Recent articles about the transfer of the Panama Canal consistently imply or state outright that the 1977 Carter-Torrijos treaties were unquestionably legitimate. They are not.

Stephen Mufson's Dec. 8 news story said, "By treaty American warships retain the right to jump to the front of the line if they need to use the canal." This is precisely the main point of a reservation, introduced by then-Sen. Dennis DeConcini, that in 1978 persuaded some senators to ratify the treaties by a razor-thin majority. But while the language appears in the U.S. version of the agreement, it was rejected by Panama.

In effect, Mr. Carter and Mr. Torrijos signed different documents, and the Senate ultimately ratified something that Panama specifically repudiated with its own counter-reservation, which does not appear in the U.S. version. The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties clearly states that any reservation to a treaty must be accepted by each party. Hence, there is no treaty.

Charles Breecher, a former official of the Agency for International Development, stated in part of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 23, 1983: "The Panama Canal treaties have not been ratified in international law. . . . The reason is very simple. In their respective instruments of ratification, the United States and Panama did not agree to the same text of the treaties." Numerous other competent authorities have concluded similarly.

These facts and supporting information appear in a House resolution authored by Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, introduced on Nov. 9. In a few short days, 26 of her colleagues signed on as co-sponsors. The resolution would have Congress affirm the nullity of the 1977 Carter-Torrijos treaties.

While Chinese presence in Panama is a concern--and while even President Clinton was quoted in the article as saying that Chinese will "run it" (the canal) "in a competent matter"--the invalidity of the treaties is the fundamental issue. The American canal in Panama must remain with or be returned to the United States.

JOHN F. McMANUS

Appleton, Wis.

The writer is president of the John Birch Society.