U.S. Invades Panama: December 20, 1989

By | December 20, 2018

[December 20, 2018]  A recurring theme in successful military strategies has always been that war should be in that nation’s interests, quick and decisive, and justified on moral grounds.  Now in the history books that the U.S. invades Panama in 1989, it should have been a predictable result of U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s strategically poor decision to hand the canal back to a country without the requisite political capability to properly manage such an asset.

But was the U.S. invasion in the national interests, quick and decisive, and justified?  There are many who will argue that the answer is “no.”  Of course, the answer is largely beyond the scope of a short article like this one.  Suffice it to note that no one can deny that from a U.S. perspective, the war was conducted professionally; using overwhelming force, a highly motivated and trained military, and at its core, a principle to limit civilian casualties.

The invasion itself was codenamed Operation Just Cause and occurred between December 20, 1989 and late January 1990.  The de facto Panamanian leader, general, and dictator Manuel Noriega was deposed and president-elect Guillermo Endara swore into office.  The Panamanian Defense Force was also dissolved.

It is interesting that leading up to the war, Manuel Noriega worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to help funnel illegal weapons, military equipment, and cash to U.S.-backed counter-insurgency forces throughout Latin America.  The U.S. also considered Noriega an ally in its War on Drugs, despite him amassing a personal fortune through drug trafficking operations.1

The official justification of the invasion was given by U.S. President George H. W. Bush a few hours after the start of the operation (see footnote 2 below for the list).  The importance of the Panama Canal to world economies has been immense and cannot be underrated.  Of all the major world events, construction of the canal helped commerce thrive throughout the 20th century.  But it also created a breeding-ground for corruption, graft, murder, and international intrigue.

The history of the country of Panama is fraught with problems created largely by the U.S. and corrupt Central American political leaders.  While the efforts of the U.S. were largely beneficial, Americas grossly underestimated the divisiveness created by the operation of the canal.  The U.S. invasion of Panama 29 years ago on this date is a testimony to the observation that even doing the right thing can have adverse, unintended consequences.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manuel_Noriega
  2. Reasons justifying the invasion of Panama:
  3. Safeguarding the lives of U.S. citizens in Panama.
  4. Defending democracy and human rights in Panama.
  5. Combating drug trafficking.
  6. Protecting the integrity of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties (which guaranteed that Panama would gain control over the U.S. built and funded Panama Canal after 1999).


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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

18 thoughts on “U.S. Invades Panama: December 20, 1989

  1. Lady Hawk

    Bush’s four reasons for the invasion provided sufficient justification to establish bipartisan Congressional approval and support for the invasion. However, the secrecy before initiation, the speed and success of the invasion itself, and U.S. public support for it (80% public approval) did not allow Democrats to object to Bush’s decision to use military force.

    1. Dale Paul Fox

      Some say this invasion was a test-run for use of the US military in the first Gulf War. It was also the first use of force after the Vietnam War and showed we had shaken off the problems of Vietnam.

  2. Fred Weber

    The European Parliament and the Organization of American States made a formal protest against the invasion and condemned it as a blatant violation of international law. In 1992, Noriega was charged on eight counts of money laundering, racketeering, and drug trafficking. He was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in a federal prison, although later it was reduced to 30 years.

  3. Kenny Foster

    Good article today, thanks. I was in the Army at the time and was part of the 193rd Infantry Brigade, Task Forces Bayonet.

  4. Janna Faulkner

    A little background on Noriega. In 1986, Ronald Reagan opened negotiations urging Noriega to step down as he had been exposed publicly by the New York Times for his involvement with the illicit drug trade. Noriega was pressured and indicted on several drug-related charges in US courts. This is at a time when the professionalism of the NYT and other newspapers still had some professionalism in them and why those in the US had an inkling of what was going on.

    1. Drew Dill

      Good point also about the decline of professionalism in the media. Gen. Satterfield has two articles on it in his ‘daily favorites.’

    2. Tomas C. Clooney

      The press’ professionalism continues in decline.

    3. Shawn C. Stolarz

      The war, while relatively short, strained diplomatic relations between the US and several Latin American nations with Peru recalling its ambassador from the US in protest. Noriega’s case became the very first in the Jury’s history where a foreign leader was convicted of criminal charges.

    1. Greg Heyman

      This history is spectacular from and engineering and political standpoint.

  5. Mike Baker

    Smart, to the point article on a timely subject. The invasion was an effort that eliminated one of the most corrupt figures in the history of Central America. The fact that it took the US so long is what should be shameful if anything at all.

  6. Army Captain

    I was only 10 years old at the time but remember it clearly. My parents were glued to the television and we discussed it at school. I always wondered what happened in the end to the country of Panama. I’ve read that the level of courruption is still high and their troubles great but there have been improvements in their democratic system but only with the help of the United States.

    1. Len Jakosky

      Wow, I also followed the invastion from reading the newspapers and weekly magazines. Thanks Army Captain. I was always convinced we had done the right thing.

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