Sign Up

50 Years Ago: Lyndon Johnson’s First Foreign Crisis

On January 9, 1964, a new president’s foreign policy skills were put to the test by a crisis in Panama.

January 9, 2014

Most of the recent commemorations during the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination focused on the spectacular and the nostalgic: who may have done it and how Americans felt when they heard the news.

Few focused on the main consequence of killing Kennedy – it put Lyndon Johnson in the White House.

Johnson had been a prodigious Senate leader on domestic issues, but his foreign-policy mettle had yet to be tested. As vice president under JFK, Johnson was kept on the margins. Johnson’s first test came fifty years ago today, in tiny Panama.

On January 9, 1964, high school students from the Republic of Panama marched into the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone with their nation’s flag and clashed with U.S. teens trying to hoist a Stars and Stripes on their high school’s front yard. In the scuffle, the Panamanian flag was torn and a full-scale riot took off.

Panamanian nationalists had long demanded that the authorities of the Canal Zone – the area around the Panama Canal that housed U.S. military bases and the thousands of U.S. and West Indian civilians who ran the waterway – recognize that Panama enjoyed sovereignty over the area by raising both the U.S and Panamanian flags.

Instead, those authorities decided to fly neither flag. This satisfied no one, least of all the two countries’ teenagers, who were raised to see the other as the enemy. History had made the tension almost unbearable.

Creating the Canal Zone

In 1903, separatists in the Colombian department of Panama rebelled against Colombia. President Teddy Roosevelt seized the opportunity and stationed warships off the coast of Panama to ward off the Colombians. Panamanians had their republic.

Roosevelt and his negotiators exacted a heavy price in return for this help: the perpetual right to build, maintain and protect an interoceanic waterway “as if” the United States were sovereign in the region.

Washington also gained a ten-mile wide swath of land around the canal, which became the Zone. “Zonians” became infamous for their racial segregation, their jingoism and their resistance to mingling with Panamanians.

Though there were benefits to the new country having such a powerful patron, rich Panamanians complained of not being able to sell enough to the Zone, while poor Panamanians complained of everything else. Demands intensified after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and by early 1964 they culminated in the Panama Flag Riots.

The riots raged for three days and killed 21 Panamanians and 4 U.S. troops. Zonian police shot several Panamanians.

Trial by fire

The result: an international incident falling into Lyndon Johnson’s lap barely six weeks into his presidency. The Panamanian president, Roberto Chiari, broke diplomatic relations and demanded the renegotiation of the 1903 Treaty.

By this point, Johnson was already consumed with civil rights issues at home and was preparing to launch his “War on Poverty.” In foreign policy, the new president was debating whether to send U.S. combat troops into Vietnam, which still looked salvageable.

But on that day, Vietnam could wait, while Panama could not. Johnson’s response would telegraph what kind of world leader he was to be.

Most U.S. citizens were against negotiation: 56% supported a “firm” stance against Panama. 7 out of 10 letter writers to the White House were described as “‘Hard Line’ (Send the Marines, Remember the Alamo, etc.)” by the State Department.

A hard line

Johnson, a former schoolteacher in southern Texas, seemed to agree. “I know these Latin Americans,” he once privately told reporters. “I grew up with Mexicans. They’ll come right into your yard and take it over if you let them.

“And the next day they’ll be right up on your porch, barefoot and weighing one hundred and thirty pounds and they’ll take that too. But if you say to ‘em right at the start, ‘hold on, just wait a minute,’ they’ll know they’re dealing with somebody who’ll stand up. And after you can get along fine.”

One day into the riots, the new president confided to his mentor, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, then-chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that he was “damn tired of packing our flag and our embassy and our USIS [public diplomacy centers] every time somebody got a little emotional outburst…They better watch it.”

Johnson demeaned the Republic of Panama as “no larger than the city of St. Louis.”

Yet there were costs to U.S. obstinacy. Many in Latin America, seduced by the Castro revolution, were wary of Washington’s heavy-handedness against any nationalist movement.

And much of the developing world watched as this tiny colony-like country tried to free itself from Washington’s clutches, just as Egyptians had freed themselves from Europe’s, in the Suez Canal incident of 1956, a little over seven years earlier. The New York Times named colonialism as the “disguised inner issue” in Panama.

Carry a big stick

Johnson responded to this dilemma with a surprisingly effective stick-and-carrot approach. The stick emerged out of the Johnson team’s knowledge that elite Panamanians suffered from severed trade ties with the Zone and that Chiari needed a pledge from Washington before elections in May.

Johnson’s point man on Latin America, Thomas Mann, flew immediately to Panama to tell his counterparts that “we have 190 million Americans who feel very strongly about this thing.” Mann remained noncommittal on renegotiating the 1903 Treaty.

Mann returned to Washington on January 13 for a fascinating White House meeting. Johnson knew that communism was, at best, a minor threat to Panama, since thousands of U.S. troops were stationed in the Zone. The riots had quieted down, but there still existed an outside chance of a communist overthrow — enough to use as leverage.

The CIA reported that the local communist party along with Chiari’s election opponent were plotting to strike at the presidential palace that very evening. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara called the commander of the Southern Forces to request that he inform Chiari that Washington might deploy troops in such an eventuality.

With Johnson standing next to him on the phone, McNamara made sure that “communist sympathizers” were in the room with Chiari to hear the thinly veiled threat.

A future carrot

At this same meeting, Johnson agreed to present Panamanians with an impressive carrot – eventually. The White House would draw up a “long-range plan” of “major changes,” including a sea-level canal to replace the increasingly congested one.

The U.S. government should also admit that in the past it had been, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, “heavy-handed.” U.S. officials, in other words, were ready to give in to Panama’s key demand and abrogate the 1903 Treaty. They refrained from saying so in public.

After months of diplomacy through the Organization of American States, on March 21 Johnson made a conciliatory speech.

He admitted that “circumstances change . . . history shapes new attitudes and expectations,” and declared, “We are well aware that the claims of the Government of Panama and of the majority of the Panamanian people, do not spring from malice or hatred of America.”

The affirmation of friendship healed much of the animosity and hurt pride in nationalist circles. On April 3, Johnson approved a new statement that renewed diplomatic relations and promised open-ended talks.

No new treaty

But this did not necessarily mean a new treaty. U.S. negotiators began talks only after Johnson himself had been confirmed back in to the White House, in the November 1964 U.S. presidential election. From such a position of power, U.S. representatives gave nothing away in the short term.

All observers agreed that the existing lock-operated Panama Canal was too narrow for new aircraft carriers and too slow for the increasing traffic. On December 18, yet another Johnson statement conceded Panamanian sovereignty over the canal and promised that the United States would build another one.

“It’s a very reasonable thing we’re coming out with,” confided Mann to Johnson, “but it’s likely to be unsatisfactory to the Panamanians.”

He was right. The December statement, when read carefully, did not promise that the U.S. government would build the new sea-level canal in Panama. Very publicly, in fact, Mann canvassed other possible host nations in the area.

Panamanian negotiators were furious. They were trapped in Johnson’s carrot-and-stick scheme. They needed U.S. funds and minor concessions and genuinely feared student protests if the U.S. Army did not strengthen Panama’s police forces.

In addition, Panamanians faced the possibility of running an obsolete waterway abandoned by the great shipping lines who would use the bigger, faster, still U.S.-run sea-level canal, possibly located in another country.


Panamanians did gain the Canal and the Zone, but only under agreements with the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. Johnson had held remarkably firm and outmaneuvered Panama’s elite all while displaying to Panamanians what he called “social consciousness” and also satisfying U.S. hard liners by acting “tough.”

It was a high-wire act that few save Johnson could have pulled off. It demonstrated at once his sensitivity to the oppressed, his fondness for power politics and his political acumen.

Johnson should be remembered for his diplomatic skill facing Panama before the great debacle of Vietnam would forever – and somewhat deservedly – sully the Texan’s reputation as a foreign policy failure.


In January 1964, in Panama, the US saw another challenge to its interventionism in Latin America.

Lyndon Johnson’s first foreign policy test as president came on January 9th 1964, in tiny Panama.

By early 1964, Panamanian discontent over the U.S.-held Canal Zone culminated in the Panama Flag Riots.

Lyndon Johnson responded to the Panama dilemma with a surprisingly effective stick-and-carrot approach.

On Panama, LBJ demonstrated sensitivity to the oppressed, his fondness for power politics and his political acumen.

Lyndon Johnson should be remembered for his diplomatic skill facing Panama before the great debacle of Vietnam.