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Remarks on the Decision To Build a Sea Level Canal and To Negotiate a New Treaty With Panama

December 18, 1964

This government has completed an intensive review of policy toward the present and the future of the Panama Canal. On the basis of this review I have reached two decisions.

First, I have decided that the United States should press forward with Panama and other interested governments, in plans and preparations for a sea level canal in this area.

Second, I have decided to propose to the Government of Panama the negotiation of an entirely new treaty on the existing Panama Canal.

These decisions reflect the unanimous judgment of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are based on the recommendations of Ambassador Robert Anderson, Secretary Stephen Ailes, Secretary Thomas Mann, and our Ambassador in Panama, Ambassador Jack Vaughn. They have the full support of Mr. Truman and General Eisenhower. They have been reported to, and in most instances sympathetically received by the leadership of the Congress.

These two steps I think are needed now-needed for the protection and the promotion of peaceful trade, for the welfare of the hemisphere-in the true interests of the United States and in fairness and justice to all.

For 50 years the Panama Canal has carried ships of all nations in peaceful trade between the two great oceans--on terms of entire equality and at no profit to this country. The canal has also served the cause of peace and freedom in two world wars. It has brought great economic contributions to Panama. For the rest of its life the canal will continue to serve trade, and peace, and the people of Panama.

But that life is now limited. The canal is growing old, and so are the treaties for its management, which go back to 1903.

The Panama Canal, with its limiting locks and channels, will soon be inadequate to the needs of our world commerce. Already more than 300 ships built or building are too big to go through with full loads. Many of them--like our own modern aircraft carriers--cannot even go through at all.

So I think it is time to plan in earnest for a sea level canal. Such a canal will be more modern, more economical, and will be far easier to defend. It will be free of complex, costly, vulnerable locks and seaways. It will serve the future as the Panama Canal we know has served the past and the present.

The Congress has already authorized $17 million for studies of possible sites and of the other practical problems of a sea level canal. There seem to be four possible routes--two in Panama, one in Colombia, and one which goes through Nicaragua and possibly Costa Rica as well.

I have asked the Secretary of State to begin discussions immediately with all the governments concerned with these possible new routes. In these discussions we will be prepared to work on the terms and the conditions of building and operating a new canal, and if preliminary arrangements can be reached, we will be ready to go ahead with selected site surveys.

Last January there was violence in Panama. As I said then, "Violence is never justified and is never a basis for talks."

But while the people of the United States have never made concessions to force, they have always supported fair play and full respect for the rights of others. So from the very first day, as your President, I made it clear that we were ready to sit down and to seek answers, to reason together and to try to find the answers that would be just, fair, and right, without precondition or without precommitment on either side.

On that basis, relations between our two countries were resumed in April, and on that basis I chose Mr. Robert Anderson, the distinguished former Secretary of the Treasury under President Eisenhower, to be my special Ambassador on this problem. Since then Ambassador Anderson has been working with the American Ambassador, Mr. Vaughn, with the Secretary of the Army, Mr. Ailes, and with Secretary Mann of the State Department. They have recommended that we should propose a new treaty for the existing canal. After careful review with my senior advisers, I have accepted this recommendation.

Today we have informed the Government of Panama that we are ready to negotiate a new treaty. In such a treaty we must retain the rights which are necessary for the effective operation and the protection of the canal, and the administration of the areas that are necessary for these purposes. Such a treaty would replace the treaty of 1903 and its amendments. It should recognize the sovereignty of Panama. It should provide for its own termination when a sea level canal comes into operation. It should provide for effective discharge of our common responsibilities for hemispheric defense. Until a new agreement is reached, of course, the present treaties will remain in effect.

In these new proposals we will take every possible step to deal fairly and helpfully with the citizens of both Panama and the United States who have served so faithfully through the years in operating and maintaining the canal.

These changes are necessary not because of failure but because of success; not because of backwardness but because of progress. The age before us is an age of larger, faster ships. It is an age of friendly partnership among the nations concerned with the traffic between the oceans. This new age requires new arrangements.

The strength of our American system is that we have always tried to understand and meet the needs of the future. We have been at our best when we have been both bold and prudent in moving forward. The planning of a new canal and the negotiation of a new treaty are just such bold and prudent steps. So let us today in friendship take them together.

Note: The President spoke at 4:45 p.m. in the Theater at the White House. He approved the bill providing for the site studies on September 22, 1964 (Public Law 88-609, 78 Stat. 990).

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks on the Decision To Build a Sea Level Canal and To Negotiate a New Treaty With Panama Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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