Gen. Torrijos, the Panamanian leader, was asked to reflect on the death of his friend, actor John Wayne. His repy follows :
John Wayne is one of the few actors who never let the movies deform his personality. The cardinal points of his thinking were not left or right, but justice and injustice. His triumph as an artist was to imprint on celluloid his true personality, his way of being and of thinking. Through John Wayne, the authentic character of the North American people was reflected on the screen.
The White House knew of my friendship with John Wayne, and warned me that if he opposed the Panama Canal treaties it would be very difficult to sell them to the North American people. I was told that if he failed to express an opinion, they might be approved, but if he defended them, it would have a substantial influence on his countrymen. I therefore undertook to talk with him and convince him.
At first he opposed the treaties almost instinctively, as would anyone who feels something that is his will be taken away from him. Besides, he had already committed himself to make a series of TV spots opposing the treaties.
He argued to me that all the United States had to do was give more money to Panama. To that I answered that, basically, it would not a matter of economic injustice; that what hurt us Panamanians in our very souls was the daily offense to our pride of that 1,442 square kilometers detracting from our independence.
With his brusque fraakness, he answered: "Remember we gave you your independence."
I answered, "Saving a woman's life does not give us the right to rape her. nor does the midwife have the right to keep a newborn baby because the parents cannot pay her."
John Wayne laughed with his characteristic openness and then reflected. He moved slowly toward the truth, but he moved. He was never as dogmatic as one who say: "God help me to be an atheist."
I don't know if I ever would have convinced him, because in truth it was young people of his own country who did it. I remember that we met in Rio Hato [a former U.S. military base] and, after a long conversation, we were separated. When I finally found him, he was talking with some Gls who were on maneuvers with forces of our National Guard. He told me: "These Green Berets, who in the last analysis are the ones who risk their lives for our country's political mistakes, have told me that the only way to keep the canal open is to reach a just accord between Panama and the United States. I believe them, not the politicans who would sell their own mothers to be reelected."
After that he supported us. Since he was not a man to fly his flag at half-staff, he threw himself into the abyss with only the parachute of his convictions.
When the treaties were signed - and I do not love them but consider them the least evil possible - I received a telegram from him, a man who without being a politican was a great opinion-maker. In his personality, his greatest virtue was also his greatest defect: his frankness. Knowing that he influenced public opinion in his country, he felt, more than pride, the responsibility this entailed and the obligation of being well informed before expressing his opinion.
I was very moved by his death, and I confess the deep sadness that came over me at the loss of a true friend.
John Wayne had an exemplary personality and left us a message in his life and in his work: the truth must be sought directly - not in books. For this reason there is no moral or just way to enslave a man or to colonize a country, just as there is no moral or just way to free it. It has to liberate itself, with its own struggles, sacrifices and risks. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, no caption