Did Noriega Declare War?

In the Afterword to my recent article, “The Constitution in Danger,” I wrote that “one of the reasons for the invasion [of Panama] was Noriega’s declaration of war’ against the United States.” I based this alleged fact on President George Bush’s press conference on December 21, 1989, in which he said one of the things that had made him decide on the US armed intervention was “the declaration of war of Noriega.”

As I have now learned, Bush’s statement was, at best, a half-truth, at worst a flagrant distortion. On December 15, Noriega had not simply declared war on the United States. He said, in effect, that the United States had declared war on Panama, and that, therefore, Panama was in a state of war with the United States. Just what Noriega said was known or available in Washington by December 16 at the latest. How Noriega’s words came across as a simple declaration of war is a case history of official management of the news and negligence by the press.

The key passage in Noriega’s speech on December 15 accused the President of the United States of having “invoked the powers of war against Panama” and “through constant psychological and military harassment of having created a state of war in Panama, daily insulting our sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He appealed for “a common front to respond to the aggression,” and stressed “the urgency to unite as one to fight against the aggressor.”

The resolution on December 15 by the Panama Assembly also took this line—“To declare the Republic of Panama in a state of war for the duration of the aggression unleashed against the Panamanian people by the US Government.”

Clearly, Noriega said that the US had declared war on Panama by its previous actions, for which reason it was necessary for Panama to defend itself. He did not say that Panama was unilaterally declaring war on the United States. At the time, it seemed infantile for Noriega to have pitted puny Panama against the United States. Noriega had plenty of reason to expect US retaliation for the failure of the coup against him on October 3, 1989, in which the United States had taken half measures that made it seem hopelessly indecisive and inept. (US forces, for example, failed to close off the one road in Panama City that the forces loyal to General Noriega used to free him.) After this fiasco, Noriega had plenty of reason to expect another attempt in which President Bush would take no chances of failure.

There is no reason to weep over Noriega’s fate, but there is reason to question the way his words were manipulated in order to justify the US invasion. For this, the US press was partly responsible.

The treatment in The New York Times was grossly inadequate. The Times did not mention Noriega’s “declaration of war” until December 18. It did so in a dispatch from Washington by Thomas L …

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