100 Years of the Panama Canal: The Age of Transition, 1964-73

Today’s Blog Post is from Senior NDC Archivist (Special Assistant, NDC Evaluation and Special Projects Division) Patrice Brown.

The beginning of the Panama Canal is well known. The routes considered, the French construction efforts, the United States entrance as the canal builder, and the characters involved.   However, the transitional period between the Panamanian demands for control of the Canal and its surrounding territory and the eventual U.S. transfer of the canal is not as well known. The Panama Canal celebrated its 100th Anniversary on August 15, 2014. In commemoration of this important event the National Declassification Center (National Archives and Records Administration) is reviewing for release approximately 22,500 pages of classified records dated between 1964 and 1973. This period marks the culmination of several events that would eventually bring about the transfer of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama. The records under review are from Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State (NAID 12014843), Record Group, 84, Records of the Foreign Service Posts Department of State (NAID 12018029), and RG 286, Records of the Agency for International Development (NAI 12069278). When these classified records are released, more information will be made available regarding U.S.-Panamanian relations as well as the history of the Panama Canal.


S.S. Ancon making first transit of canal, Aug. 15, 1914. From NARA still picture holdings, NAID 535444
S.S. Ancon making first transit of canal, Aug. 15, 1914. From NARA still picture holdings, NAID 535444


The first significant event during the 1964-1973 period involved Panamanian nationalism. A long standing dispute had raged over the years between Panama and the United States over whose flag should be flown in the Zone. The U.S. flag was the only flag flown over the Zone since the Canal was completed. The U.S. announced in 1963 that the Panamanian flag would fly with the U.S. flag over all civilian institutions throughout the Zone. In January 1964 there was confusion over how to implement the 1963 decree. The Governor of the Canal Zone issued a revision to the decree to say that no flags would be flown over certain civilian buildings such as schools, post offices, and monuments. The U.S. citizens in the zone, known as “Zonians” took offense with this revision and chose in several instances not to follow it. One instance occurred on January 9, 1964, when U.S. students with encouragement from their Zonian parents raised the U.S. flag over Balboa High School in opposition to the Governor’s revised decree. On the same day several hundred Panamanian students marched into the Zone to protest the absence of their flag. In the ensuing confrontation the Panamanian flag was torn and a riot erupted.


 img001 (2) img007     

Three photos pre and post riots. From NARA still pictures holdings, NAID 7491168
Three photos pre and post riots. From NARA still pictures holdings, NAID 7491168


After four days of fighting four U.S. soldiers and   twenty-four Panamanians were killed. This incident perhaps spurred President Lyndon Johnson to announce in March 1964 that the United States would begin studies in Central America and Mexico for the construction of a new sea-level canal. The records under review address the riots in 1964. The records focus on what happened during the riots, those groups involved, the stability of the Canal, the actions of the Panamanian National Guard, and the reactions of U.S. Embassy staff to the crisis. The records also reflect on the new sea level canal with discussion of site survey agreements, the best possible route, building costs, and the impact of a new sea level canal on U.S.-Panamanian relations.

Panama Working Group Situation Report 10/19/1968

The second significant event occurred in December 1964 when President Johnson announced plans not only for a new sea-level canal but also to negotiate a new treaty.   The new treaty marked an historic change in the United States policy calling for the recognition of Panamanian sovereignty in the Zone and for the United States to operate and protect the Canal for a fixed time. Until the new canal could be built there would have to be a new agreement that would have to be drawn up to govern the current waterway.   After eighteen months of talks the United States and Panama unveiled three treaty drafts in 1967.

One dealt with a possible sea-level canal, the second one provided for the defense and neutrality of the present canal, and the third set new rules for operating the new canal.   In the draft treaties the U.S. recognized Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal, would allow the Zone to be integrated into Panama, and would allow Panama to receive a larger portion of the Canal’s revenues. However, Panamanian President Marco Aurelio Robles came under fire from his National Assembly over the treaty provisions dealing with the new Commission that would be in charge of Canal operations and the presence of long term U.S. bases. Neither country budged on these two issues. Therefore, negotiations were deadlocked until 1971. In the meantime a change in political leaders did nothing to speed up negotiations.

Arias Election Flyer

The 1968 Panamanian elections and the subsequent overthrow of President Arnulfo Arias further stalled talks over the next several years. President Arias won the election over former President Robles on October 1, 1968. On October 11, 1968, the National Guard under the leadership of General Omar Torrijos forced Arias out of office and took over control of the Panamanian Government. The records highlight the impact of the 1968 Panamanian elections and the subsequent coup, the fleeing of President Arias to the Canal Zone, the Panamanian Junta Government, U.S. interaction with the Junta Government, U.S. economic inflation, U.S. reduction in aid to Panama, Panamanian economic problems, Panamanian dependence on the Canal/Canal Zone, and Panamanian nationalism.  

Country Analysis and Strategy Paper

Elections, the Canal and Related Treaties

Talks were opened again from 1971-72 under President Richard Nixon and the then leader of Panama, General Omar Torrijos. This time the U.S. demanded control of the Canal for another fifty years and if a sea-level canal was built on the same site as the present canal U.S. control would be extended for eighty years. General Torrijos did not want the U.S. to have control beyond 2003. The sea-level canal was abandoned by 1971 due to high building cost so it could no longer be used as leverage by the U.S. against Panama in the treaty negotiations. By the mid-1970’s the U.S. was looking to forge an economic partnership with Latin America countries and the first step toward this was an amicable settlement of the canal issue. The U.S. realized that its hard stand on control of the canal had to give way to a more inclusive canal operation. The records cover the treaty negotiations during this critical period.   Unfortunately, we have only been able to locate records in our custody dated through 1973 for this commemorative project. Any additional related documents identified in the future will be expedited for release and notice will be posted on this blog.    

U.S. Reporting from Panama

Samudio Speech on Canal and Treaties



One thought on “100 Years of the Panama Canal: The Age of Transition, 1964-73

Leave a Reply