Advice and Consent:
The Panama Canal Treaties

Yet, the vote, Mr. President, will be a difficult one. Every Senator knows that ratification of these treaties will not be popular, given the deep divisions in public opinion.

Senator Frank Church speaking on the floor of the Senate during the debate on the Panama Canal Treaties,
June 10, 1964

The Constitution gives the Senate the power to approve treaties negotiated by the President with foreign powers. A two-thirds affirmative vote is necessary. One of the more difficult treaty debates in recent years was the Panama Canal treaties in 1978. In 1904 the Senate approved a treaty which gave the U.S. authority to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama and control a 10-mile-wide canal zone. Following riots by Panamanians protesting U.S. control of the canal in 1964, the United States and Panama renegotiated the treaty, and in September 1977 President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian leader Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera signed two treaties. The first, the Permanent Neutrality Treaty, declared the canal neutral and open to vessels of all nations. The second, the Panama Canal Treaty, provided for joint U.S.-Panama control of the canal until December 31, 1999, when Panama would take full control.

The Senate’s debate over the Panama Canal in the spring of 1978 was the first to be broadcast live on radio from the Senate chamber. Supporters of the treaties argued that American control of the canal was a legacy of colonialism. Opponents feared that relinquishing the canal represented a decline in U.S. strength. On March 16 the Senate passed the Neutrality Treaty and on April 18, 1978, it approved a resolution of ratification of the Canal Treaty 68 to 32.