Panama Canal

Panama Canal
   An interoceanic waterway across the Panamanian isthmus initially envisaged by Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth century. Between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries there was an isthmian road that suddenly became vitally important in 1848 with the California Gold Rush, as unloading and reloading were less time-consuming than rounding Cape Horn. After 1855, an American railroad had linked Panama and Colón. After completing the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps obtained in 1880 the right to build a canal alongside that railroad, where the isthmus was only 50 kilometers wide. Lesseps gave up in 1889 as a consequence of tremendous, unforeseen financial and material difficulties, an episode known in France as the Panama Scandal, which rocked the Third Republic. At the turn of the century American interest in the canal, for reasons of security, prestige, and trade, was increased by the acquisition of Hawaii and the Philippines; and it actually underlay the annexation of Puerto Rico and the supervision of Cuba at the close of the war with Spain. The only problem was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, which provided that the United States and Great Britain would exercise joint control over the projected canal. The British at first attempted to use its abrogation to increase their bargaining power in the Alaskan boundary controversy, but they quickly gave in when they realized that the U.S. Congress was ready to pass a bill that would nullify it and empower the McKinley administration to build a Nicaraguan canal under exclusive American control. A new accord was negotiated on February 5, 1900, the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, which stipulated that the United States could build and own an isthmian canal but could not fortify it. The nonfortification clause, which conformed to the past policy of neutralization, was loudly opposed by the jingoes, who predicted seizure of the future canal by enemies of the United States; it was also denounced by the Democrats - appropriately, for 1900 was an election year. Lastly, it infuriated such Anglophobes as the Irish- and German-Americans.
   Although the British were shocked by American pretensions, they eventually yielded when it became clear that the United States intended to go ahead and build the isthmian waterway. Britain was in any event busy fighting the Boers in South Africa and could do without further problems in the Caribbean. In fact, Britain acknowledged American supremacy in the Caribbean and was to reduce her fleet there in light of the fact that the United States could prove a powerful ally that would maintain the status quo in the Western Hemisphere against her great rival, Germany. The Second Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, concluded on November 18, 1901, stripped London of any right to control the canal.
   To this point the choice of the most suitable route - through Nicaragua or across Panama - had been pending. On November 16, 1901, two days before the Second Hay-Pauncefote treaty was signed, the Walker Commission, appointed in 1899 by President William McKinley and headed by Rear Admiral John G. Walker, recommended the Nicaraguan route. The directors of the New Panama Canal Company -successor to the former de Lesseps organization - who had been asking the huge sum of $109 million for their holdings, suddenly dropped their price to $40 million when faced with the prospect of a Nicaraguan canal. This substantial saving possibly convinced President Theodore Roosevelt and the Walker Commission that the Panama site was best, or at least made them overcome their hesitations, for engineering opinion was divided. The Canal Commission reversed its recommendation on January 18, 1902, but at about the same time, the House of Representatives clearly indicated its preference for the Nicaraguan route by a vote of 308 to 2. Such indecision might have resulted in further postponements but for a timely volcanic eruption on the island of Martinique, which raised fears about a similar risk in Nicaragua, and the astute and efficient lobbying of the New Panama Canal Company, represented by William N. Cromwell, a New York attorney, and Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a Frenchman who had been chief engineer of the first company and now was a large stockholder in the new one. On June 28, 1902, the Spooner Act was passed: the Nicaraguan bill was amended so as to provide for a Panama Canal. The president was now to secure from Colombia a right of way across the Isthmus of Panama, “within reasonable time and upon reasonable terms,” or to turn to Nicaragua if this proved impossible. Early in 1903, Secretary of State John Hay practically wrested from Bogota’s chargé in Washington, Tomás Herrán, an agreement that seriously compromised Colombian sovereignty and aroused popular indignation and political opposition in Colombia: the Hay-Herrán Treaty stipulated that the New Panama Canal Company would receive $40 million and Colombia $10 million as well as a $250,000 annuity, and granted the United States perpetual control of a zone six miles wide across the isthmus. The treaty was signed on January 22, 1903, and ratified unamended by the U.S. Senate on March 17. Its unanimous rejection by the Colombian senate five months later, on August 12, surprised and incensed Roosevelt. He had set his heart on the Panama route - which engineering opinion then rightly regarded as the best option - and was not going to have his plans thwarted by the “Bogotá lot of jack rabbits,” who should not “be allowed permanently to bar one of the future highways of civilization,” despite the existence of an alternative in Nicaragua.
   The likelihood of a revolution in Panama quickly became public knowledge in Washington. Panama had a long history of uprisings against the central government. The 1903 secession was caused both by Panamanian disappointment at losing the commercial advantages the construction of the canal was expected to bring and by isthmian nationalism. The conspirators soon received indirect assurances that the White House would do nothing to jeopardize their plans. Later events would show how the Bunau-Varilla had anticipated the U.S. government’s reaction and its new reading of the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty of 1846 by which the United States had obtained a right of transit for its nationals, but not of construction. Juridically, American intervention was justified by its Article Thirty-Five, and the resort to force on or about the Isthmus was a half-century-old tradition, always in support of the central government. This time, Washington would choose inaction and even help the rebellion by stopping Colombian reinforcements.
   A prodigious acceleration of history took place in late October 1903, for which the annals of diplomacy offered few precedents, if any at all. On October 31, the Colombian senate adjourned without having reconsidered its position on the canal question, thus destroying all hopes of a quick settlement. On November 3, the Panamanian secessionists successfully launched their “bloodless” insurrection thanks to Washington’s active, preferential neutrality. The independence of the province was officially proclaimed the next day and recognition of the new republic of Panama granted by the United States on November 6. Bunau-Varilla was appointed minister plenipotentiary to Washington with full negotiating powers. Two weeks after the revolution the isthmian waterway issue was settled. On November 18, the two countries signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which virtually made Panama an American protectorate. In exchange for the sum of $10 million and a $250,000 annuity in gold coins, it granted to the United States “in perpetuity the use, occupation and control” of a zone of land across the isthmus 10 miles wide, and it authorized Washington to fortify the canal and to guarantee and maintain the independence of the new republic. The New Panama Canal Company received its $40 million, Colombia nothing. Theodore Roosevelt, who waxed lyrical to defend the right of the province to break with a corrupt and inept government, would forever claim, not altogether unconvincingly, that the end justified the means, which he did not find particularly objectionable, as his government was morally right in “taking Panama” inasmuch as it had allegedly received a “mandate from civilization.” He never concealed his conviction that it was better to polemicize about his action for half a century than to do so about the project.
   The Panama Canal - a lock canal - was inaugurated on August 3, 1914. The payment of $25 million to Colombia in 1920, after Roosevelt’s death, was in many ways an admission of guilt and a belated effort to atone for past wrongdoing.
   See also <>; <>.
    Collin, Richard H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context . Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990;
    LaFeber, Walter. The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective . New York: Oxford University Press, 1978;
    Mack, Gerstle. The Land Divided: A History of the Panama Canal and Other Isthmian Canal Projects . New York: Octagon Books, 1974;
    Marks, Frederick W., III. Velvet on Iron: The Diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt . Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979;
    McCullough, David. The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914 . New York: Simon, 1977.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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