Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) Thirty-seven years ago today, September 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter of the United States of America and President Omar Torrijos* of the Republic of Panama signed treaties which resulted in the turnover of the Panama Canal to the Republic of Panama.
By the Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal, the United States retained the permanent right to defend the Canal from any threat that would compromise its service to all nations while the Panama Canal Treaty provided that at noon, December 31, 1999, Panama would assume full control of Canal operations and become primarily responsible for its defenses.
The Panama Canal Treaty sparked intense controversy in the United States Senate and the public "overwhelmingly opposed" it.
Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina said...
"The canal is ours. We bought it and we paid for it and we should keep it."
According to www.senate.gov...
"Gaining (Senate) consent was truly a daunting task. Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) called it his 'trial by fire,' and acknowledged that success came only with the able assistance of the minority leader Howard Baker (R-Tennessee)."
In the vote for ratification on both treaties, 52 Democrats and 16 Republicans voted in favor on March 16, 1978.
The Panama Canal Treaty ended the 1904 Hay-Bunau Treaty negotiated during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. The Panama Canal Zone ceased to exist as of October 1, 1979.
Opponents of the treaty argued that two-thirds of the ships moving through the Canal either originated in or were destined for the United States.
California congressman Dana Rohrabacher argued that Panama did not have an army and said its navy was incapable of protecting its own territory much less the Canal.
While Robert Byrd was impressed with Howard Baker's "courage," in leading negotiations on the ratification of the treaty in the Senate, the Tennessee senator was well aware of the political risks as well as the criticism he would receive.
At a teacher workshop at Howard Baker Center for Public Policy on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville we were shown a video review of the highlights of the Senator's life and career. I was sitting next to the Senator when the video malfunctioned precisely after the Panama Canal Treaty had been discussed.
Senator Baker turned to me and said...
"They would have to stop it here!"
*Omar Torrijos (1929-1981) although not officially President of Panama, he was the "defacto dictator" of the country from 1968 until his death. He was killed when his airplane crashed near Penonone, Panama on July 31, 1981.
"Senate Leaders and the Panama Canal Treaties," www.senate.gov
"The Financial and Commercial Impact of the Panama Canal Treaty," House of Representatives Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy, December 7, 1999.