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.

And yet, despite a two-year media barrage, massive fundraising campaign, and the palpable opposition of the American people, treaty proponents scraped together the necessary votes for ratification. But the New Right had only just begun to fight, organizing to oppose pro-treaty senators. In New Jersey former Reagan aide Jeffrey Bell knocked off the old guard GOP senator Clifford Case in a primary, while in New Hampshire an unknown airline pilot and anti-treaty organizer, Gordon Humphrey, beat the incumbent senator Thomas McIntyre almost exclusively over the Panama Canal.

All across the country the New Right ran largely against Democratic luminaries rather than for their Republican rivals, and although these campaigns often came down to a lot more than the treaty, Panama was an undercurrent in almost every close race in the 1978 and '80 cycles--where the GOP picked up 15 seats.

This is a valuable book about an issue that has been largely ignored by historians, but which contributed immensely to conservative political success. And Clymer's wealth of interviews and insider knowledge--including, I should disclose, my own research material on the subject--makes Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch indispensable to any student of modern political history.

To be sure, readers should be wary of the lessons Clymer draws from this episode: Although he strives to be fair-minded, his bias occasionally peeks through as he blames the "divisiveness" of modern politics on the tactics and rhetoric conservatives first used to great effect in the treaty fight. But the legacy of that fight is this: Being too far out of touch with the concerns of average Americans can cost elected representatives their seats--as a number of Democrats and liberal Republicans learned firsthand. (Indeed, the issue was still so toxic 20 years later that neither Bill Clinton nor his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, attended the formal handover of the Canal.) Still, Clymer's bias is minimal, and he is "old school" in the sense that, while his politics may be of some particular persuasion, it almost never infected his prodigious and impressive writing for the Times. And as he illustrates here, the status of a small strip of land in Central America helped to propel Ronald Reagan into the White House with a Republican Senate and, as a result, transformed our country. In fitting paradox, conservatives won by losing.

Craig Shirley, president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, is the author, most recently, of Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America.

Next Page