The Panama Canal Treaties: Jimmy Carter

Summary:

Though both negative public opinion and Senate objection originally stood in his way, President Jimmy Carter was able to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary for Senate ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977. This month’s Presidents and the Constitution eLesson traces Carter’s approach to securing the “advice and consent” of the Senate in this controversial foreign policy issue.

Resources:

  • PBS – Debating the Panama Canal Treaty
  • YouTube – President Carter’s Statement on the Panama Canal

Narrative:

In 1903, the United States received authority to build a canal in Panama and to control the Panama Canal Zone “in perpetuity,” in exchange for annual payments to Panama. By the 1960s, Latin American resentment of U.S. power was growing. In 1977, newly elected President Jimmy Carter, fulfilling a campaign promise, set out to negotiate a new agreement with Panama. He believed that a new treaty was needed to correct what he saw as injustices.

In spite of vocal opposition from Congress and the American public, Carter negotiated two new treaties: 1. The United States would retain the right to defend the canal forever. 2. The Canal Zone would be turned over to Panama in 1979, and a transfer of the operation of the canal would be complete by 1999. Panamanian voters approved these Carter-Torrijos Treaties in a special referendum.

The U.S. Constitution empowers the President to make treaties with “the advice and consent” of the Senate. In the case of the Panama Canal Treaties, thirty-eight Senators—more than enough to prevent ratification —had expressed opposition to the new agreements. Public opinion was also against the Treaties.

The President sent a task force across the country to make over 1500 presentations about the Treaties’ benefits. In a binder on his desk, Carter’s team kept track of conversations, rumors, and questions from Senators regarding the Treaties, quickly following up on each entry to win converts. Throughout the long Senate debate, Carter personally tracked the progress of the Treaties, talking daily with Senators, answering questions and agreeing to various Senate modifications to save the Treaties.

After three months of Senate debate in the spring of 1978, the Senate approved new Treaties governing the Panama Canal with one vote to spare: sixty-eight for—thirty-two against. Through personal attention, patience, and his willingness to make adjustments in the agreement, Carter had built support for them.

In 1999, during the Bill Clinton administration, the gradual shift of authority for the canal was complete. Former President Jimmy Carter led the U.S. delegation in the ceremony marking the handoff. Carter considers the Panama Treaties among the most important achievements of his Presidency.

Questions:

  1. What two treaties did President Carter negotiate with Panama regarding the Panama Canal Zone?
  2. How did Carter work to increase public support for the Treaties? Why do you think this was important to Carter?
  3. How did Carter work for the “advice and consent” of the Senate?
  4. How would you assess Carter’s approach to public opinion as well as to the Senate?

Extension:

Have students read the 1977 Time Magazine feature about the Panama Canal Treaties. What were the most persuasive arguments on each side regarding the Treaties? After reading about the controversy, how would students assess Carter’s actions with respect to Panama and working for ratification of the Treaties?