AS THE PANAMA CANAL treaties come down to the wire in the House, the arguments of those who wish in effect to roll back the clock 70-odd years and keep the canal under American control have become progressively more hysterical. This is a back-handed tribute to the treaties, which the Senate ratified last year: The hysteria demonstrates that even the treaties' most frenzied foes cannot make a solid rational case against them. Yet the vote coming up shortly in the House on legislation to implement the treaties is a cliffhanger.
The opponents claim that Panama's alleged role as a gunrunner to guerrillas in Nicaragua renders it an "unreliable" partner to the United States in operating the canal. The specter is raised of Panama as a Cuban stalking horse. The gunrunning charge is serious but it is being raised here as a red herring: It has little to do with Panama's readiness to honor its treaty undertakings to the United States. The canal treaties, by stabilizing a relationship that otherwise would smolder and perhaps explode, will reduce Cuba's Central American openings. Moreover, what better demonstration of "unreliability" could there be than having the House play the spoiler and nullify treaties solemnly ratified by the Senate? Nothing in the treaties entitles either party to back out simply because it objects to the other's policy in respect to a third country.
Treaty opponents further claim that the United States will be paying Panama billions of dollars to take over the canal, and they go on to suggest that with this money the United States will be financing one Cuban-sponsored, Panamanian-mounted revolution after another. In fact, the bookkeeping methods by which tallies in the billions are made are taken seriously only in the extremist quarters where they have been invented. The administration's figure (not the lowest around) for the cost of the treaty to the American treasury over a 22-year period is $870 million. None of this goes to Panama - except for $3 million planned to pay for moving American graves from one Canal Zone location to another, and a few thousand dollars to add Spanish designations to certain English-language road signs. The bulk of the $870 million will go for American defense costs and for services and benefits to American canal employees. Think of it: $40 million a year to assure the security of a vital waterway and a continuing American presence. It's a bargain.
Really, the issue is simple. The anti-treaty people are radicals masquerading as conservatives. They urge a course that would jeopardize American use of the canal, undermine American diplomacy and sully American honor.