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The Americas 58.3 (2002) 395-418

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From "Punks" To Geopoliticians:
U.S. And Panamanian Teenagers And The 1964 Canal Zone Riots

Alan McPherson


In 1964, U.S. civilian teenagers managed a rare feat by sparking a major foreign policy crisis. Even more remarkable, they were abroad when they did it, and they caused the crisis out of what many considered too much patriotism. The riots that rocked Panama beginning on 9 January of that year started as a scuffle between Panamanian and U.S. high school students in front of Balboa High School (BHS), a "Zonian" institution mostly for U.S. citizens. The immediate circumstances were complicated: teenagers from Panama City marched into the town of Balboa in the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone to protest the fact that BHS was not flying the Panamanian flag. Balboa High students, in turn, were already demanding that their flag continue to fly. President John Kennedy had ordered that both nations' flags be hoisted in the Zone, but implementation was slow. Then, local administrators decreed that neither flag would fly at BHS. The flag dispute seemed trivial, but its resolution could change which nation enjoyed sovereignty over the Zone. On 9 January, in the scuffle between Panamanian and U.S. students, the Panamanians' flag was torn. Then came the crisis. Within hours of the altercation, thousands of adults unleashed a bloody violence that lasted four days and killed twenty-one Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers. The U.S. Army took control of the Zone and Panama suspended diplomatic relations with the U.S. government. Panamanians further insisted on the scrapping of the 1903 Treaty that had established U.S. control over the Canal Zone. After years of negotiations, these riots led to the Panama Canal treaties in the 1970s and to the transfer of the Canal from U.S. to Panamanian hands in 1999. 1 [End Page 395]

The riots are important for U.S.-Panama relations, but in a broader sense the crisis adds to the rich literature on the role of pre-adults as ideological vessels. This paper focuses mostly on high school-age teenagers but extends the definition of "pre-adults" to a larger group of children and university students whose political power was limited because of their youth. More important, it emphasizes the political leverage of average, non-activist pre-adults. Scholars have focused much attention on small groups of highly politicized students, especially in Latin America, noting that in fact these were often fully-grown adults, often trained and funded by adult political parties. 2 The case of the Canal Zone riots contributes to an alternative body of scholarship, one that complements that on activists by dealing with a broader population of teenagers who were normally quiescent but who in some instances acted out political beliefs learned in their childhood or teenage years. Practitioners of such scholarship have taken a developmental approach to the learning of politics and have named their subject "political socialization."

The study of political socialization has staked its prestige on the ability to reasonably predict the behavior of adults based on what they learned about politics before adulthood. Early U.S. scholarly surveys suggested that teaching children core values about public authority had a conformist impact on politics. Anthropologists and sociologists examined schooling, parenting, and civic training. They discovered that pre-adults overwhelmingly viewed politics in affective and consenting terms: they believed what they heard, and they wanted to please by going along with those beliefs. Teenagers, getting ever closer to the legal voting age, were thus poised to reproduce the political behaviors that parents and especially educators taught them. 3 Scholars used similar surveys and developmental psychology on children young and old in Latin America and came to similar conclusions. 4 [End Page 396]

Political socialization, however, was difficult to pin down with great confidence. Without longitudinal studies, for instance, the link between ideation and behavior remained suggestive: how could one know how a twenty-one year old would vote by reading a...


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