The Ambassador in Panama ( Wilson ) to the Secretary of State

No. 2012

Sir: I have the honor to refer to the Department’s strictly confidential instruction No. 648 of April 1, 1942, transmitting a copy of a note dated March 23, 1942,61 from the Ambassador of Panamá at Washington protesting the construction of a concrete building intended as an airport for Pan American Airways, Inc., and requesting an expression of my opinion as to the reply which should be made to this note.

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My despatch No. 19 of June 3, 1941,62 which first reported on this subject, stated my opinion that what had mainly aroused the anxiety of the Panamanian Government was the implication that this construction which appeared to be permanent in character, was an indication that the United States intended that all future commercial aviation development on the Isthmus should take place within the Zone to the exclusion of such development in Panama. I suggested at that time that a possible solution might be to try to reach agreement with the Government of Panama on the basis that the present development of the commercial airport at Albrook Field is to take care of an emergency situation and would in no way be considered as prejudicing the future of commercial air services on the Isthmus once the present emergency had come to an end. I suggested that Panama might be assured that once the existing world emergency was over, the United States would be prepared to give consideration to the question of whether during normal periods commercial aviation might use Panamanian air fields. In other words, the suggestion was that the present status be maintained during the emergency. I pointed out at the time that it was of course likely that the Panamanian Government, if it should agree to any such suggestion, would desire, in order that the new commercial airfield in the Zone might not have the appearance of a definite long-term development, that certain features be eliminated.

The Department replied by its instruction No. 43 of June 18, 1941,62 to the effect that it was the preliminary view of the Department that the project constituted no violation of the treaty of 1936; that the Department was strongly of the opinion that under present emergency conditions international commercial aircraft should continue to land in the Canal Zone; but that, for my strictly confidential information, if at some time in the future conditions seemed to warrant, the United States Government might be glad to consider sympathetically the development of a Panamanian system of airports. The Department then sent its note of August 5, 1941, in reply to the Panamanian Embassy’s notes of June 3 and June 1863 on this subject.

In considering this matter the following considerations occur to me: As has been pointed out in various despatches (e.g. No. 19 of June 3, 1941 and No. 486 of January 14, 1942)64 whatever Panamanian Government may be in office after the war during what may be termed a “normal” period will unquestionably desire to provide for the construction of a large commercial airport in Panamanian territory and to have commercial air lines on the Isthmus land at this Panamanian airport. The present Panamanian Government fully recognizes, I [Page 624] believe, that under war conditions it is necessary for the control of commercial aviation to be exercised by our Army. Because of this, and because of the fact that there is at present no airport in Panamanian territory at which large air liners can land, the Panamanian Government is raising no objection to the continued use by commercial aviation of Albrook Field. What it does object to, however, is the construction of installations having a permanent character and which therefore might have the effect of prejudicing the interests of Panama as regards the future development of commercial aviation on the Isthmus. Panama fears that with this permanent and costly construction completed, that when Panama may attempt after the war to carry out plans for the construction of a commercial air field in Panamanian territory, it will be met with objections from the United States Government pointing out that this is unnecessary, unwise, etc., because of the existing construction which has been provided by the United States Government in the Canal Zone. My strictly confidential despatch No. 1003 of March 19, 1942,65 conveys the opinion of the President of Panama on this score.

Subsequent to the receipt of the Department’s instruction under acknowledgment, I have again conferred with General Andrews66 as to the possibility that the permanent administration building might be removed from the site on which it is being constructed (only the foundation has been built to date) and placed further to the northeast on the border of the Republic, which would make it possible for passengers destined for Panama to exit immediately on Panamanian territory (see page 3 of memorandum attached to my despatch No. 486 of January 14, 1942. The thought was that this might make this development more acceptable to Panama). After study of this suggestion, General Andrews informs me that it would not be possible to do this, as the area in question must be kept free of any construction so that airplanes approaching the field from this direction may have unimpeded access. Under this circumstance, the General believes, in view of the crowded and congested conditions at the present temporary administration building, that there is no other course than to go ahead with the construction of the new building, which will in any case, he states, be required in the future for the service of passengers arriving in the Canal Zone, regardless of whether the Republic some day obliges the airlines to land somewhere in the Republic passengers destined for Panama.

Under the circumstances, my suggestion is that our reply to the Panamanian Embassy’s note of March 23, 1942, might take the following lines: That the United States Government is unable to share the [Page 625] view of the Government of Panama that the use by commercial aviation companies of airports in the Canal Zone violates provisions of treaties between the two countries; that the United States is, of course, as always, desirous of cooperating with Panama so that the latter may take advantage of the commercial advantages inherent in its geographical situation; that the present development of the commercial airport at Albrook Field is required only in order to take care of existing traffic needs; and that this development is in no way intended to modify or prejudice the situation as regards the future development of commercial aviation on the Isthmus.

I should like, after the Department has sent its reply to the Panamanian Embassy, to have a full and frank conversation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs on this subject. I should propose to talk with him along other lines than those set out in the Department’s instruction No. 191 of September 5, 1941,67 which, as stated in my despatch No. 486 of January 14, 1942, I believe do not meet the situation. My thought would be to say to the Foreign Minister something as follows: That while there appears to be in this question of the development of commercial aviation on the Isthmus a conflict between the interests of the United States and those of Panama, there is in fact no conflict that cannot be satisfactorily resolved. As has occurred in so many other cases, with the exercise of patience and friendly understanding, the interests of both Governments can be adequately safeguarded. The Panamanian interest is primarily that of obtaining the advantages in a normal period in the future of the development of commercial aviation on the Isthmus. The primary United States interest is the necessity of exercising adequate control over aviation in this area so as to protect the Canal Zone. With the tremendous development in military aviation taking place today it is certain that within a year or two this Canal will be vulnerable to air attack from any capital in the world by planes capable of carrying a bomb-load forty or fifty times more destructive than that carried by Stuka dive bombers today. What we have witnessed in the Nazi attacks on Poland and the Low Countries, and in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, show clearly that even in any “normal” period in the future the United States will have to exercise at all times effective and far-reaching measures of control regarding all aviation coming to the Isthmus. It would seem, however, that once this world emergency is over and assuming that within any reasonable length of time the world may return to what can be termed a “normal” period, it should be readily possible for Panama and the United States to reach an agreement which would conciliate and safeguard adequately these two primary interests.

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I should be glad to receive a copy of the Department’s note to the Panamanian Ambassador68 and also to be advised whether the Department desires to have me engage in a frank discussion with the Foreign Minister along the lines set out above.

Respectfully yours,

Edwin C. Wilson
  1. Instruction No. 648 not printed; for note dated March 23, see supra.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Not printed.
  4. None printed.
  5. Neither printed.
  6. Not printed.
  7. Maj. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, Commanding General, Caribbean Defense Command.
  8. Not printed.
  9. Infra.