The Magazine

A Man, A Plan ...

The unintended consequences of giving up the Panama Canal.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By CRAIG SHIRLEY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch

The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right

by Adam Clymer

Kansas, 286 pp., $29.95

Thirty years ago oil was at historic highs, gold prices peaked, and America's name was mud--plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Then, the major league fight over the Panama Canal treaties pitted a liberal American establishment resigned to declining American greatness against an upstart New Right struggling to find its political and philosophical footing while battling the complacent elements of what was left of the Grand Old Party.

The two Canal treaties--the first to guarantee the neutrality of the canal through American force of arms, the second to cede control of the canal to Panama over time--represented a perfect political storm for the right, argues the longtime New York Times reporter Adam Clymer in Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch. Ordinary Americans believed that kowtowing to the Panamanian military dictator, Omar Torrijos, would only further weaken America's position in the world. Clymer makes the convincing case that the Panama Canal Treaties fight represents a watershed moment for the conservative movement, where it sharpened its tactics and vaulted itself into power.

When Theodore Roosevelt committed himself to doing what Europe's greatest empires had failed to accomplish--building a canal across the isthmus of Panama--he was signaling to the world that America's time had come. When Jimmy Carter (and all four of his immediate predecessors) agreed to cede that feat of American engineering and will to (in Ronald Reagan's words) "a tinhorn dictator," it seemed to many that Carter was signaling that America's time had gone. And in circles on the New Right, this unconditional surrender of American power and prestige could not be allowed.

In 1976, two years before the treaties went to the Senate for ratification, the struggling GOP candidate Reagan struck a nerve with his opposition to the treaties in the primaries. "We built it! We paid for it! It's ours and we're gonna keep it!" he thundered in speech after speech--and the issue catapulted him to within a whisker of wresting the Republican nomination from the sitting president, Gerald Ford. Even candidate Jimmy Carter took Ford to task for his plan to "give up complete control .  .  . in the Panama Canal Zone."

Clymer explains that Carter's reversal came after Henry Kissinger and Sol Linowitz, Carter's point man on Latin America, advised him that further delays in the treaty would cause irreparable harm to U.S.-Latin American
relations, with Mexico even willing to dispatch troops to Panama's aid in the event of conflict. Panama's leaders frequently implied that the situation would either resolve itself peacefully (in Panama's favor) or violently. One of the most vocal extortionists, Manuel Noriega, an aide to Torrijos, briefed visiting U.S. senators on the "vulnerability" of the canal to a coordinated sabotage campaign.

After Carter took office, the treaty fight began in earnest as Carter, with the aid of establishment fixtures such as Kissinger and Ford, twisted senators' arms to reach the 67-vote threshold for ratification. Conservative organizations, including the American Conservative Union led by Rep. Philip Crane, and individuals such as
Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich, joined forces to lean on soft treaty votes. "Truth Squads" toured the country to gin up opposition to the "giveaway" of the Panama Canal.

But the Right was not unified in its opposition. When Ronald Reagan signed an anti-treaty fundraising letter that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Republican National Committee, RNC chairman William Brock refused to back the truth squads financially. Even William F. Buckley Jr. and cowboy icon John Wayne lined up for the treaties (Wayne and Torrijos were fishing buddies).

One of the signal innovations to come out of the treaty fight was the infomercial. Instead of selling kitchen knives to insomniacs, the American Conservative Union sold information and righteous indignation in 30-minute doses to nine million-plus television viewers. According to the broadcasts, Carter and his allies were conspiring to give away "the American canal in Panama" to Soviet-friendly, Cuba-coddling tyrants.

As Clymer notes, hyperbole was not new to American politics, but delivering it in such a palatable and accessible way certainly was.