Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

« The Panama Canal Treaties

Background Information For Teachers

The following chronology gives some background about the Panama Canal Treaty of 1903 and the subsequent building of the Canal.

At great political risk, President Carter countered decades of "ugly Americanism" by negotiating treaties with Panama for the return of the Canal and then by steering those treaties through the Senate ratification process.


EARLY EFFORTS. Clayton-Bulwar Treaty of 1850. United States and Great Britain agree to joint control of a canal to be built across Central America.

PANAMA ROAD. Isthmus of Panama becomes important transportation route to California during Gold Rush of 1840's. New York businessmen receive permission from Colombia to build railroad connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans at the isthmus.

FRENCH FAILURE. French company under Ferdinand de Lesseps buys franchise to build a sea-level canal across Panama. Inadequate tools and machinery, tropical diseases, and corruption lead to bankruptcy of the company in 1889.

HAY-BUNAU-VARILLA TREATY OF 1903. United States encouraged to take initiative to build a canal following battleship Oregon's 13,000 mile trip from the west coast around South America during Spanish-American War. In 1899 Congress authorizes a commission to study and survey canal routes. In 1902 Theodore Roosevelt is authorized to purchase canal property and rights from the French. United States Congress offers $10,000,000.00 to Colombia for the right to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Colombian government refuses offer. Because the United States, France, and the Panamanians are afraid that the agreement will not be approved, Panama (with the encouragement and assistance of the U.S.) successfully revolts against Colombia. The U.S. signs the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (1903), an agreement with Panama, which gives the U.S. exclusive control of a ten-mile wide canal zone in exchange for $10,000,000.00 as an initial payment and an annual payment of $250,000.00.

VICTORY OVER DISEASE. Led by Dr. William C. Gorgas, the battle against malaria and yellow fever is won, making possible the completion of the canal. Before this, the high death toll, among workers slowed work on the canal.

CONSTRUCTION OF CANAL, 1906-1914. The United States chooses to build a lock-type canal because of mountainous conditions instead of the French plan of a sea-level canal. (A sea-level canal is cheaper and easier to build.) The canal is completed in 1914 and the first vessel, the S.S. Ancon, makes the transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

MORE RECENT DEVELOPMENTS. The canal treaty is renewed in 1939, 1951, and 1955, and annual payments are increased to $1,930,000.00. Administrative changes are made in operation of the canal and the Canal Zone. The United States agrees to pay Panamanian workers the same pay that American workers received for the same work. Unrest in Panama over United States presence causes riots in 1959 and 1964. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson and Panamanian President Marco Robles conclude three years of work with agreements addressing Panamanian concerns. However, these agreements are not submitted for ratification because of intense U.S. congressional opposition. Robles' support of the agreement leads to his eventual ouster as president. His successor, Arnulfo Arias renounces the terms of all agreements.

RENEGOTIATION OF TREATY DURING CARTER ADMINISTRATION. On April 18, 1978, the United States Senate ratifies the second of two Panama Canal Treaties which will eventually turn over to Panama the control and operation of the Canal in the year 2000. Negotiations were undertaken in the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations to sign a new treaty with Panama, but because of intense opposition from Congress, the ratification of such a treaty is impossible. Growing unrest among Panamanians about America's presence in Panama, and the threat of this unrest to the very existence of the Canal, forces President Carter, upon his election, to resume negotiations with Panama for a new treaty in spite of strong opposition throughout the country. The documents in this packet show how the treaties are finally ratified.

Panama Canal negotiations were discussed by President-elect Carter and his advisors as a top priority for his administration. He felt that tensions in the area would surely explode without some serious changes to the existing Panama Canal Treaty.

The first Presidential Review Memorandum of June 21, 1977 from the National Security Council was on the topic of renegotiating the Panama Canal Treaty. The President writes, "My very first Presidential Review Memorandum (PRM 1) addressed the Panama Canal problem. During the early months of 1977, our negotiators were hard at work, consulting with me and trying to protect our national interests while dealing in good faith with their Panamanian counterparts." (Jimmy Carter in Keeping Faith: Memoirs of the President p. 157.)

After many discussions between Panamanian and U.S. negotiators, an agreement was reached. The Panama Canal Treaties were signed by President Carter and General Torrijos of Panama in the Hall of the Americas at the Pan American Union Building in Washington on September 7, 1977. [The terms of the Panama Canal Treaty and the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal are provided in this packet. Most of the documents included in the packet deal with Senate ratification of the Neutrality Treaty. The portion that caused so much anguish was the provision that "the U.S. does not have the right to intervene in the internal affairs of Panama."]

Anti-treaty groups countered the President's push for Senate ratification with a strong public relations campaign. Senate opponents of the treaties accused the President of giving away the Canal.

Senate debate on the treaties produced a flood of "killer" amendments, including one that would have allowed the U.S. to intervene militarily in Panama's internal affairs. This amendment would have violated the United Nations charter principle of non-intervention and its inclusion would have caused the death of both Canal treaties.

Treaty ratification by the Senate requires a 2/3 vote- 67 Senators. President Carter and his staff kept very close count of the senators and their positions regarding the treaties. President Carter writes, "I kept a large private notebook on my desk, with a section for each senator. There I would enter every report or rumor about how the undecided ones might be inclined. If anyone on my staff knew of a question a senator had asked, we got the answer for him. If key advisers or supporters of a senator were known to oppose the treaties, we worked to convert them. I shared these responsibilities personally with my congressional liaison team, and worked on the task with all my influence and ability." (Jimmy Carter in Keeping Faith: Memoirs Of A President p. 164.)

The first treaty debated, the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal (called the Neutrality Treaty), passed the Senate on March 16, 1978 by a one-vote margin (68 for; 32 against). President Carter recalls, "The Senate had been debating the treaty for twenty-two days and everyone- whether friend or foe- was ready for the verdict.

I listened to the final vote in my little private office, checking off each senator against the tally sheet where I had listed his or her commitment. I had never been more tense in my life as we listened to each vote shouted on the radio. My assistants and I had not missed one in our count; there were no surprises. I thanked God when we got the sixty-seventh vote. It will always be one of my proudest moments, and one of the great achievements in the history of the United States Senate." (Jimmy Carter's account of March 16, 1978, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President p. 173.)

The final congressional battle on this issue took place in the U.S. House of Representatives. The House had to pass the laws to carry out the treaties. Instead of 100 Senators, there were 535 U.S. Congressmen involved. It was not until September 27, 1979, three days before the Panama Canal Treaty became effective, that a bill was brought to the President for signature.

The President, his staff, and the Congress dealt with many issues and problems of government at the same time. President Carter recalls that a few days before the vote on the Neutrality Treaty, he found it hard to keep his mind on anything except Panama. He writes, "It was remarkable how many different things I had to work on during these last few days: a very serious nationwide coal strike, energy legislation, my upcoming trip to Latin America and Africa, a burgeoning crisis between Israel and Egypt plus an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the United Nations Disarmament Conference, the midwinter Governors Conference, final approval of our complete urban program, a forthcoming trip by Brzezinski to China to work on normalization, war in the Horn of Africa, our proposals to prevent bankruptcy in New York City, negotiations with the British on air-transport agreements, a state visit by President Tito of Yugoslavia, final stages of the SALT negotiations, the Civil Service reform bill, the coming state visit of Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda of Japan, a decision about whether General Alexander Haig would stay on at NATO, F-15 airplane sales to Saudi Arabia, a visit by Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and preparations for an early visit by Prime Minister Begin, and a major defense speech at Wake Forest the day after the treaty vote." (Jimmy Carter in Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President p.171.)

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Last modified: September 24, 2020