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Should Americans look back with pride on the building of the Panama Canal?

The US negotiated the "rights" to build the canal from the British in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty and then negotiated with Colombia to gain the Canal Zone for 10 million and 250,000 per year. After a revolution in Colombia the new government refused t ratify the treaty. The US, dealing with French Engineer Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, agreed that if Panamanians revolted the US would stop the Colombians from interfering. A US fleet, led by the USS Nashville, entered the harbor at Colon and the next day a revolution broke out. Four days later the US government recognized Panama and Bunau-Varilla became the new countries first foreign minister to the US. 12 days later the Panamanian government agreed to the terms previously offered the Colombians.

Now that America's empire stretched from the Caribbean across the Pacific, the old idea of a canal between the two oceans took on new urgency. Mahan had predicted that "the canal will become a strategic center of the most vital importance," and Teddy agreed. "The canal," Roosevelt said, "was by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President. When nobody could or would exercise efficient authority, I exercised it."

In 1878 Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer who built the Suez Canal, began to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, which was then part of Colombia. Tropical disease and engineering problems halted construction on the canal, but a French business (the New Panama Canal Company) still held the rights to the project. Roosevelt agreed to pay $40 million for the rights, and he began to negotiate with Colombia for control of the land. He offered $10 million for a fifty-mile strip across the isthmus. Colombia refused.

"We were dealing with a government of irresponsible bandits," Roosevelt stormed. "I was prepared to . . . at once occupy the Isthmus anyhow, and proceed to dig the canal. But I deemed it likely that there would be a revolution in Panama soon."

Teddy was right. The chief engineer of the New Panama Canal Company organized a local revolt. Roosevelt immediately sent the battleship Nashville and a detachment of marines to Panama to support the new government. The rebels gladly accepted Roosevelt's $10 million offer, and they gave the United States complete control of a ten-mile wide canal zone. Roosevelt ordered army engineers to start digging. Thousands of workers sweated in the malarial heat. They tore up jungles and cut down mountains. Insects thrived in muddy, stagnant pools. "Mosquitoes get so thick you get a mouthful with every breath," a worker complained. The mosquitoes also carried yellow fever, and many fell victim to the deadly disease before Dr. William Gorgas found a way to stop it.

Some Americans did not approve of Roosevelt's behavior. "There was much accusation about my having acted in an 'unconstitutional' manner," Teddy shrugged. "I took the isthmus, started the canal, and then left Congress -- not to debate the canal, but to debate me. . . . While the debate goes on, the canal does too; and they are welcome to debate me as long as they wish, provided that we can go on with the canal."

Work did go on. Despite lethal landslides, workers with dynamite and clumsy steam shovels cut their way across a continent. They built a railroad, three sets of concrete locks, and a huge artificial lake. Nine years later the freighter Ancon entered the new channel. Hundreds of construction workers hopped aboard for the historic ride. A shiny towing locomotive pulled the Ancon into the first lock. Bands played and crowds cheered as the ship slipped into the Pacific.

Digging the Canal

Roosevelt liked to repeat an old African saying: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick. You will go far." In Panama, Teddy proved to the world that he was willing to use his big navy as a stick to further American interests.

The Culebra Cut


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