The Eight Wonder
– The Panama Canal Essay, Research Paper
Christopher Columbus was enchanted by the stories told by Natives about astrait through which one might travel westward into waters that led directly to theland for which he was searching for, the Indies. His belief increased as he reachedCentral America. More recently, the Gold Rush began, and people from all over the worldimmigrated to California. Gold rushers from the East Coast traveled to California byship, having to go around South America, a 13,000 mile trip, but some decided tocut some of these miles by taking a boat to Panama and crossing Panama s thickjungle by mule reaching the Pacific Ocean. Then, taking another boat all the way toCalifornia. A journey, although shorter than going around S. America (5,000 miles),proved to be nearly impossible because of the thick jungle, humid weather, and thediseases that crowded the air, including yellow fever and malaria. A shorter routeconnecting the two oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, was a dream persued bymany. The first to think about building a canal was Spain, but the first to actuallybegin working in Panama on the canal were the French, led by the engineerFerdinand de Lesseps. Due to bad organization, lack of machinery, and lack ofknowledge about diseases, their attempt to build a canal failed. Theodore Roosevelt believed that the United States was capable of doingthe impossible: building the canal, continuing the work that the French had started.Theodore Roosevelt visualized many benefits on the Canal and wanted to have therights to the land where the canal was being built. There was only one obstacle:Panama belonged to the Republic of Colombia, and Colombia was aware of theimportance of Panama and didn t want to give it up easily. President Rooseveltcontemplated recommending the forcible seizure of Panama. Instead, with the selfinterest of obtaining rights on the Panama Canal, the U.S. helped provoke a revoltthat gave Panama its independence from Colombia. Then, once Panama gained itsindependence, the U.S. selfishly recognized Panama knowing that having powerover the land where a canal could be build would be very beneficial. Many other countries besides the United States also new the importance ofPanama. From the beginning, the isthmus (the strip of land that connected twooceans) was determined to be el centro del universo (the center of the universe)according to the South American hero, Simon Bolivar.1 Countries like Spain,France, and the United states wanted some type of control of Panama in order tobenefit from what they believed a canal could provide. This translated mainly intomoney, power, and convenience. A canal that connected the Pacific with theAtlantic ocean meant a gold mine. Also the convenience of not having to go aroundSouth America to reach either ocean was priceless and could give any country theadvantage of position in case of war. The interest in a short route from the Atlantic to the Pacific dates back to the16th century, when Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, suggested acanal across the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. Other explorers suggested acanal through Nicaragua, but the first project for a canal through Panama wasstarted by Charles V. A working plan for a canal was drawn as early as 1529, andin 1534 some Spanish officials suggested a canal route close to the presentlocation of the Panama Canal. None of these ideas were submitted to the king, sono action was taken and the Spanish abandoned its interest on a canal. But, in theearly 19th century the German scientist Alexander Humboldt revived interest in acanal project. In 1819 the Spanish Government authorized the construction of acanal and the creation of a company to build it, but again nothing resulted from thiseffort. Then, during the revolutions in South America, Spain lost control of Panamaand with it, the canal as well. The next to try to build a canal were the French. Ledby Fernindand Marie de Lesseps, France was the first country to actually work ondigging a canal, but Lesseps and his company went bankrupt in 1889, and thedigging stopped with no result. Lesseps, with his tail between his legs for havingfailed on his attempt to build a canal, and giving his country pride, reorganized allof the information of the terrain that he had gather while working in the isthmus andoffered its assets to the United States at a price of $40 million. Because presidentRutherford B. Hayes before dying solemnly stated that the United States wouldnever accept a canal under non-American control,2 the U.S. accepted Lessepsoffer. Then, after overcoming many problems (these will be mentioned later), andafter the Spooner Act, and act to provide for the construction of a canal connectingtwo waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans 3 the United States finally beganworking on the canal. In 1906 the decision of building a canal with locks instead ofa sea-level channel was approved by the U.S. Congress. President TheodoreRoosevelt put the construction work of the greatest natural resource 4 accordingto Panamanians, under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Col.George W. Goethals was named to head the project. The Panama Canal was in operation by the summer of 1914, almost twoyears ahead of schedule. The construction of the canal ranks as one of thegreatest engineering works of all time.5 Not only did the construction of the canalinvolved excavating an estimated 175 million cu yds. of earth, but also sanitizingthe entire canal area, which was infested by mosquitoes that spread yellow feverand malaria. The final cost of the canal for the U.S. was $336 million and it involvednot only one but many countries and its ideas to complete. A task once said to be nearly impossible 6 became a reality.
Now, as mentioned earlier, the United States went through many problemsbefore being able to build the canal. There was one obstacle: Panama belonged toColombia. Panama voluntarily became part of Colombia in 1821 after SouthAmerican countries revolt against Spain.7 But Colombia was never able to controlPanama completely because of the type of person the isthmus attracted- therootless, lawless, transient who obeyed no authority.8 In 1902, the U.S.government negotiated with the Colombian government to obtain a strip of land, sixmiles wide across the isthmus to build a canal, but the Colombian Senate refusedto approve this settlement (the Hay-Herran treaty) because they knew that theUnited States wanted to fully control a canal if built. But then Panama, with theassistance of the U.S., overthrew Colombian rule on November 3, 1903 after abloodless revolt. Roosevelt supported the revolution to secure the right to build acanal for U.S. interest by sending troops to the isthmus and prevent a violent revolt.Panama s ties with the United States formally began on November 6, 1906, whenWashington extended recognition.9 Only three days before Panama, with theassistance of the United States, had overthrown Colombian rule. Roosevelt s handbegan to close around the Isthmus as soon as he saw Colombia`s grip of Panamaslipping. It is best put by S.I. Hayakawa: We stole it fair and square… ,10 a U.S.senator, and where really the key word is stole . Fair and square is just theAmerican view of how the United States obtained the rights of the Isthmus. Not only after Panama gained its independence, was the United States able tobegging working on the Canal. On November 18 the United States and Panama signed a treaty giving the U.S. the right to dig the canal and the perpetual right tooccupy and control a strip of land on either side of the canal. In return, the UnitedStates paid Panama $10 million and agreed to pay $250 000 each year. Colombiajust got the right to use the canal free of charge. With the recognition of Panama, the United States guaranteed Panama sindependence and most importantly, was given the right to intervene in case ofmilitary disorder and of foreign countries threats, in order to protect the canal andits benefits. This agreement between The U.S. and Panama gave the United Statesa lot of power. The canal offered many benefits, as dreamed before the canal was built.Obviously, the canal would make easier the mobilization of ships, since it wouldmake the route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean a lot shorter. Also, it would enable the Atlantic coast to compete with Europe, on equal terms as distance, forthe markets of Asia 11 and reduce the distance to the western coast of LatinAmerica by half. The canal also provided the United States a great tactical spot fora navy base, such as that led by Lt. W.L Friedel, U.S.N, which was the first navaldefense of the U.S. on the Panama Canal12. This base provided a huge advantageof positioning in case of any conflicts over seas, since the canal made the distance from the Atlantic to the Pacific much shorter and because U.S. warships have freeand interrupted transit 13 across the Isthmus.Apart from the benefits, the United States also has a tremendous influence onPanama and the Isthmus. The domination that the U.S. has over Panama isdescribed by John F. Muccio, when he writes to Philip W. Bonsal on June 6, 1944: The army can completely and thoroughly sabotagePanamanian commercial life through simply declaringeither all Panama or specific business enterprises offlimits to soldiers… Our control over water works andother utilities can completely stop the development ofwhole sections of the cities of Panama… Every realistic Panamanian, just as every realisticAmerican, is fully aware that this influence over the dailylife of Panama exist…14 The United States also possesses $1.8 billion of investments in Panama,and North American Banks, multinational corporations, mineral processingcompanies, and agribusinesses dominate Panama s economy.The United States takes advantage of the power it has over Panama. During war,the U.S. paid Spain $20 million to $30 million each year for the use of airbases inSpanish territories, and knowing that Panama relies greatly on the canal foreconomic reasons, pays only $1.9 to $2.3 million in annual rental of the Isthmus.15The United States didn t paid Panama enough for the use of the canal zone, evenwhen the canal could produce $2 billion annually, according to a United Nationreport.16 The United States, just like Spain and France understood from the beginningthe importance of a canal that connected the Atlantic to the pacific ocean throughthe Isthmus of Panama. Colombia didn t have the resources or the influence to build a canal alongthe Panama Isthmus by itself, and the United States knew this. That is why the U.S.helped Panama gained their independence from Colombia by helping andencouraging a revolt, and selfishly recognized Panama to secure their rights on thecanal zone. By doing this, the United States gained a lot of power and influence asstated on this paper. Note: Panamanians believed that the U.S. took advantage of their vulnerableposition of under-developed country and therefore arranged that the United Stateswill seized control of the Canal to Panama on January 31st, 1999. And although the U.S. will still have the right to defend the canal s neutrality afterthat date, the ownership and control will be held by the rightful owner: Panama. BIBLIOGRAPHY New Isthmus Company. The New York Times. July 2, 1901, p.4 U.S. Navy always has played Important part with the Canal. PanamaAmerican. August 15,1939 Gause, Frank A., The Story Of Panama-The New Route to India. Boston, New York, Chicago: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1912. George, Judith St., Panama Canal-Gateway to the World. New York: G.P., Putnam`s Sons, 1989. Jorden, William J., Panama Odyssey. Texas: University of Texas Press,1984. LaFeber, Walter., The Panama Canal- The Crisis in Historical Perspective.New York: Oxford University Press, 1978 Ryan, Paul B., The Panama Canal Controversy. Palo Alto: HooverInstitution Publication, 1977.