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Our treaties, ourselves: the struggle over the Panama Canal

By Natasha Zaretsky

In March 1978, Ada Smith, a fifty-six-year old woman from Memphis, sat down at her typewriter and wrote an angry letter to Tennessee’s Republican Senator Howard Baker. She explained that until recently, she had always been proud of her country, and “its superiority in the world.” But now her pride had turned to fear: “After coming through that great fiasco Vietnam, which cost us billions in dollars and much more in American blood, we are now faced with another act of stupidity, which, in the years to come, could be even more costly. Why should we Americans give up our sons, husbands, and brothers, to fight for land that does not even belong to us, and then sit quietly by, and let you, whom we chose to represent us, give away something as important as the Panama Canal?”

Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos shake hands after signing the Panama Canal Treaty, 7 September 1977. National Archives and Records Administration.

For a brief moment in the late 1970s, thousands of Americans became fixated on a place that most of them had never seen: the Panama Canal. In 1903, the ratification of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty (which took place one hundred and ten years ago last month) had given the United States exclusive jurisdiction over the yet-to-be-constructed Canal and the ten mile wide zone that surrounded it. In the years that followed, the Canal quickly emerged as a potent symbol of American military, economic, and political ascendancy on the world stage. It enabled the traversal of two oceans with one navy, opened trade routes to the global South and East, and constituted a feat of modern engineering. By the 1970s, however, U.S. policymakers had grown convinced that the 1903 treaty was an outdated imperial relic that no longer served the national interest. When he was elected president in 1976, Jimmy Carter placed the negotiation of a new Panama Canal Treaty at the center of a post-Vietnam U.S. foreign policy that would rely less on military force and more on consent, with the aim of restoring the nation’s damaged moral authority in the wake of military defeat. In April 1978, the Carter Administration appeared to get what it wanted: the Senate ratified a new treaty that ensured the gradual assumption by Panama of the management, operation, and control of the Canal.

The famous Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal, 1907.

It is not surprising that Carter’s victory incensed some politicians, who saw no need to “give away” what they believed to be a vital possession. But how do we explain the angry response of citizens like Ada Smith, who lived thousands of miles from the Canal and had no direct familial or economic ties to it? Why did she become so distressed when she thought about the replacement of one treaty with another? More broadly, how do particular places outside of the United States—whether nations, territories, cities, or built environments–become sites of emotional and psychological investment for Americans? As a cultural historian who has studied the increasingly polarized politics of the 1970s, I have long understood why some issues that surfaced during that era—like abortion, women’s rights, and gay liberation—struck such a deep chord that they compelled once apolitical people to engage in New Right grassroots organizing for the first time in their lives. But I was intrigued when I discovered that an ostensibly rarified foreign policy issue could have a similarly galvanizing effect. Yet it had: treaty opponents engaged in letter-writing campaigns, held political rallies, and raised money to buy radio time to air their opposition. And after the new treaty was ratified, conservative voters threatened moderate Republicans who had supported the treaty with political extinction. The threat was not hollow. In the elections of 1978 and 1980, eighteen pro-treaty senators (along with President Carter) went down in defeat. As New Right operative Richard Viguerie explained it, the canal fight had created a “voting map”; conservative voters could go to the polls, look for a pro-treaty candidate’s name on the ballot, and vote against him.

USS Missouri (BB-63) in the Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, 13 October 1945, while en route from the Pacific to New York City to take part in Navy Day celebrations. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

The many letters, pamphlets, and position papers written by its opponents reveal that the treaty served as a proxy for a larger debate about the nation’s global position in the wake of Vietnam. While figures like Carter saw in the treaty a chance for the United States to replace the overt domination associated with empire with a more benign managerial role in its dealings with weaker states, critics perceived the treaties as symptomatic of the paralysis, confusion, and weakness that they believed had gripped policymakers after the failed intervention in Southeast Asia. In other words, they saw in the treaties a larger post-Vietnam pattern of defeatism and surrender, what one anti-treaty critic described as “the cowardly retreat of a tired, toothless paper tiger.” For the many men and women who were carving out a political space for themselves within the burgeoning New Right, this perception of weakness in the foreign policy realm was not unrelated to domestic fights over abortion, feminism, and homosexuality. Indeed, this weakness was seen as an extension of the moral decline they perceived in the realms of heterosexual marriage, gender relations, and the family. Treaty critics routinely portrayed Carter as effeminized and weak and contrasted him to Teddy Roosevelt, the president who had taken control of the Canal in 1903 and who in their view embodied the manliness and fortitude that had now gone missing from U.S. foreign policy.

One hundred and ten years after the signing of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty and thirty five years after the bitter fight over the treaty that replaced it, the struggle over the Canal reminds us that while scholars may draw tidy lines of demarcation between the “foreign” and the “domestic,” citizens themselves inhabit a political universe that is considerably messier, one in which the seemingly distinct worlds of policy-making and private life intersect. Thus when Americans become ideologically invested in a particular place beyond the boundaries of the nation (as they did in the Canal both in the early twentieth century and in the late 1970s), the answer to the question of “why” will almost certainly reside closer to home.

Natasha Zaretsky is an Associate Professor of History at Southern Illinois University. She is the author of “Restraint or Retreat? The Debate over the Panama Canal Treaties and U.S. Nationalism after Vietnam” in Diplomatic History, which is available to read for free for a limited time. She is the author of No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968-1980, which was published by The University of North Carolina Press in 2007. Her writings have also appeared in The New Republic (on-line edition), Diplomatic History, Race, Nation, and Empire in American History (The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), and The World the Sixties Made (Temple University Press, 2003). Along with Mark Lawrence, she is the co-editor of the fourth edition of Major Problems in American History Since 1945 (forthcoming from Cengage-Wadsworth) and is currently working on a cultural history of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. In 2009, she was named a Top Young Historian by the History News Network.

As the principal journal devoted to the history of US diplomacy, foreign relations, and security issues, Diplomatic History examines issues from the colonial period to the present in a global and comparative context. The journal offers a variety of perspectives on the economic, strategic, cultural, racial, and ideological aspects of the United States in the world.

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Recent Comments

  1. Alfonso Preciado

    Excellent piece, although it appears somewhat inconclusive. It would have been interesting for the author to include some of the dynamics of the canal zone, its colonial type structure and its relationship with panamanians, and then to contrast that with the successful takeover of the canal by Panama and the coming of age of this small country. Perhaps Jimmy Carter was more right than most americans would ever know.

  2. derald steinbrecher

    I have always said this President Carter’s big mistake…

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