The Panama Canal Essay Research Paper History

The Panama Canal Essay, Research Paper

History of the Panama Canal

In 1825, a group of American businesspeople announced the

formation of a canal building company, with interests in constructing

a canal system across the Isthmus. This project was to take place in

an area now called Panama. The endeavor was filled with controversy.

Though the canal itself was not built until the early 1900’s every

step toward the building and ownership, was saturated with difficulty.

Walter LaFeber illustrates the dilemmas in a historical analysis. In

his work he states five questions that address the significance of the

Panama Canal to United States. This paper will discuss the historical

perspective of the book’s author, address pertinent three questions

and give a critique of LaFeber’s work, The Panama Canal.

For proper historical analysis one must understand the

importance of the Canal. The Panama Canal and the Canal Zone (the

immediate area surrounding the Canal) are important areas used for

trade. Even before the canal was built there were to large ports on

both sides of the Isthmus. Large amounts of cargo passed through the

Isthmus by a railroad that connected the two ports. The most important

cargo was the gold mined in California before the transcontinental

railroad was completed in the United States. It has strategic

significance because of its location, acting as a gateway connecting

the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This allows for rapid naval

deployment between fleets in either ocean. These two facets make the

Panama Canal very important in the region.

LaFeber notes that Panamanian nationalism played a large role

in the creation of the canal and, consequently, the cause for the

area’s constant instability. The first expression occurred in the late

1800’s with Panamanian struggle for independence from Columbia. The

United States eager to build the canal, and control its operation,

used and backed Panamanian nationalist. During the Roosevelt

administration, not only did the United States manipulate factors

isolating Panama from other world powers through the Monroe Doctrine;

but it committed troops aiding the revolutionaries against another

sovereign state. The reason this is a surprise is because the

Roosevelt administration normally held a position favoring stability.

The United States had no legal right to use force against Columbia.

Nationalism came back to haunt the United States. With the

treaty signed and a 99-year lease given to the United States, the

Canal was built. Since then, the United States has varied on its

stance of ownership and the principles of sovereignty concerning the

Canal. The ever persistent debate of who owns the Canal and who should

have sovereign control over it, has not been solved. The United States

has occasionally attempted to “claim” the Canal zone through various

methods such as military occupation, exclusion of Panamanians for

important jobs in Canal operations and even through the customary

aspect of international law. However, each time the Panamanians have

managed to maintain claim to the Canal despite the United State’s

imperialistic posturing to get it.

The most recent and notorious of the United States’ attempts

to annex the Canal Zone was during the Reagan administration.

President Reagan said that the Canal Zone could be equated as a

sovereign territory equal to that of Alaska. The question here is, was

he correct? LaFeber points out that, “the United States does not own

the Zone or enjoy all sovereign rights in it.” He uses the treaty of

1936 in Article III that states, “The Canal Zone is the territory of

the Republic of Panama under the jurisdiction of the United States.”

The entire topic was summed up neatly by Ellsworth Bunker, a

negotiator in the region, when he said, “We bought Louisiana; we

bought Alaska. In Panama we bought not territory, but rights.” A

second important question, is the Canal a vital interest to the United

States? LaFeber gives three points suggesting that it is not. First,

the importance of the Canal decreased after 1974, because of the end

of the Vietnam War and all related military traffic ceased. Second, is

the age of the antique machinery dating back to 1914. Inevitably the

machinery will need to be replaced. Lastly, the size of the new

tankers and cargo ships. The capacity of the canal is too small to

handle such a large amount of tonnage. These are viable factors;

however, the first argument is concerning whether a war is taking

place. It is circumstantial in providing a solid reason for increased

traffic through the Zone. This can easily change through and emergence

of a new conflict or trading habits of other countries.

Thirdly, why have the Panamanians insisted on assuming total

control of the Canal. The Panamanians are making millions of dollars

annually and the United States run the Canal efficiently. LaFeber

points in the direction of economics as the principal factor and

nationalism as secondary. The Panamanians fear the amount of reliance

they have on U.S. investments. The fear is enhanced by the large

dependence of their national economy on MNC’s, American banks and

mining companies. LaFeber continues saying that Panamanians find it

difficult to cross the Zone because of check points and resent their

country being split in half. Continuing he asserts that perhaps if the

Panamanians were to have complete control the Zone the amount of

revenue would increase. Panamanians could also develop spinoff

industries such as drydocks and ship building creating an increase in

profits. Walter LaFeber develops a persuasive argument for the

interpretation of historical events surrounding the creation of the

Panama Canal. As is consistent with other LaFeber’s works, his

research and fact finding technique in The Panama Canal is complete if

not exhaustive. He presents an objective outlook on issues surrounding

the Canal. He uses a historical approach in presenting his

contribution to a subject that is lacking in information and scholarly

examination. In conclusion, this paper has addressed the historical

perspective that the author of the book used. A discussion also

included three important questions concerning the Canal, its

importance and the relationship between the United States and Panama.

Furthermore, this paper examines the effectiveness and usefulness of

LaFeber’s, The Panama Canal.

world book encyclopedia


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