Panama: Canal of the Empire

Ever since the Americas had been colonized, explorers sought easier ways to trade goods between Europe and the Far East. With the advent of new technology in the 19th century, engineers began planning ways to dig a canal in narrow Central America that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, thus drastically reducing travel times. One of the narrowest points was in Panama, then a territory of Colombia.

In 1879, a French company bought the rights to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. However corruption, bad planning, earthquakes and disease thwarted French attempts. U.S. officials were researching a potentially easier route through Nicaragua, but when the French put their company on sale at a bargain price, the U.S. turned its sights to Panama. However a problem still remained—Panama was under Colombian rule.

Roosevelt and the Canal

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt sent Secretary of State John Hay to negotiate a treaty with Colombia based on France’s asking price of $40 million for the rights to the Panama Canal Zone. The negotiators agreed to a deal, but the Colombian government rejected it. This outraged Roosevelt, even though Colombia had the sovereign right to administer its own territory, which included accepting or rejecting agreements regarding Panama.

Later that year, a speculator named Philippe Bunau-Varilla met with Roosevelt and confided that Colombia’s rejection had cost Panamanian businessmen millions of dollars, and consequently a revolt was inevitable. Seeing that this could solve the problem of having no agreement, Roosevelt ordered U.S.S. Nashville to head to the port of Colon, Panama.

The Panamanian Revolt

Nashville arrived on November 2, 1903 and blocked the Panama Railroad, thus preventing Colombia from moving military forces by rail to stop the revolt. Other Colombian soldiers were bribed $50 each to lay down their arms. The next day, the revolution began; the new Panamanian constitution had been drafted by U.S. officials in advance. On November 6, Panama declared its independence from Colombia.

Within two hours, the U.S. recognized the independent Republic of Panama. This marked the quickest U.S. recognition of a new government in history. Less than two weeks later, a treaty was signed despite Colombian protests giving the U.S. control of the Panama Canal Zone “in perpetuity” in exchange for a down payment and annual fee.

Thus after Colombia rejected the initial agreement, the U.S. helped create a new country that would be more agreeable to its aims. Even though the deal was made and the military was deployed without the legal consent of Congress, President Roosevelt later admitted, “I took the Canal Zone. I… left (it to) Congress, not to debate the Canal, but to debate me.”

Panama Canal Construction

In early 1904, President Roosevelt appointed the Panama Canal Commission to supervise construction. Malaria and yellow fever threats were met by breakthroughs in treating the illnesses from U.S. doctors in Cuba. A system of locks and channels to raise vessels above the oceans was designed and built. Over 2,500 workers excavated 200 million yards of dirt and rock, and despite using 19 million pounds of explosives, only eight men died in accidents.

The Panama Canal was formally opened in August 1914. It was the greatest engineering feat in history and Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous and historically significant foreign policy achievement. The Canal shortened the shipping route between San Francisco and New York City by 8,000 miles.

The Torrijos-Carter Treaties

As years went by, relations between Panama and the U.S. deteriorated to the point that Panamanians demanded a revision to the treaty granting the U.S. control of the Canal Zone. In 1977, new treaties were negotiated by Panamanian General Omar Torrijos and U.S. President Jimmy Carter that pledged to return the Canal Zone to Panama by 2000.

Most Americans bitterly opposed these treaties because they surrendered a strategic asset to an unstable, corrupt government led by an unelected military dictator. Nevertheless, on December 14, 1999, a delegation led by former President Carter handed control of the Panama Canal to Panama.


Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael: A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2004)

Davis, Kenneth C.: Don’t Know Much About History (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2003)

Zinn, Howard: A People’s History of the United States (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1980)


Walter Coffey

Februar 23, 2011

Suite101: Modern US History Articles


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