On this day in history, President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian Chief of Government Omar Torrijos signed two treaties: The Permanent Neutrality Treaty and The Panama Canal Treaty.
The first, the Permanent Neutrality Treaty, declared the canal neutral and open to vessels of all nations. The second, the Panama Canal Treaty, provided for joint U.S.-Panama control of the canal until December 31, 1999, when Panama would take full control.
The Senate’s debate over the Panama Canal in the spring of 1978 was the first to be broadcast live on radio from the Senate chamber. Supporters of the treaties argued that American control of the canal was a legacy of colonialism. Opponents feared that relinquishing the canal represented a decline in U.S. strength.
On March 16, 1978 the Senate passed the Neutrality Treaty and on April 18, 1978, it approved a resolution of ratification of the Canal Treaty. Sixteen Republicans joined 52 Democrats to approve the treaty with 68 votes, just one vote more than the required two-thirds majority. Many years later, recalling the political tightrope of the debate, Senator Robert Byrd summed up the politically unpopular fight for the treaties this way: “Courage? That’s [Minority Leader] Howard Baker and the Panama Canal.”
You can read the text of the two treaties shown with the Senate modifications here.