On this day in 1989, President George H.W. Bush ordered an invasion of Panama. Dubbed “Operation Just Cause,” its prime purpose was to depose and capture Manuel Noriega, the country’s military dictator, who had been indicted in the United States on drug trafficking charges.
Bush cited four reasons for the invasion: safeguarding the lives of the approximately 35,000 U.S. citizens living in Panama; defending democracy and human rights; combating drug trafficking in a country that had become a center for drug money laundering and a transit point for drug trafficking to the U.S. and Europe; and protecting the integrity of the treaties that President Jimmy Carter had signed with Panamanian authorities, which called for the Panama Canal to be turned over to them in 2000.
(Before the invasion, Washington had a long-standing relationship with Noriega (1934-2017), who served as a U.S. intelligence asset and paid informant of the CIA from 1967, including the period when Bush headed the CIA.)
Bush’s reasons for the invasion provided sufficient justification to secure bipartisan congressional support for it. In any event, the speed of the successful invasion, and public support for it — 80 percent of Americans approved — precluded any determined Democratic objections to Bush’s initiative.
The operation involved 27,684 U.S. troops and over 300 aircraft. It began with an assault on strategic installations, including the commercial airport in Panama City and a Panamanian Defense Force garrison and airfield at Rio Hato, where Noriega maintained a residence.
U.S. Navy SEALs destroyed Noriega’s private jet and a Panamanian gunboat. A Panamanian ambush killed four SEALs and wounded nine. Military operations continued for several weeks, mainly against the Panamanian army.
Noriega remained at large for several days. Realizing he had few options in the face of a massive fugitive hunt and a $1 million reward for his capture, he sought refuge in the Vatican diplomatic mission in Panama City. The U.S. military’s psychological pressure on him and diplomatic pressure on the Vatican mission, however, proved relentless — as was the nonstop playing of loud rock and roll music in the densely populated area.
Noriega surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990. He was immediately put on an MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft and flown to the United States. He was tried, sentenced and sent to a federal prison for 17 years.
Twenty-three U.S. soldiers were killed and 325 were wounded during the conflict. According to Pentagon figures, the invasion claimed 516 Panamanian lives. However, an internal U.S. Army memo estimated the number at about 1,000.
Some countries charged that the United States had committed an act of aggression by invading Panama and sought to conceal a new manifestation of its past interventionist policies in Latin America. On Dec. 29, 1989, the U.N. General Assembly voted 75 to 20, with 40 abstentions, to condemn the invasion as “a flagrant violation of international law.”