apparently jimmy carter avoided a war over the panama canal

I’m reading and loving Jonathan Alter’s biography of President Jimmy Carter, His Very Best, and yesterday zipped through what I think is the best chapter so far, about Jimmy Carter relinquishing the Panama Canal to the people of Panama. Panamanians were instrumental in digging it, alongside Americans, but for seventy years or so it was claimed as a U.S. holding. Or property. 

Something colonial-sounding. 

Anyway: the Panama Canal is a huge artery for trade all over the world and there was major resentment among Panamanians who thought we were basically trying to humiliate them by saying, “Hey, see this canal that exists in your backyard, and proves integral to the whole planet, and that you guys helped build? It’s ours.” 

Republicans didn’t wanna give it to Panama for what’re basically racist reasons, suggesting that it’d be used for cocaine smuggling (although that did kinda happen) and just generally thinking that the people of Panama couldn’t take care of it. That they weren’t responsible enough. Primitive minds. 

But also it’s a sign of American expansion, a symbol of commerce–exactly the kinda thing that a republican senator tries to advance his career by pounding his chest and protecting, even if he knows that people will die over it.

And death was very much on the table. 

Carter was getting reports that a guerilla war was in the offing, that some Panamanians were going to attack the canal and claim it. Which would be sticky as fuck. Because it’d be one thing to just give the canal to them. That would look charitable and cool and it wouldn’t really cost us anything. But if the canal were taken over by Panamanians, saying they wanted it for themselves, then America would have to fight for it in order to save face. And if that happened, and America had to go defend the canal, Carter’s team estimated they would have to deploy 100,000 troops. Troops fighting a war with no frontline, in difficult terrain. Casualties would be huge. 

It’d be Vietnam all over again.

Plus, if we had deployed those troops, and the Panamanian fighters felt outnumbered, felt like the battle was hopeless, they’d probably just blow up the canal. Block it. And the ramifications in global trade would’ve been calamitous if that canal were blocked.

Carter cites it as the most challenging political achievement of his presidency, finagling a treaty that republican senators would get aboard with. Ronald Reagan, who at this point had left his post as California governor and was clearly slated for the republican nomination in a few years, talked mad shit about it, saying the canal was ours, the people of Panama couldn’t be trusted to keep it open–and he actually got the riot act read to him by John Wayne, of all people, whose first wife was Panamanian. 

Anyway. The treaty was signed, the Panama Canal was returned to Panama, and Carter learned, after the fact, that there were indeed plans to blow it up. That a war was absolutely 100% certainly in the cards. 

And Carter avoided it. 

Totally blows my mind that I’d never heard a word about this.


  • I am absolutely certain the reason you never heard of that is because of Ronald Reagan and his campaign managers and his cabinet.

    (A lot of us Gen-X’ers have Very Strong Opinions about those numbnuts…..)


    • Yeah, Alter makes a note in the introduction about how Reagan kinda pointedly removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof. It does seem like he was keen to brush over Carter’s achievements. But this isn’t the only recent book about Carter’s presidency, so I’m wondering if the next few years won’t see a pretty thorough and appreciative reassessment of his achievements. Are you personally an admirer?


      • It’s not so much that I am a fan of Carter so much as I am a non-fan of Reagan. I was a teenager in the 80s and so I got to see his hijinks as a direct witness, and boy was HE a piece of work.


      • OK well on that note–I was just waffling about whether or not to buy that 800-page biography of him that came out a few years ago. I see in the reviews that praise is pretty much unanimous and that, whether you already hate or already love Reagon, the biography will prompt you to both double-down on those convictions and see another side of him. Have you moseyed over to that one, or is he just too unsavory a character for you to spend 800 pages with?


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