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Panama Canal Treaties Question-and-Answer Session by Telephone With Participants in a Townhall Meeting on the Treaties in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

January 16, 1978

AUBREY LUCAS. Hello, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, I'm right here waiting for your question, and I want to congratulate you, first of all, at the University of Southern Mississippi, and also the national Foreign Policy Association, for letting this debate take place. If you have a question for me, I'd be glad to answer it.

I've just come back from the final funeral ceremonies for Senator Humphrey.

DR. LUCAS. Yes, we appreciate your talking with us this evening.

You are probably aware that we are a group of citizens gathered here on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. We've had a very interesting debate, and we now have some questions that we would like to put to you. I'll ask the question. First I'll tell you who formulated the question, and then we will ask as many as you want.

Mr. David Farber asked this question. Do you feel that the Panama Government has the strength and the ability to control and to operate the canal without being intimidated by the powers of the world?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, the answer is yes. Not only is General Torrijos a very popular leader in Panama, as has been observed by almost half the Members of the United States Senate who visited there, but just to make sure that he convinced us and the Panamanians and the rest of the world that it was not a transient commitment, just depending upon him and his personality or his present government, on his own initiative he submitted the question of ratifying the Panama Canal treaties to the people of Panama in a referendum. And as you know, by approximately a two-thirds vote, the people of Panama did approve the treaties.

This is obviously legally binding on Panama in accordance with international law, and in addition, it demonstrated to us that not just the government but the people themselves confirmed the treaty terms.

In addition to the treaty itself, General Torrijos described to the Panamanian people the memorandum of understanding between him and me, which spells out in very clear words the right of the United States during this century and in the next century to take whatever action we deem necessary to defend the canal and to guarantee its neutrality if it is endangered. Also, in that memorandum of understanding, which was spelled out to the Panamanian people, is a provision that in a time of emergency or need that ships of the United States have the right to go to the head of the line and also to be expedited in their passage through the Panama Canal itself.

So, all these terms were presented to the Government of Panama, to General Torrijos, their leader, and also to the people, who ratified these terms.

DR. LUCAS. May we give you another question?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes. That was a good question from Mr. Farber.

DR. LUCAS. This question is from Mr. Paul Herrick, and he asks, if the canal treaties are not ratified, what political consequences do you anticipate taking place in Panama?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, for the last 14 years, under four different Presidents, we've been negotiating with Panama in good faith on both sides to outline the terms of the treaties. They have never threatened us. They've negotiated in good faith. They've never insinuated that if the treaties were rejected, that there might be some danger to the canal. We've acted as best we could as a responsible negotiator. They've done the same.

As you know, after the treaties were approved by me and General Torrijos, then they were submitted to the Panamanians in a referendum. They voted for them.

I think if the Senate should fail to ratify the treaties, if they are rejected, that General Torrijos and his government would do the best they could to prevent any sort of threat to the Panama Canal.

If there is some dissident group there, a Communist group or an irresponsible group of students or some other group of Panamanians or outside agitators who tried to attack the canal, it would be my responsibility as President to defend the canal against any such threat.

We have the military strength to do it, and I would take that action. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff have estimated that it might take 100,000 American troops to defend the canal. It's quite vulnerable to a hand grenade or to a planted explosive. And of course, what we want is the Panama Canal to be open, free for use, free of danger.

The best way to ensure that this is the case is to work in harmony with the Panamanians, to form, in effect, a partnership with them, protecting the interests of America, protecting the interests of Panama.

We have outlined the terms of the treaty very clearly so that the governing board would have five Americans, four Panamanians. Our Government would appoint all nine of those members. It would be in effect for 23 years. And obviously, during that time, the Panamanians would have adequate opportunity to learn how to operate the canal. One of the great engineering characteristics of the canal and its locks is the simplicity of operation.

So, I think that if the treaties were rejected, there might be some attempt to disrupt the canal. We could reject that. We are not operating under threat or fear or weakness. We hope to operate in cooperation and partnership with Panama. We want the canal to be open and free for international use. We want ourselves to have the right to defend it if necessary.

All these things would prevail if the Panama Canal treaties are ratified. Our interests would be protected. And instead of having the constant threat of disruption by dissident groups who acted contrary to the interests of the Panamanian Government, we would be operating as partners in cooperation to make sure the canal is open, free for our use, for Panama ships' use, and for the use of the ships from all around the world. That's what we want.

DR. LUCAS. Mr. President, we are told that we have time for one more question. This one is asked by Ricky Dyson. What assurance do we have that if we sign the treaty, Panama will not become hostile toward the United States? If this happens, can we recapture and operate the canal in a state of guerrilla warfare?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, obviously, the best way to guarantee the friendship of Panama, its government and its people, is to carry out our part of the negotiating bargain in good faith and to ratify the treaties that have been agreed between us and them.

It's obvious to me that anyone who wanted to disrupt the friendship between ourselves and Panama, between ourselves and all the Latin American countries, between ourselves and the rest of the developing world, would be very much in favor of the treaties being rejected. If we reject the treaties and go back on the negotiating principles that we've espoused for the last, as I say, 14 years, this would be a good opening for outside agitating groups, the Communists from perhaps Cuba or other countries or the few Communists that might be in Panama or in our country, to take advantage of this temporary absence of harmony and go in and create dissension.

So, the best way to ensure friendship between us and Panama and the best way to ensure the advantages of ourselves and that small country as well, the best way to keep the canal open for ourselves and the use of other ships is to go ahead and ratify the treaties that we have negotiated in good faith and which the Panamanians have already ratified and also voted for in a plebiscite. That is what we ought to do. That's what we, I believe, will do.

DR. LUCAS. Mr. President, thank you for talking with us this evening, and we would be honored to have you visit us here.

THE PRESIDENT. Well, it would be a great pleasure. As you know, Mississippi has a special place in my heart. I flew back from Minneapolis just a few minutes ago with Senator Eastland, and I'll always remember the warmth with which the Mississippi people took me in during the campaign. And I'll never forget that late evening vote when I finally was elected President of the United States, and the State that put me over the top was Mississippi.

So, thanks to all my friends in Mississippi. And I believe we've got a good canal agreement negotiated, and I hope

and expect that it will be ratified.

Thank you very much.

DR. LUCAS. Good night, Mr. President.

Note: The President spoke at 8:15 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House to the meeting in Burnett Auditorium at the Southern Mississippi. Aubrey Lucas is president of the university.

The meeting in Hattiesburg was one of a series of six town hall debates held around the country as part of the "Great Decisions" program of the Foreign Policy Association.

Jimmy Carter, Panama Canal Treaties Question-and-Answer Session by Telephone With Participants in a Townhall Meeting on the Treaties in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/245595

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