Carter encountered great difficulties on an issue for which groundwork had been laid by the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations. Foes of two treaties dealing with the Panama Canal forced him to battle for months and nearly defeated him. The key feature of the treaties was to give Panama control of the canal by the year 2000. Opponents in both parties, including Ronald Reagan, actively campaigned against the treaties, charging that the documents would surrender American property that was vital to national security. To these people, the treaties seemed to symbolize American decline.
To the defenders, who denied that the United States owned or had sovereignty over the canal, the treaties represented the proper way for a great nation to behave. Moreover, they insisted, the terms would permit the United States to prevent hostile powers from gaining control of the canal and would enable the United States to use it when necessary. Furthermore, they maintained, the canal was losing its strategic and economic importance. The massive debate, with Carter as an active participant, raged for nearly eight months and ended in victories for the president in March and April 1978. But, in spite of help from Ford and Kissinger, the treaties won by the narrowest of margins. And success in the Senate did not end things, for it was followed by a long battle in the House, lasting until June 1979, over implementation.