A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama

*Ever since the days of Christopher Columbus, people had hoped to sail from Europe to Asia, but the Americas had separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.


*Ever since Vasco de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513, becoming the first European to lead an expedition to the Pacific, some people had hoped to use Central America as a route between the Oceans.


*As early as 1534, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered a survey of the Isthmus of Panama to determine the best route for a canal, to ease the transportation of silver from Peru to Spain, but this was never done.


*In the late 1690s, a Scottish company tried to establish a colony and build an overland route in what they called the Isthmus of Darien (another name for Panama), but the Darien Scheme failed, bankrupting much of Scotland and leading to its official Union with England in the United Kingdom in 1707.


*In the 1600s and 1700s, others proposed building a canal, including Thomas Jefferson, who as ambassador to France in 1788 suggested that Spain should build a canal there, and the Spanish explorer Alessandro Malaspina drew up plans for on a few years later.


*When Spain’s American colonies gained their independence in the 1810s and 1820s, Gran Colombia (which soon disintegrated into Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador) considered building a canal through Panama, but refused American help in doing so.


*With the discovery of gold in California, thousands of people rushed from the East Coast to the West Coast, some around the tip of South America, but others sailing to the east coast of Central America, crossing the isthmus, and then sailing to California from the west coast.  Some crossed over Panama, and others went through Nicaragua, many of them crossing Lake Nicaragua on steamboats owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt.


*Indeed, discussion would grow about building a canal across Nicaragua, although fears of local volcanoes would discourage some investors.


*In 1850, the United States and Britain signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, agreeing that neither nation would fortify or hold exclusive control over any future canal across the Central American isthmus.  Still, both countries considered building one, and in 1901, the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty allowed the United States to build and control a canal across the Isthmus, although under the condition that it remain a neutral waterway.


*In 1881, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French diplomat and businessman who had built the Suez Canal in Egypt between 1859 and 1869 and made a huge profit for his investors doing so, proposed building a canal across Panama, and got many French and other investors to support him and got permission from the government of Colombia, which owned Panama at the time (although Panama had occasionally experienced unsuccessful revolutions seeking independence, notably in 1885).


*De Lesseps’s company was not successful, due to the more mountainous terrain of Panama and struggles with Yellow Fever, and went bankrupt after nine years, but a New Panama Canal Company was formed in 1894, and most of its stock was purchased by the engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla.


*The New Panama Canal Company retained the right to build the canal, but did not have the money to actually do it, so Bunau-Varilla hoped to sell the company to someone who could finish it.


*The United States under President Theodore Roosevelt were eager to buy the company, but Colombia was reluctant to allow it.  In 1903, a tentative agreement was reached that would allow the United States to build the canal and control the land around it for a price, but the United States’ offer of ten million dollars up front and $250,000 a year was seen as insufficient by Colombia, so Colombia delayed, because the New Panama Canal Company’s license to build in Panama was about to expire at the end of 1903, and Colombia hoped to reclaim all the Company’s property and sell it to the United States for $40,000,000.  Bunau-Varilla, naturally, was desperate to sell his company while he still could.


--Introduce A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama


     -A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama was part of the NOVA television series that first aired in 1987.  This was shortly before the United States turned over control of the Panama Canal to Panama, and so the end of the year 1999 is presented as being in the near future.


     -The documentary was written and narrated by David McCullough, and based on his own book The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914 published in 1977 and was quoted in debates in the US Congress in that year about what American policy regarding the Canal ought to be.  McCullough was pleased that both sides in the debate quoted his book.


     -Show A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama


-#13 is about the bankruptcy of the Panama Canal Company, which was quite a scandal, when it turned out that 150 French deputies had been bribed into voting for financial aid for the Panama Canal Company, and in February 1893 de Lesseps, his son Charles, and a number of others were tried and found guilty. De Lesseps was ordered to pay a fine and serve a prison sentence, but the latter was overturned by the Court of Cassation on the grounds that it had been more than three years since the crime was committed.  A New Panama Canal Company was formed and gained the right to build the Canal, but accomplished little.  In 1904 the United States bought out the assets of the New Panama Canal Company for $40 million (after the Company asked $109 million).


-#17 mentions Colombia’s unhappiness with US involvement in the Canal.  Colombia insisted that they retain sovereignty over the Canal and that it be guarded by Colombian police paid by the United States.  The United States insisted on complete control of the zone around the Canal, and offered Colombia $10 million up front plus $250,000 a year in gold for that right.  That was rejected by the Colombian Senate.


-#18 was not just about American interest in the Canal, as some Panamanians had felt for years that they were not properly cared for by the Colombian government, but the Canal was the main reason, and without American help, the Revolution would not have succeeded.  One of the main instigators of the Revolution was Philippe Bunau-Varilla was a French engineer who had worked for the Panama Canal Company, eventually as General Manager, and purchased a large amount of stock in the New Panama Canal Company, and if the United States had not been able to build the Canal, it might have changed their mind about buying all the stock of that Company.


-#22 & #23 Philippe Bunau-Varilla had not just been a leader of the Panamanian Revolution:  he wrote its constriction, designed its flag, paid the government’s budget out of his own pocket, and got himself named ambassador to the United States with absolute power to negotiate on behalf of Panama.  He sold the right to build the Canal and occupy a ten-mile wide Canal Zone to the United States for $10 million plus $250,000 a year.  Panama was not entirely happy with the treaty he negotiated, but it secured the fortune he made from the United States’ purchase of his stock in the New Panama Canal Company, and the Canal did get built.


-#48 tells of the results of the Torrijos–Carter Treaties negotiated in 1977, signed to improve relations between the United States and Latin America, and because America’s largest warships could no longer fit through the Canal anyway, reducing its strategic significance.  The treaties returned the Canal Zone to Panama in 1979 and the Canal itself to Panama in 1999, although with the condition that the Canal remain neutral, and open to all shipping.  The Canal would be protected by the United States, and the USA would also guarantee the Canal’s neutrality.  Some Panamanians resented the United States’ continued right to intervene in their country, and some Americans resented giving it up at all-- Senator Strom Thurmond said, ‘The canal is ours, we bought and we paid for it and we should keep it.’  Since Panama gained control of the Canal, it has managed it well, and it pays a significant part of Panama’s budget.  Panama even undertook a major expansion program between 2007 and 2016, although the original locks are still in operation and are expected to remain in use indefinitely.


*In the years after the Panamanian Revolution, the United States would become increasingly involved in the Latin American affairs, particularly in the Caribbean, where President Theodore Roosevelt would follow his own advice to ‘speak softly, but carry a big stick.’


*To protect Latin American countries from internal instability (particularly if it threatened American business interests) and from the possibility of foreign invasions to recover debts, Theodore Roosevelt expanded on the old Monroe Doctrine, America’s promise to protect Latin America from outside influence, with the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, promising to protect Latin American countries from themselves.


*In years to come, the United States would intervene in many countries in Latin America, in what would be known (especially during Roosevelt’s presidency) as Big Stick Diplomacy.

This page last updated 4 March, 2020.
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