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

No. 2792

Sir: I have the honor to refer to the Department’s strictly confidential instruction No. 925 of June 23, 1942,72 in further relation to the Panamanian protest regarding the construction of a new administration building at Albrook Field, and to report that I have now had a full and frank discussion with the Minister for Foreign Affairs73 along the lines suggested on the last page of my despatch No. 2012 of April 21, 1942.

The occasion for this discussion was a reference made by Dr. Fábrega in conversation with me to the Department’s note of June 23, 1942, to the Panamanian Ambassador in Washington in reply to the latter’s note of March 23, 1942. Dr. Fábrega said that he was not impressed with the argument in the Department’s note to the effect that since the War Department had assumed control of civil aviation systems, Pan American Airways had in effect been removed from the [Page 631] category of an enterprise of private character devoted exclusively to commercial ends. Dr. Fábrega said, furthermore, that he thought the Department’s note left the whole question about where it was before.

I remarked that there was no question but that Pan American Airways, together with other heretofore private commercial air systems which had been brought under the control of the Secretary of War, was being used principally for purposes related to the prosecution of the war. Furthermore, I said that frankly it seemed to me that the Department’s note ought to be satisfactory to the Panamanian Government: The note states that the construction taking place at Albrook Field is essential in view of present congested conditions and should in no way be considered as a change in the situation which has prevailed since the establishment of existing services. Further, the note states that the United States Government has had, in the development of the airport at Albrook Field, no thought of interfering with the national economy of Panamá or prejudicing the sovereignty of the Republic. The note reiterates the declaration of the Treaty of 1936 about enabling Panamá to take advantage of opportunities inherent in its geographical situation, and states that the only interest which the United States Government has in the development of the airport at Albrook Field is that of providing adequate protection for the Panama Canal. I said that it seemed to me that these statements were reasonable and sound, and I could not see any cause for Panamá to take exception to them, nor, indeed, to have any apprehension in the matter.

Dr. Fábrega went on to say that he was pessimistic regarding the economic future of Panamá, insofar as this might be based upon activities in the Canal Zone related to the passage of vessels through the Canal. He said that with the phenomenal development in aviation, it would probably be a matter of only a short time before much of the cargo heretofore transported in ships through the Canal would be carried by air. It occurred to him, he said, that when because of this development receipts from the Canal should fall off, there might be a temptation for the United States in the post-war period, when retrenchment and economy would probably become the order of the day, to seek to recoup the losses from Canal tolls by insisting that the augmented air services continue to use Canal Zone facilities and pay fees to the United States. He said that, furthermore, it was not at all sure that the increased air transportation services of the future would continue to use the Isthmus as a central junction point, as is being done at present. Panamá must, however, maintain intact its rights to profit economically from the development of air transportation in the future insofar as facilities on the Isthmus might be used by commercial air companies. He reiterated that he feared that [Page 632] with this large permanent construction at Albrook Field, there would be a great temptation for the United States, once the war is over, to put obstacles in the way of Panamá’s developing its own national airfield and having commercial lines use that field.

I said that I could not agree with him that there was any just cause for apprehension that the United States Government would in the future, because of economic reasons, attempt to evade its commitments to Panamá. We had declared in the 1936 Treaty, and now reiterated, that we wished to see Panamá have advantage of the commercial opportunities inherent in its geographical situation. Furthermore, the only interest of the United States in the development of the airport at Albrook Field is, as stated in the Department’s note, that of providing adequate protection for the Canal. I said that it seemed to me that there was no reason whatsoever why the Panamanian interest in this question, which is that of obtaining advantages in the future from the development of commercial aviation on the Isthmus, should not be reconciled with the United States interest, which is that of exercising adequate control over aviation in this area so as to protect the Canal. I said that it seemed to me these two interests, instead of being in conflict, were actually complementary. The development in aviation, accelerated by the war, concerning which Dr. Fábrega had spoken, would mean that within a brief period the Canal would be vulnerable to air attack from any capital in the world by planes carrying bomb loads vastly more destructive than any known today. With the experience gained in this war as regards treacherous surprise attacks, it will obviously be necessary for the United States in the future, even in any so-called “normal” period, to exercise at all times effective measures of control regarding aviation coming to the Isthmus. But there was no reason that I could see why such measures of control could not be reconciled with the obtaining by Panamá of the economic advantages which might accrue from the development of commercial aviation in this area.

As Dr. Fábrega had mentioned the construction in the future of a national airport in the vicinity of the City of Panamá, I said that it seemed to me personally that the military necessities for the protection of the Canal in a “normal” period would be served by an agreement that all commercial planes coming to the Isthmus would be under the control of the United States military authorities as to identifying themselves and as to routes they would follow, and that they would first land at Albrook Field for discharge of passengers and freight for the Canal Zone; cleared by the military authorities they could then take off and at the Panamanian National Airport, a few miles distant, would land passengers and freight destined for the Republic. Dr. Fábrega did not comment on the foregoing. He said that he agreed with me that with good will and patience it should be [Page 633] possible to work out an agreement in the future, once the war is over, which should protect adequately the two primary interests involved.

Respectfully yours,

Edwin C. Wilson
  1. Not printed.
  2. Octavio Fbrega.