In the twilight of the Cold War, the United States found itself embroiled in a controversial military intervention in Panama, known as Operation Just Cause. In December and January, 1989-1990, 27,000 US service members landed in Panama to capture dictator Manuel Noriega. Tonight, we talk with veterans of that operation, getting a first-hand history of events 34 years ago. We welcome especially three Army veterans, Patrick Helm, Carlos Best, and Ray Adams.
US military involvement in Panama goes back to the early 20th century with the planning and construction of the Panama Canal. Under terms of a 1903 treaty, the US maintained a military presence in the Panama Canal Zone to protect this vital asset in global trade and hemispheric defense.
Tensions escalated in the 1980s as Manuel Noriega rose to power in Panama. Initially, Noriega had been a CIA asset, assisting the US in various covert operations in Central America. But he went rogue, and his regime became increasingly authoritarian and focused on drug trafficking.
In 1989, Noriega annulled the results of Panama’s presidential election, sparking domestic unrest. The turmoil gave the George H.W. Bush administration the justification it needed to intervene, something the US had wanted to do since the Reagan administration. To protect American citizens living in Panama and secure the Panama Canal, Bush ordered Operation Just Cause.
On December 20, 1989, over 27,000 American troops, supported by air and naval forces, launched a full-scale invasion of Panama. The primary objectives were to capture Noriega, neutralize the Panamanian Defense Forces, and restore democratic governance.
The military campaign unfolded swiftly. There was little resistance, few civilian casualties, and limited damage to infrastructure. Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy before surrendering to U.S. authorities on January 3, 1990.
The operation successfully restored democratic governance in Panama, with Guillermo Endara sworn in as president.
However, the US faced international condemnation for using force in a sovereign nation without explicit United Nations approval.
In retrospect, Operation Just Cause can be seen as marking the end of the Cold War era. In the absence of a superpower rival, the US was free to act with fewer international constraints to protect and promote its interests abroad. The invasion set a precedent for future US interventions, especially in the Middle East.
Although largely overshadowed by the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, Operation Just Cause still highlights the enduring role of the United States in global affairs and the balance between intervention and sovereignty.
If you served in Panama during this time, please join us! Just Cause was a large joint Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard operation that consisted of many units on the ground, at sea, and in the air. You can view the whole list of units here.
Thank you to Tobacco Free Adagio Health for sponsoring this event!