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It Took 2 Tries and Plenty of Politics to Build Panama Canal

It Took 2 Tries and Plenty of Politics to Build Panama Canal
AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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On Aug. 15, 1914, one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels was completed in the Panama Canal Zone under the guidance of the United States. This massive canal connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and cemented America’s place at the table of major world players.

The Isthmus of Panama, where the Canal was built, is a tiny sliver of land connecting the Americas. The French were the first to try and build a canal through the isthmus, from 1881-94 (and at the height of its worldwide imperium), but their project failed miserably. The problem wasn’t engineering prowess or finances (the French were led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer who built the Suez Canal), it was climate. De Lesseps and his team built a much longer canal in Egypt but did so under pristine Mediterranean conditions. When confronted with tropical jungles, the French effort faltered. To make matters worse for de Lesseps and his team, instead of dealing with the British government (as they did in their Suez endeavor), which was well adept at international cooperation and had a hefty financial incentive to complete a canal, the French had to deal with a Colombian government that was almost brand new and had virtually no international experience whatsoever.

The Colombians were so bad for the Panama Canal project that, in 1903, after years of international political machinations from Washington and Paris, Panama declared independence from Colombia and was promptly protected by the United States navy. The Americans and the new country of Panama signed a treaty creating the Panama Canal Zone and giving the U.S. government a green light to build the canal.

The political ramifications for Washington essentially stealing a province from Colombia were huge. The United States had just seized a number of overseas territories from Spain in 1898, and the imperial project was frowned upon by numerous factions for various reasons. The U.S. foray into imperialism led to governance issues in the Caribbean, where Washington found itself supporting anti-democratic autocrats, and confronting outright ethical problems in the Philippines, where the United States Army was ruthlessly putting down a revolt against its rule. So acquiring a “canal zone” in a country that was baited into leaving another country was scandalous, especially since Colombia’s reluctance to cooperate with France and the U.S. was viewed as democratic (the Colombian Senate refused to ratify several canal-related treaties with France and the U.S.), and the two Western powers were supposedly the torchbearers of democracy. To make matters worse, many elites in Panama, after agreeing to secede in exchange for protection from Colombia, felt betrayed by the terms of the Panama Canal Zone, which granted the United States sole control over the zone in perpetuity.

Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent imperialist (and hero of the Spanish-American War), was president at the time and issued the following statement regarding criticisms of his seizure of the Isthmus: "I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me." And that’s exactly what happened.

The canal itself was completed 10 years later, and without too many problems. Woodrow Wilson was president in 1914, and sent the telegraph that triggered the final explosion to complete the Panama Canal. Worldwide commerce didn’t boom, however, due to World War I, and previously prosperous port cities throughout Chile and Argentina declined quickly and mercilessly. The United States handed over control of the canal to Panama in 1999, and the country promptly turned it over to the control of private interests, headed by a consortium based out of Hong Kong. After 96 years of being governed by an imperial power, the politics of the Panama Canal finally reflect its feats in engineering: a cosmopolitan ideal that benefits all of mankind through our creative ingenuity.

 

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