Rough Passage

The Truth about the Panama Canal

by Denison Kitchel
Arlington House, 240 pp., $8.95

Surrender in Panama: The Case Against the Treaty

by Philip M. Crane
Dale Books (New York City), 258 pp., $1.50

There will always be 34 percent of the Senate on the blackguard side of every question.

—Secretary of State John Hay, 1901

Recently, along with many others on the mailing lists for known “liberals,” I received a handsome brochure enumerating various “myths and facts” about the Panama Canal, and imploring me to “help make the voice of reason and responsibility heard.” The treaties signed by Presidents Carter and Torrijos last September were, I was warned, imperiled by a “gigantic, well-financed campaign” to prevent their ratification by the Senate. To assure smooth passage for the bills, I was urged to write my senators (on postcards conveniently enclosed) and to send money to an organization calling itself New Directions. This group, I was assured, is dedicated to “forward-looking policies,” and is most definitely nonpartisan, although, alas, not deemed tax-exempt by the IRS.

This self-professed “citizens’ lobby,” it turned out on further investigation, sent out one million such letters at a cost of $137,000—funds provided by unions, businesses, and the Democratic National Committee. Although I have not the slightest objection to turning the Canal over to Panama, or for that matter, Guantanamo to the Cubans and Florida to the Seminoles, I was surprised that a group marshaling such heavy artillery, so to speak, should be so eager to extract $5 from me. With State Department officials summoned from their vital tasks in Bangui, Ascunción, and Dacca to do missionary work for the treaties before the Rotarians of Yakima and Oswego, with President Carter pre-empting “prime time” to explain the virtues of his pact, and with the AFL joining forces with Big Business and the Big Dems, why should the pro-treaties lobby need me?

The answer is simple, but then maybe not so simple as it might at first seem. There is the obvious reason that opposition to the treaties is so pervasive and so well-organized, and the not so obvious reason that the major support for them is coming from surprising places. On the opposition side, groups such as the Conservative Caucus and the American Conservative Union have sent out millions of letters opposing the treaties, bought newspaper ads and TV time, set up workshops and discussion groups around the country, and raised an estimated $1.5 million, much of it in the form of $5 and $10 contributions. A good part of that money, and the grassroots sentiment behind it, is being used to marshal support for a wide range of conservative issues. Even if they lose on the Canal, conservatives figure they can generate a pressure group that can block such liberal objectives as arms control, tax reform, and a federally financed medical program.

Playing on such powerful themes as patriotism, frustration over the Vietnam war, and the obvious inability of the US to orchestrate world politics as it would like, the right wing has found an emotional issue in Panama. Withdrawal from the Canal, declares the Hon. Philip Crane, a congressman from Illinois, would be “one more nail …

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