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A Debate for History

by Craig Shirley & Scott Mauer

When Reagan and WFB sparred over the Panama Canal

If the 1980s can be defined as the revival of American exceptionalism and the American spirit, courtesy of Ronald Reagan and conservatism, then the 1970s can be defined as much the opposite. The ’70s saw Richard Nixon’s resignation amid the scandal of Watergate; the quagmire and subsequent loss in Vietnam; the pratfalls and gaffes of Gerald Ford; and the manifest domestic and foreign-policy failures of Jimmy Carter. The Soviet Union was on the march and the Cold War was going in its favor, such that Communism was more powerful than ever before. Gas lines, inflation, unemployment, malaise, and a general feeling that America’s best days were over filled the national consciousness.

To add to that, in 1978 the United States was preparing to give away the Panama Canal. Though the canal was only about 40 miles long, its importance to the American identity was estimable.

The United States acquired the incomplete Panama Canal in 1904, after purchasing the area from France, and completed its construction in 1914. Nearly 6,000 people (500 of whom were American) died during this decade, and another 69,000 poured thousands upon thousands of hours into the project. Many Americans grew up thinking of the canal as the eighth wonder of the world, and as much a part of the United States as territories such as Hawaii or Alaska. Teddy Roosevelt considered it one of the highlights of his administration as construction began.

Decades later, Panama was more or less a banana republic dependent on other nations. Its de facto dictator, military strongman Omar Torrijos, was agitating for possession of the canal. In 1977, President Carter and General Torrijos signed a joint agreement to transfer control of the canal to Panama via two treaties. As required by the Constitution, the treaties had to be approved by the Senate.

The first treaty, officially titled “The Treaty Concerning the Permanent Neutrality and Operation of the Panama Canal,” focused on the U.S. right to defend the canal from any threat. The second, titled “The Panama Canal Treaty,” stated that Panama would assume full control of the canal on the last day of 1999.

Ronald Reagan, then between his primary loss to Gerald Ford in 1976 and his defeat of Carter in 1980, launched a fiery rhetorical barrage against the agreement, much to the chagrin of Carter, Democrats, and many Republicans, including Ford.

During the 1976 primaries, when D.C. was in the early stages of giving away the canal, Reagan had uttered his famous sentences, “We bought it. We paid for it. We built it. It’s ours. And we intend to keep it.” The issue took hold in the North Carolina primary — in which Reagan shocked the political world by defeating the incumbent, Ford — and it continued to resonate. During the slugfest between Ford and Reagan, Bob Dole quipped that the canal was “Reagan’s issue. Reagan found it, he built it, and he’s going to keep it.”

As the Senate was beginning to consider the treaties in January 1978, Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of  National Review, debated the matter on live television for two hours at the University of South Carolina. It was a rare public disagreement between the two. Reagan, a supporter of and believer in Manifest Destiny, thought the canal should stay under American control. Buckley did not. Their able seconds were Pat Buchanan for Reagan and George F. Will for Buckley. Also in Reagan’s corner was Admiral John McCain II, the father of the current senator from Arizona. Buckley also had National Review senior editor James Burnham, a close ideological soulmate and an early intellectual leader in the conservative movement.

The debate was two hours long on PBS and attended by a packed audience. It was filled with factual points and counterpoints, which remain instructive. Buckley was in his timeless preppy attire, Reagan in a distinctive suit with a spread collar and tie knotted in a four-in-hand, the ever-present folded white handkerchief in his breast pocket.

Buckley was erudite, entertaining, telling Reagan he would dazzle him with the brilliance of his arguments. For Reagan, the idea of America’s safety came to mind: “We would simply be a foreign power with property in Panama. There would be nothing to prevent the government of Panama from expropriating our property and nationalizing the canal, as they have already nationalized the transit company and the power system.” The threat was of a socialized, Communistic, Soviet-leaning leadership’s taking control of this important maritime route, and it was of concern to the free world.

Reagan was equal to the task, comparably insightful. “Well, Bill,” he had said, looking directly at Buckley, “my first question is: Why haven’t you already rushed across the room here to see the light?” Everyone, Buckley included, laughed, and Buckley quipped in reply, “I’m afraid if I come any closer to you, the force of my illumination would blind you.” All laughed again, including Reagan.

Buckley asserted, to applause, that the U.S. shouldn’t let the Soviet Union go marching around as it wanted. “But do we want to go down and take it out on people who simply want to recover the Canal Zone? What we have done to Panama is the equivalent of taking the falls away from Niagara.” He added that what the Panamanians wanted was “nothing more than what our great-great-grandparents asked for.” It was an argument that put a human face on an otherwise abstract threat.

As the debate continued, it was a calm, rational discussion. The audience applauded both sides. Reagan and Buckley came off as old friends having a conversation and a deliberation, not as bitter enemies.

Still, Reagan did not take this issue lightly. He took it seriously and close to heart, especially the implication by some Americans who supported the treaties that the United States had sinned against Panama by keeping the canal zone. According to one of his famous radio addresses, “nothing angered [him] more” than hearing that the United States was doing Panama a disservice.

A month later, in February, Carter made a nationally televised address directly challenging Reagan. “We do not own the Panama Canal Zone,” he said. “We have never had sovereignty over it. We have only had the right to use it.” Everyone recognized whom the president was directly addressing, and CBS offered Reagan unprecedented time to respond to Carter’s address on television. Millions tuned in to see the current and future presidents continue their fight.

The issue became a fully raging inferno at the national level for the grassroots, courtesy of conservative direct-mail wizard Richard Viguerie, who created the “Committee to Save the Panama Canal” after a meeting of conservative leaders, such as Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, in his home. Congress was flooded with letters and postcards opposing the “giveaway.” Capitol Hill’s phone system was swamped with hundreds of thousands of calls from Americans wanting to know why the canal was being “given away.” Viguerie also launched the “Panama Canal Truth Squad”: conservatives who took wing on a chartered jet, holding airport press conferences across the nation demanding that the Senate reject the treaties. The Senate debated for nine weeks, and much of its debate was broadcast live on the radio.

In the end, the Senate voted in favor of the first treaty, 68–32, on March 16, 1978, a margin just one vote larger than needed for the required two-thirds. The second passed on April 18 by the same margin. But the victory for Carter was pyrrhic, as public opinion remained consistently against giving away the canal. It was instead a victory for Reagan, who parlayed the defeat in a way that helped him win the presidency in 1980 with 44 of 50 states.

It was also a victory for Reagan’s supporters in the debate. The canal issue raised the prominence of Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, and other opponents of the “giveaway.” And it was arguably through the canal issue that the conservative movement became a permanent part of the American political firmament, after a series of other significant events, such as Reagan’s ascendancy in American politics.

Years later, President Carter acknowledged to me in an interview that the issue had done political damage to him and the senators who voted for the treaties. Nearly all lost their reelection bids in 1978 and 1980. As for Buckley, he once told me that Carter was “lost in power.”

Nonetheless, and most important, the Reagan–Buckley flashpoint was a debate of ideas and facts, not animosity, in which the two demonstrated that they could have strong disagreements and come out friends on the other side.

– Mr. Shirley is a presidential historian and the author of four books on Ronald Reagan. Mr. Mauer is his researcher.

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