By E.A. Barrera
“I have studied the Treaty, and I support it based on my belief that America looks always to the future and that our people have demonstrated qualities of justice and reason for 200 years. That attitude has made our country a great Nation. The new Treaty modernizes an outmoded relation with a friendly and hospitable country. It also solves an international question with our other Latin American neighbors, and finally the Treaty protects and legitimates fundamental interests and desires of our Country.”
John Wayne; October 10, 1977
Letter to the United States Senate in support of the Panama Canal Treaty
While most of America observed the 100th birthday of John Wayne on May 26, 2007, there is plenty of discussion about his career, his acting ability and his conservative political stands. But little mention is given of his love for Latin America and the people of the lands south of our borders, which would eventually in the waning days of his life lead him to stand against conservative American political leaders, including Ronald Reagan, and support the 1977-78 Panama Canal Treaty.
He was a Scotch-Irish kid named Marion Michael Morrison and born in Winterset, Iowa on May 26, 1907. Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States the day he was born, and Jimmy Carter was President when he died on June 11, 1979. This historical bracket offers an interesting coincidence relating to his life-long connection with Panama. Roosevelt was the president who helped engineer the creation of Panama, which had once been part of Colombia, and ordered the construction of the Panama Canal, so U.S. shipping could move from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts with greater ease. Carter was the president who engineered the treaty with Panama that eventually led to the United States relinquishing control of the canal.
More than a movie star, Wayne would become a political figure and hero to conservatives during the 1960s with his support for the Vietnam War and criticisms of the counter-culture of that period. By the time of his death in 1979, he had achieved an iconic status few American presidents achieve. For many people throughout the world, he was the personification of American masculinity and a traditionalist attitude towards patriotism that he once summed up as “my country right or wrong.”
But his attraction to Latin American culture provided an interesting twist to his political and social outlook that both complimented the nationalistic values Wayne came to represent, while conflicting with them at the same time.
His first wife was a Panamanian diplomat’s daughter named Josephine Saenz, whom Wayne met and married when he was 24-years old on June 24, 1933. They had four children. Wayne’s marriage to Josephine Saenz lasted 12 years, though Wayne’s taste for Latin women was not diminished by the experience. In 1941 he met Esperanza (Chata) Baur Diaz during a vacation trip in Mexico City. In stark contrast to Saenz, Diaz was from the streets and legend has it made her living as a part-time Mexican actress and full-time, high-priced prostitute. Their marriage lasted eight years and ended in a bitter public divorce. They had no children. Wayne’s third wife Pilar Weldy seemed the perfect blend of Saenz and Diaz. She was from Lima, Peru, where Wayne met her in 1953. They were married the same day his divorce from Diaz was final. The couple would stay together 17 years and have three children.
Wayne would often escape his personal troubles by going on long fishing and drinking junkets down to Mexico with John Ford, Ward Bond and Henry Fonda aboard Ford’s yacht “The Araner.” This included a trip to Mazatlan in the winter of 1935.
“It was one of Duke’s and Ford’s favorite towns, a place they could go barefoot and unshaven, dressed in work khakis spotted with fish blood, to wander the streets, drink, and listen to mariachi bands playing in the saloons and whore-houses,” wrote Randy Roberts and James Olson in their 1995 biography John Wayne: American.
Despite becoming the image of the “Cowboy” and building his legend as the hero on horseback, Wayne was personally far more at home on board a ship than in the saddle. He eventually purchased his own yacht - “The Wild Goose” - and would often sail down to Panama and other areas of Latin America to vacation. During the 1960s, he purchased the island of Taborcillo off Panama’s coast. Wayne, entered into a shrimp business partnership and among others in Panama, became fishing and drinking buddies with General Omar Torrijos, the military ruler of Panama from 1968 until his death in 1981.
“Wayne was close to a very important family by the name of McGrath. The McGrath family was American U.S. Canal Zone gringos but with the kind of style and grace that allowed them to be important in the Republic of Panama as well as the Canal Zone. Wayne spent time playing cards with the McGraths and ... (they) were partners in a shrimp business out on a point in the Bay of Panama called ... Punta Chame - a town at the end of the fin-shaped Punta Chame peninsula. Wayne was very well liked in Panama and understood Panamanians well,” wrote travel writer and novelist Matthew Atlee.
This final point created some of the biggest controversy of Wayne’s life and it came a little more than 18 months before he died of stomach cancer. His love of Panama and friendship with Torrijos led him to support turning the Panama Canal over to the government of Panama.
In 1904 Roosevelt began construction of the canal and the process of annexing Panama from Colombia. The canal was completed and opened in 1914 and in exchange for purchasing and lending military support against Colombia for their independence, Panama agreed to give the United States control of the canal zone.
After World War Two, U.S. control of the Panama Canal became a hot political issue in Panama, as nationalists felt it was part of their country and thus they should control the canal zone. On January 9, 1964, American troops shot and killed protestors who rioted in front of the canal. The incident led Panama to cut off diplomatic relations with the U.S. the next day (January 9 has since become a Panamanian holiday known as Martyr’s Day).
President Richard Nixon began talks with Panama about control of the zone near the end of his presidency. But it was Democrat Jimmy Car-ter who would eventually negotiate the treaty with Torrijos. The debate in this country over the treaty was loud and sharp - with conservatives claiming this was giving away a vital national security tool that would weaken the United States. South Carolina Republican Senator Strom Thurmond said “The canal is ours, we bought and we paid for it and we should keep it”.
Ronald Reagan blasted the Carter administration for the treaty negotiations, calling it a sign of Carter’s tendency to “convey the view that it desperately wants the whole world to have democratic institutions that would be the envy of the most ardent ACLU lawyer, and that wishing will make it so. That view of the world ranks along with belief in the Tooth Fairy,” said Reagan.
Reagan said the Panama Canal Treaty would “relinquish our rights” and would eliminate the canal zone.
“It is always easier to defend something you have than to get back something you gave away,” said Reagan.
Wayne, who had been friends with Reagan since their days together in Hollywood and had supported him in his campaigns for Governor of California and 1976 run for the Republican presidential nomination, responded with a blistering letter to Reagan on November 11, 1977.
“Now I have taken your statement and I will show you point by goddamn point in the treaty where you are misinforming people. If you continue to make these erroneous remarks (I will) prove that you are not as thorough in your reviewing of this treaty as you say or are damned obtuse when it comes to reading the English language,” said Wayne to Reagan.
Wayne would die 20 months later to the day. But Reagan had little compunctions about using the memory of Wayne for his successful 1980 presidential campaign, often reminded voters of Wayne’s support, while conveniently omitting any reference to their differences over the Panama Canal. When he died, Wayne was laid to rest in an unmarked grave overlooking the Pacific Ocean - facing south. A memorial stone placed in the cemetery near his grave had the inscription he’d always wanted written on it - and it was in Spanish. “Feo, Fuerte, y Formal” (He was ugly, he was strong, he had dignity.).