Panama Canal Treaties 33 Stat. 2234 (1903) TIAS 10030 (1977)

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PANAMA CANAL TREATIES 33 Stat. 2234 (1903) TIAS 10030 (1977)

At the turn of the twentieth century the United States emerged as a major power in world politics. Central to that major-power status were America's merchant shipping and the navy that protected it. The disadvantage of being a continental power with shores on two oceans became obvious during the Spanish American War when redeployment of warships from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, by way of Cape Horn, took two months to complete. The United States government determined to construct a canal across Central America through the Isthmus of Panama. The United States negotiated a treaty with Colombia, in which the isthmus was located, but that treaty was rejected by the Colombian Senate in August 1903.

In November 1903, with American encouragement, Panama declared its independence from Colombia; two weeks later Panama signed a treaty (sometimes called the Hay-Bunau Treaty) permitting the United States to build the Panama Canal. The United States Senate gave its advice and consent to ratification of the treaty the following February.

In the treaty the United States undertook to defend both the canal and the Republic of Panama and to make nominal annual payments to Panama from the revenue of the canal. The treaty gave the United States permanent control "as if it were sovereign" over the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of land ten miles wide dividing the republic—which retained nominal sovereignty over the zone—in two. For nearly three-quarters of a century the Canal Zone was governed as an American territory. When President lyndon b. johnson made (mostly symbolic) concessions to Panama following civil unrest there in the 1960s, members of Congress accused him of usurping Congress's exclusive power over the territories.

Negotiations between four successive administrations and the Panamanian government, conducted over more than thirteen years, resulted in two pacts signed in 1977, the Panama Canal Treaty and the Panama Canal Neutrality Treaty. Together, these agreements abolished the Canal Zone, returned the zone and the canal to Panamanian sovereignty, and provided for the future operation of the waterway under joint, and ultimately under Panamanian, control. The campaign to win the advice and consent of the Senate to the treaties proved to be a major test of the constitutional roles of the executive and the Senate in the exercise of the treaty power. The original Panama Canal Treaty had been approved after an unprecedentedly short debate; the length of the debate over the new treaties was exceeded in the twentieth century only by that over the Treaty of Versailles.

Ratification of the treaties in 1978, with numerous amendments and "conditions," proved to be only the beginning of a new struggle. The treaties were not self-executing but required implementing legislation; that gave members of the house of representatives, some of whom objected to the President and the senate giving away "American territory" without their participation, a chance to affect the terms of the transfer. Over the objections of both President jimmy carter and the Panamanian government, Congress wrote into the implementing legislation provisions authorizing the President to intervene militarily to protect American interests in the former Canal Zone. The episode serves to illustrate the extent of congressional power, under the Constitution, to influence the conduct of foreign affairs, over which the President is often assumed to have exclusive control.

Dennis J. Mahoney


Crabb, Cecil V. and Holt, Pat M. 1980 The Panama Canal Treaties. Invitation to Struggle: Congress, the President and Foreign Policy. Chap. 3. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.