concerns, revitalized a right that had grown sullen with the presidencies of Nixon and Ford. The Canal issue kept Reagan’s insurgent 1976 candidacy alive, leaving him a victor in narrow defeat, poised for victory in 1980.” Clymer, now retired from the Times, covered the events of the Canal fight at the time and now recounts the story thoroughly and well in this new book.

Four successive administrations, beginning with Lyndon Johnson’s in 1964, had been very quietly—not quite secretly, but close to it—renegotiating the treaty that had given us the rights to the Canal Zone and the ability to build the engineering marvel that had captured the world’s imagination. The treaty, originally made between Philip Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer who led a group of Panamanian rebels in their effort to split Panama away from Colombia, and John Hay, then the U.S. secretary of State. The treaty gave us the Canal Zone “in perpetuity” and the right to act “as if sovereign” there. As the years went on, Panamanians chafed at what they saw was an unequal treaty. The good life in the Canal Zone contrasted sharply with that of many Panamanians. Riots erupted in the Eisenhower years. Threats of violence, even sabotage, continued. Hence, the negotiations.
By the time Reagan first learned about this, in late 1974, the elected government of Panama had been overthrown by strongman Omar Torrijos, whom Reagan later called a “tinhorn dictator.”

With the Vietnam War in its last ugly throes and Soviet expansionism on the march in several parts of the world, the Canal was a symbol of American success and the idea of giving it away struck Reagan as supremely unwise. He saw it as a national security issue, but he quickly realized its potent symbolism to a large number of Americans.

He studied the history of the Canal closely and conferred with many people. He kept coming back to the same conclusion: We had to keep it. The Ford Administration, on the other hand, continued the negotiations, but as quietly as possible in an election year. After Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter, the new administration accelerated the talks. In the Spring of 1977, Sol Linowitz, one of the two lead negotiators called on the Reagans. They were impressed by his earnestness. That summer, when the negotiations for the new treaties (there were two) were concluded, Linowitz, with his counterpart, Ellsworth Bunker, called on Reagan to brief him, in the hope he might support the treaties. This writer was with him at both the meetings. After the last one, as the door closed behind the visitors, Reagan said, “What if they’re right?

Nevertheless, by coincidence, he was scheduled to speak that night to the Young Americans for Freedom, gathered in New York for their annual conference. He announced to his audience that he would oppose the treaties for reasons of national security, but he did not thunder against it and his tone that evening presaged a new, quieter Reagan approach. Many in the press were asking if he were going to “lead the charge” against the treaties as they moved to the Senate for ratification. Instead, he calmly testified before a Senate subcommittee, wrote a “learned” article in a foreign affairs quarterly and otherwise answered questions when asked. Leadership of the battle became his friend Sen. Paul Laxalt’s.

Reagan’s original statement about the Canal became a rallying cry for conservative activists. The battle was led by the American Conservative Union, which had provided important advertising at critical moments in Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign. ACU went on to mount a vigorous, multi-faceted campaign, including TV spot ads in critical states, to pressure senators to vote against the treaties. By fall 1978, it had attracted 325,000 paying members.

Other conservative groups added to the effort and some became dominant in spending against six liberal Democratic senators in the 1980 campaign. The National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) and the National Congressional Club led the spending in that election cycle, which succeeded in its goal of toppling the six incumbents, including Frank Church of Idaho who, more than any other member of Congress had nearly emasculated the CIA’s ability to gather on-the-ground intelligence.

When the treaties were narrowly passed in April 1978, Reagan was in Tokyo. Shortly after he learned about it, he was scheduled to be interviewed by a U.S. television network by satellite. He was more than a little disappointed in the outcome, but stepping from his automobile to face the camera he said, more out of sorrow than anger, “The Senate has voted and we’ll just have to hope they are right.”

Clymer concludes that several elements of today’s politics got their start in the heat of the Canal debate: attack ads: a single-issue focus by a large group of voters and independent expenditure campaigns.

By the time of the turnover of the Canal to Panama in December 1999, the Clinton Administration was so indifferent that it sent only low-level representatives to the ceremony.

The story, however, has a happy ending. The Panama Canal Authority, under Panamanian leadership, has managed the Canal efficiently and has upgraded facilities. Last year, the people of Panama passed a referendum to build a new, third lock which will accommodate the world’s largest ships, including U.S. aircraft carriers.