Martyrs’ Day: Riots over Sovereignty of Panama Canal Zone (1964)
Martyrs’ Day (Spanish: Día de los Mártires) is a Panamanian day of national mourning which commemorates the January 9, 1964 anti-American riots over sovereignty of the Panama Canal Zone. The riot started after a Panamanian flag was torn and Panamanian students were killed during a conflict with Canal Zone Police officers and Canal Zone residents. It is also known as the Flag Incident or Flag Protests.
U.S. Army units became involved in suppressing the violence after Canal Zone police were overwhelmed, and after three days of fighting, about 22 Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers were killed. The incident is considered to be a significant factor in the U.S. decision to transfer control of the Canal Zone to Panama through the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties.
After Panama gained independence from Colombia in 1903, with the assistance of the U.S., there was resentment amongst some Panamanians as a result of the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which ceded control of the Panama Canal Zone to the U.S. “in perpetuity” in exchange for a 10 million dollar initial payment and yearly 250 thousand dollar payments thereafter. In addition, the United States Government purchased title to all the lands in the Canal Zone from the private owners. The Canal Zone, primarily consisting of the Panama Canal, was a strip of land running from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean and had its own police, schools, ports and post offices. The Canal Zone became U.S. territory (de facto if not de jure).
In January 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy agreed to fly Panama’s flag alongside the U.S. flag at all non-military sites in the Canal Zone where the U.S. flag was flown. However, Kennedy was assassinated before his orders were carried out. One month after Kennedy’s death, Panama Canal Zone Governor Robert J. Fleming, Jr. issued a decree limiting Kennedy’s order. The U.S. flag would no longer be flown outside Canal Zone schools, police stations, post offices or other civilian locations where it had been flown, but Panama’s flag would not be flown either. The governor’s order infuriated many Zonians, who interpreted it as a U.S. renunciation of sovereignty over the Canal Zone.
In response, outraged Zonians began flying the U.S. flag anywhere they could. After the first U.S. flag to be raised at Balboa High School (a public high school in the Canal Zone) was taken down by school officials, the students walked out of class, raised another flag, and posted guards to prevent its removal. Most Zonian adults sympathized with the student demonstrators.
In what was to prove a miscalculation of the volatility of the situation, Governor Fleming departed for a meeting in Washington, D.C. on the afternoon of January 9, 1964. For him and many others, the U.S.-Panama relationship was at its peak. The exploding situation caught up with the Governor while he was still en route to the U.S. over the Caribbean.
While a Panamanian response to the flag raisings by the Zonians was expected, the crisis took most Americans by surprise. Several years later, Lyndon B. Johnson wrote in his memoirs that: “When I heard about the students’ action, I was certain we were in for trouble.”
The news of the actions of the Balboa High School reached the students at the Instituto Nacional, Panama’s top public high school. Led by 17-year-old Guillermo Guevara Paz, 150 to 200 demonstrating students from the institute, crossed the street into the Canal Zone and marched through the neighborhoods to Balboa High School, carrying their school’s Panamanian flag and a sign proclaiming their country’s sovereignty over the U.S. Canal Zone. They had first informed their school principal and the Canal Zone authorities of their plans before setting out on their march. Their intention was to raise the Panamanian flag on the Balboa High School flagpole and remove the U.S. flag.
At Balboa High, the Panamanian students were met by Canal Zone police and a crowd of Zonian students and adults. After negotiations between the Panamanian students and the police, a small group was allowed to approach the flagpole, while police kept the main group back.
A half-dozen Panamanian students, carrying their flag, approached the flagpole. In response, the Zonians surrounded the flagpole, sang the Star Spangled Banner, and rejected the deal between the police and the Panamanian students. Scuffling broke out. The Panamanians were driven back by the Zonian civilians and police. In the course of the scuffle, Panama’s flag was torn.
The flag in question had historical significance. In 1947, students from the Instituto Nacional had carried it in demonstrations opposing the Filos-Hines Treaty and demanding the withdrawal of U.S. military bases. Independent investigators of the events of January 9, 1964 later noted that the flag was made of flimsy silk, this is not historical fact though.
There are conflicting claims about how the flag was torn. Canal Zone Police Captain Gaddis Wall, who was in charge of the police at the scene, denies any American culpability. He claims that the Panamanian students stumbled and accidentally tore their own flag. David M. White, an apprentice telephone technician with the Panama Canal Company, stated that “the police gripped the students, who were four or five abreast, under the shoulders in the armpits and edged them forward. One of the students fell or tripped and I believe when he went down the old flag was torn.” However we must take into account that this is all hearsay.
One of the Panamanian flag bearers, Eligio Carranza, said that “they started shoving us and trying to wrest the flag from us, all the while insulting us. A policeman wielded his club which ripped our flag. The captain tried to take us where the others Panamanian students were. On the way through the mob, pulled and tore our flag.”
To this day, the issue remains highly contentious, with both sides saying the other instigated the conflict.