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Panama Canal


PANAMA CANAL. In 1513, the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and sighted the Pacific Ocean. From that point forward, the Spanish and then the Dutch, French, British, and Americans would seek to create a path between the seas that would shorten the trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific without traveling around Cape Horn. It would take nearly four centuries to accomplish the goal.

Early Plans and Construction of the Canal

Once Colombia won independence from Spain, European and American interest in the canal began in earnest as Panama remained a province of Colombia. In 1829, Simón Bolívar commissioned a British engineer, John Lloyd, to study building a canal across Panama. With a positive report, the Colombians threw open the bidding in 1834, promising 100,000 acres of land and revenues for fifty years.

In the mid-1830s, President Andrew Jackson sent Charles Biddle to Central America. He negotiated with Bogotá to build a road to the navigable Chagres River and import two steamships to conduct trade across the isthmus. For his work, Bogotá promised 140,000 acres, an additional 750,000 at fifty cents an acre, and a fifty-year lease. All Biddle's efforts were for naught, however, as Jackson lost interest when a rival Dutch plan in Nicaragua failed.

Despite the initial setback, interest in the canal remained high. By the late 1840s, British and U.S. officials decided to negotiate for a "great highway" across Central America, to be open to all nations. Sir Henry Bulwer and U.S. Secretary of State John Clayton signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty on 19 April 1850. Both promised never to monopolize or fortify the proposed canal and agreed that neither would colonize any new part of Central America. While little happened during the next forty years to advance construction of a waterway outside of the creation of railroads and steamship enterprises, people still dreamed about a trans-isthmian canal. The great French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, won a concession from the Colombian government to construct a canal in Panama in the 1880s. His French Canal Company failed miserably, but his successors retained the concession and asked $109 million for it.

In 1898, the war with Spain renewed interest when the U.S. Pacific Fleet had to travel around South America to Cuba. In 1901, the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, soon addressed a major obstacle, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. In November of that year, after tedious negotiations, Secretary of State John Hay and the British ambassador to Washington, Lord Pauncefote, signed an agreement that superseded the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and permitted the United States to build and fortify a Central American canal.

With the British out of the way, Roosevelt made construction of the canal a priority, announcing his intention to make "the dirt fly" in Central America. As Roosevelt had taken office in September 1901, a commission had recommended a Nicaraguan canal. Working on the recommendation, in January 1902 the House of Representatives voted 308–2 to pursue the Nicaraguan canal. The French company, now called the New Panama Canal Company and led by Philippe Bunau-Varilla, swung into action. It hired a high-powered American lobbyist, William Cromwell, who had personal access to the White House. Cromwell and Bunau-Varilla succeeded, and in June 1902, Congress passed the Spooner Act, a measure that allowed Roosevelt to negotiate for the right of way in Panama.

Secretary of State Hay immediately set about the task of coming to an agreement with the Colombians. In January 1903, he and a Colombian diplomat, Tomás Herrán, signed an accord. The treaty granted the United States the right to build a canal zone six miles wide. In return, the United States promised a payment of $10 million and annual payments of $250,000 after nine years, with the lease renewable in perpetuity. Immediately Bogotá expressed reservations and told Herrán to wait for new instructions. The U.S. Senate refused to delay and approved the treaty in March 1903.

Problems resulted when the Colombians balked at the original agreement. The Colombian congress unanimously rejected the Hay-Herrán Treaty in August 1903. In response, Cromwell and Bunau-Varilla began formulating plans for Panama's secession from Colombia and for American ownership of the canal. Plotting from the New York Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during the summer of 1903, the group planted newspaper stories about Panama's plan to rebel and grant the United States sovereignty

over the Canal Zone. They also gathered money for bribes of Colombian officials and organized a small army.

The Panamanians launched their rebellion on 3 November 1903. By the end of that day the rebels had formed a provisional government and unveiled a constitution, one written in New York. The presence of the USS Nashville and the use of bribes allowed a successful revolution. In one day and with only one death, the new Republic of Panama was born.

Washington immediately extended diplomatic recognition. Within several days, Bunau-Varilla (who had received permission from the provisional government to represent Panama) began negotiations. On 18 November, the two parties signed the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty. It gave the United States a ten-mile strip of land, all the rights to construct and administer a canal, and the right to protect the canal. In return, the Panamanians received $10 million and an annual rent of $250,000. Washington also promised to maintain Panama's independence.

Despite some criticisms of the agreement, Roosevelt pressed the Senate for ratification, urging it to follow the example of the Panamanian Congress. After spirited debate, on 23 February 1904 the Senate voted 66–14 to accept it. Immediately Washington purchased the assets of the New Panama Canal Company for $40 million. The Panamanians received their money and American engineers quickly set to work.

The canal took a decade to complete. It was a technological marvel, composed of a series of six locks that linked various waterways. Under the supervision of the engineers John F. Stevens (1905–1907) and Lieutenant Colonel George W. Goethels (1907–1914), the Canal Commission completed the construction with substantial assistance from workers imported from the Caribbean islands and southern United States, in numbers exceeding 44,000 in 1913. Employing heavy machinery—and benefiting from new techniques to reduce yellow fever and other tropical diseases in an effort led by Dr. William Crawford Gorgas—the laborers created a new society within the newly independent Panama. The canal opened for commerce on 15 August 1914. The United States now had major new support for its economic and military growth as the water route from New York City to San Francisco shrank from 13,165 miles to 5,300.

Panama Canal Zone, 1914–1979

For nearly forty years, the Panama Canal Zone operated under various acts of Congress with executive supervision.

In 1950, Congress passed the Thompson Act, which created the Panama Canal Company, operated under the auspices of a board of directors. A governor of the Canal Zone, appointed by the U.S. president, monitored the day-to-day operations of the zone and used revenues to make improvements and maintain the canal. In addition, the U.S. military maintained bases in the Canal Zone to protect the important strategic site.

Throughout the period, Panamanian nationalists clamored for more beneficial terms than those in the 1903 treaty. A 1936 agreement increased the annuity paid by the U.S. government to Panamanians, and a 1942 treaty transferred various civil works projects to the Panamanian government and promised additional infrastructure development. Additional revisions occurred in the 1950s, including the flying of the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone as the United States tried to address issues of sovereignty.

Despite compromises, tensions continued to mount. In January 1964, the most serious confrontation over the canal developed. American high school students, supported by their parents, refused to raise the Panamanian flag at the Canal Zone's Balboa High School. Panamanians marched to show their flag near the school. As they neared, an American mob attacked them, tearing the flag. The news quickly spread, and thirty thousand Panamanians descended on the main avenue approaching the Canal Zone. Snipers poured hundreds of rounds into the U.S. positions, and U.S. troops fired back. Riots erupted as Panamanians destroyed American businesses.

Panama's President Roberto Chiari suspended diplomatic relations, and hard-liners in Congress urged President Lyndon Johnson to respond with force. However, Johnson chose to negotiate and dispatched Thomas Mann and Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance to mediate the dispute, which Johnson blamed on the communists.

After four days of fighting and looting, the Panamanian National Guard reestablished order. Four Americans died and eighty-five were wounded. Twenty-four Panamanians died and more than two hundred were wounded. The fighting caused more than $2 million in damage, much of it to American businesses.

While blaming the communists, most American policymakers could not ignore the animosity that provoked the confrontation. In the aftermath, the Chiari government and the Johnson administration opened negotiations to address Panama's grievances. Ultimately Washington agreed to terminate the 1903 treaty in return for granting U.S. control and operation of the canal until 1999. Despite strong public criticism, Johnson submitted the treaty to the Senate in 1967. It languished there as Johnson's attentions focused on Vietnam and internal events in Panama sabotaged acceptance. It would take another Democratic president, more than a decade later, to push through Johnson's original ideas.

The Panama Canal Treaty

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter took control of the White House. One of his first goals regarding Latin America was the settlement of the Canal Zone debates. Carter believed that a treaty would have a positive impact on U.S.–Latin American relations. Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance built on negotiations begun by Johnson and continued by Henry Kissinger during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The Carter administration pushed hard for a treaty, dealing closely with Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos, who had controlled the country since 1968. Tense negotiations headed by Ellsworth Bunker and Sol Linowitz continued for nearly a year.

Finally, on 11 August 1977, the parties held a press conference in Panama and unveiled the treaty. It had several parts, starting with the process of returning the canal to Panama by 31 December 1999. Second, the treaty guaranteed the rights of American workers in the Canal Zone through their retirement. Third, it provided the United States with a permanent right to defend the canal's neutrality. Last, Washington increased payment for its use of the canal from $2.3 million to $40 million annually and promised additional economic and military assistance.

The announcement of the treaty stirred debates in both countries. Since the treaty required approval by the Panamanian people (as outlined in their constitution) and confirmation by a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate, victory appeared far away in April 1977. In Panama, Torrijos pushed through the plebiscite in Panama, although not without opposition. In the United States, the Senate began deliberations in the summer of 1978. President Carter and his staff pushed hard, winning the support of diverse groups including the Pentagon (which believed the canal had outlived its tactical purpose) and the Catholic Church along with distinguished diplomats including Kissinger. Over time, Carter won the backing of important senators from both parties including Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) and Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tennessee). With promises of compromise and pork barrel projects, the pro-treaty group moved forward.

Throughout the summer the foes battled on the floor of the Senate and in public forums. Carter secured an extra promise from Torrijos guaranteeing the right of the United States to defend the Canal Zone after 2000, which won additional votes. In March 1978, the Senate approved the neutrality part of the treaty 68–32. By mid-April, they approved the other part of the treaty, outlining administration through 2000, by the same vote. Carter, the Senate leadership, and pro-treaty forces enjoyed a major victory. The president emphasized that the treaty symbolized the efforts by the United States to create not only positive relations with Panama but with other Third World countries. The goal was partnerships based on mutual respect.

Relinquishing U.S. Control, 1979–1999

The process of turning over the canal began in October 1979, as Carter's term was ending. The Panamanians gained control over the former Canal Zone, and the Panama Canal Commission, composed of Americans and

Panamanians, began the process of overseeing the transition. In the summer of 1980 a Committee on the Environment and a Coordinating Committee began working to implement sections of the treaty.

During the 1980s, the Panama Canal remained an issue of concern to the United States. Some thought that the election of Ronald Reagan might mean that the treaty would be overturned as he had been one of its leading critics during the presidential debates. But in fact the movement toward transition continued unabated during his two terms. More Panamanians became integrated into the Canal Zone as policemen and pilots, and American employees there gradually were weaned off their ties to the U.S. government.

Furthermore, the presence of the left-wing Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s and possible threats in the Caribbean led Americans to continue to view the Canal Zone and its defense installations as vital to U.S. national security. This made them fearful of provoking a confrontation in Panama. Reagan administration officials worked with General Manuel Noriega, who had replaced Torrijo after his death in a mysterious plane crash. Noriega allowed the contras—right-wing foes of the Sandinista government who were supported by the Reagan administration—to train in his country. While rumors had swirled for many years about Noriega's ties to the drug trade, U.S. leaders ignored them. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Attorney General Edwin Meese sent letters of commendation to the Panamanian dictator. Noriega also regularly received U.S. dignitaries, including Vice President George H. W. Bush, to discuss policy issues.

By the middle of the 1980s, problems began to develop. As the Iran-Contra scandal blossomed and Reagan's credibility suffered, the tales of Noriega's drug ties became more prominent. Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) held hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations that further substantiated published reports about Noriega's drug trafficking and money laundering.

When George H. W. Bush took office as president in 1989, he began concerted efforts to deal with Noriega, building on some late efforts by Reagan. The problem became more complicated when a Miami grand jury indicted Noriega on drug charges in 1988. Tensions heightened in early 1989 when Noriega overturned an election. Critics jumped on Bush's failure to do anything. Even when an opportunity presented itself in the form of a coup by disenchanted Panamanians, he did nothing. Soon after, Noriega defiantly declared a "state of war" between Panama and the United States, often brandishing a machete at mass anti-American rallies. With relations deteriorating, Panamanians killed an off-duty marine, and the Panamanian Defense Forces beat an American officer and threatened to rape his wife. Bush concluded that he had enough.

On 20 December, the United States attacked Panama with more than twenty thousand men. Code-named Operation Just Cause, the Pentagon employed all the latest weaponry including Stealth bombers. Hundreds of Panamanian civilians perished in the cross fire between the Panamanian Defense Forces and U.S. troops (twenty-three Americans died). The fighting inflicted more than $1 billion of damage in Panama City, especially in the poorest areas, where thousands found themselves homeless. Noriega evaded capture for fifteen days, but on 3 January 1990 he finally left his sanctuary in the papal nunciature (papal diplomatic mission headed by a nuncio), and DEA agents immediately put him on a plane to Miami.

In the aftermath of Operation Just Cause, the United States installed in office the legally elected president, Guillermo Endara. Washington poured more money into the country, but unemployment and poverty remained high. In 1994, one of Noriega's cronies, Ernesto Pérez Balladares, won the presidency. As for Noriega, an American jury sentenced him to forty years in jail without parole. Most observers concluded that despite Noriega's removal, the invasion accomplished little in stopping the drug trade and in fact created more animosity toward the United States.

In the aftermath of the invasion, despite calls from some Americans for a total renegotiation of the Panama Canal Treaty, it moved forward. In September 1990, Gilberto Guardia Fabréga became the Panama Canal Commission administrator, the first Panamanian in such a high position. Throughout the 1990s, the process continued. In 1997, the Panama Canal Authority was created, the final step toward removing any U.S. government control. In September 1998, Albert Alemán Zubieta became the first administrator of the Panama Canal Authority. Soon after, Panama's legislative assembly created the Canal Authority's budget for its first fiscal year of 2000.

All of these steps led to great fanfare for the celebration of 14 December 1999. Foreign dignitaries attended the ceremony where the United States completely relinquished its claim to the canal. Former president Jimmy Carter signed for the United States while Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso represented the new owners. Officially, on 31 December 1999, the Panama Canal became the possession of the nation of Panama.


Collin, Richard H. Theodore Roosevelt's Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Conniff, Michael L. Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904– 1981. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

———. Panama and the United States: The Forced Alliance. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Dinges, John. Our Man in Panama: The Shrewd Rise and Brutal Fall of Manuel Noriega. New York: Random House, 1990. Rev. ed., New York: Times Books, 1991.

Furlong, William L., and Margaret E. Scranton. The Dynamics of Foreign Policymaking: The President, the Congress, and the Panama Canal Treaties. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984.

Hogan, J. Michael. The Panama Canal in American Politics: Domestic Advocacy and the Evolution of Policy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

LaFeber, Walter. The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Updated ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Leonard, Thomas M. Panama, the Canal, and the United States: A Guide to Issues and References. Claremont, Calif.: Regina Books, 1993.

Major, John. Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903–1979. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

McCullough, David G. The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Moffett, George D., 3d. The Limits of Victory: The Ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Scranton, Margaret E. The Noriega Years: U.S.-Panamanian Relations, 1981–1990. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1991.


See alsoPanama Canal Treaty ; Panama Invasion ; Panama Revolution .

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Panama Canal

Panama Canal


From the time of its opening in 1914 until 1977, when the United States transferred it to the nation of Panama, the Panama Canal was a symbol of U.S. influence in the Americas and, ultimately, the world. Despite the bitterness that attended the debate over its transfer to Panama, combined with fears of foreign takeover that surfaced when Panama took formal control on December 31, 1999, the Canal lacks the strategic importance it enjoyed in its heyday. Still, it remains one of several important "chokepoints"areas in which the flow of the world's oil supply traverses a narrow passage vulnerable to attackand for this reason, the United States remains committed to the Canal's defense.

Early history

From the earliest voyages of discovery in the area of Central America and the Caribbean, it became clear that a canal across one of Central America's narrowest points would greatly shorten travel and transport time between Atlantic and Pacific ports. In 1835, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in favor of building such a canal, but through Nicaragua. In 1881, a French team under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, attempted to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama, but the project suffered a number of misfortunes, including bankruptcy and outbreaks of disease among workers. The French project was scrapped for good in 1898.

Meanwhile, the idea of a canal remained a topic of debate in the United States, which still favored a route through Nicaragua. After much political wrangling, however, Congress in 1902 passed the Spooner Act, which authorized the United States to purchase the assets of the French company and begin building a canal through Panama. The latter at that time belonged to Colombia, and when treaty negotiations with Colombia stalled, U.S. authorities gave their support to a declaration of independence by Panama in November 1903. Colombia, convulsed by four years of civil war, could do little to stop the act of secession, and the United States completed a treaty with the new nation of Panama. In February 1904, Congress created the Panama Canal Zone.

The building of the Canal took place over a 10-year period beginning in the summer of 1904. Its builders, who numbered as many as 40,000 at any one time, consisted of American and European engineers and technicians, with Latin American and Chinese immigrant labor. Among the challenges they confronted were disease, carried by mosquitoes that lived in the swampy lands along the canal route, and topography. Rather than build at sea level, the engineers finally decided on a plan involving a series of locks and an earthen dam, which created what was then the world's largest artificial lake, Gatun. The Canalwhich actually follows a route from the northwest to the southeast, rather than east to westopened on August 15, 1914.

Rethinking the Canal

Although the Canal was a vital lifeline during the two world wars, by the time of the Korean War, its limitations had begun to show. The Canal could not accommodate very large aircraft carriers, an increasingly critical aspect of U.S. national security. By the mid-1970s, most large oil tankers were also too big for passage.

Coupled with the physical issues were political ones associated with the growth of anti-American sentiment in Panama and elsewhere. On January 9, 1964, American refusal to fly the Panamanian flag over a high school in the Canal Zone sparked riots that left 23 Panamanians and four U.S. Marines dead. Afterward, Panama called for new treaty discussions with the United States.

The treaties. On September 7, 1977, President James E. Carter and Panamanian military dictator Omar Torrijos signed the Panama Canal Treaty, which abolished the Canal Zone, terminated all prior treaties regarding the Canal, and provided for the full transfer of the Canal to Panama on December 31, 1999. A separate Neutrality Treaty guaranteed the neutrality of the Canal in perpetuity.

The Neutrality Treaty and several aspects of the Panama Canal Treaty served to protect U.S. interestsinterests that, in the view of many Treaty supporters, were best supported by a voluntary transfer of the Canal. The alternative, supporters maintained, would be a political and public-relations disaster for the United States, and would only serve to bolster Latin American resentment against the wealthy, powerful neighbor to the north.

Opponents to the Canal agreements, led by future President Ronald Reagan, cited the Treaty as one further sign of America's worldwide retreat, and warned of foreign takeover. Nevertheless, the transfer plan enjoyed support from a number of Republicans, including former President Gerald R. Ford and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In 1978, the Senate ratified both treaties, and in 1979 Congress passed the Panama Canal Act. Among its many provisions, the Act created the Panama Canal Commission, which would act as custodian over the Canal for the next 20 years.

The transfer. Panama has not fared well in the years since the Treaty. The United States deposed another dictator, Manuel Noriega, in 1989, acting partly to protect the Canal from takeover. The country has been run by civilian governments since then, but these have proven inadequate to solve the nation's domestic problems. As the December, 1999, deadline loomed, some Panamanians expressed reservations regarding the transfer of the Canal.

On the one hand, its acquisition would greatly enhance national prestige, but many wondered if any small, poor country could undertake an operation hitherto over-seen by the world's leading superpower. Similar concerns in the United States led to a proposal regarding a continued U.S. military presence. However, talks between the two nations ended in September, 1998, without any such agreement.

On the last day of the 1900s, U.S. Army Secretary Louis Caldera led a delegation that officially turned over control of the Canal to Panama, represented by President Mireya Moscoso. Minutes before the hoisting of the Panamanian flag over the Canal administration building, a triumphant Moscoso proclaimed to her people, "The Canal is ours!"

The Canal Today

Subsequent events have not served to reinforce this initial enthusiasm. The Canal has faced several environmental problems, including a lack of rainwater, important to the transport of ships through its 12 locks, caused by droughts resulting from the El Niño weather phenomenon. Political and economic corruption has also shadowed the Canal. Not only did a local land-sale scam involving Canal properties bilk investors, but in November, 2000, it was discovered that millions of dollars in U.S. equipment (including firearms) from the former Canal Zone had disappeared.

Some of the fears raised prior to the transition, however, have proven illusory. One was the question of Chinese control, a powerful issue in Washington due to allegations of widespread Chinese espionage against the United States during the administration of President William J. Clinton. When the Hong Kong conglomerate Hutchison-Whampoa gained a contract to manage ports on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, this raised concerns that the Chinese might use this as an opportunity to seize control of the Canal. Subsequent events, howeveror rather, the lack of events in this regardhave served to support the view of those who pointed out that China has never been expansionist beyond Asia.

If the Canal faces a serious foreign threat, it is likely to come from much closer to home, such as from Colombia, which continually teeters on the brink of anarchy as its government battles drug traffickers, revolutionaries, and paramilitary groups. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, many international observers expressed grave concerns that Panama in general, and the Canal in particular, could be drawn into these struggles.

In any case, the Canal lacks the strategic significance it once held, and in 2000 only 1.7 percent of total U.S. petroleum imports passed through it. Though as many as 10,000 vessels navigate the Canal each year, traffic has declined since the peak year, 1970, and today 10 percent of the world's cargo ships are too large to traverse it. Additionally, the Trans-Panama Pipeline, opened in October 1982, could be used to ship oil across the Panamanian isthmus if the Canal were closed. Discussions regarding an enlarged or alternate canal are ongoing, though it is unlikely such a project could undertaken without a wealthy nation or nations to underwrite it.



Collin, Richard H. Theodore Roosevelt's Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Falcoff, Mark. Panama's Canal: What Happens When the United States Gives a Small Country What It Wants. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 1998.

Leonard, Thomas M. Panama, the Canal, and the United States: A Guide to Issues and References. Claremont, CA: Regina Books, 1993.

Major, John. Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 19031979. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Strong, Robert A. Working in the World: Jimmy Carter and the Making of American Foreign Policy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.


Americas, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions
Carter Adminstration (19771981), United States National Security Policy
Clinton Administration (19932001), United States National Security Policy
Suez Canal

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Panama Canal

Panama Canal, waterway across the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic (by way of the Caribbean Sea) and Pacific oceans, built by the United States (1904–14) on territory leased from the republic of Panama. The canal, running S and SE from Limón Bay at Colón on the Atlantic to the Bay of Panama at Balboa on the Pacific, is 40 mi (64 km) long from shore to shore and 51 mi (82 km) long between channel entrances. The Pacific terminus is 27 mi (43 km) east of the Caribbean terminus. The minimum depth is 41 ft (12.5 m).

From Limón Bay a ship is raised by Gatún Locks (a set of three) to an elevation 85 ft (25.9 m) above sea level, traverses Gatún Lake, then crosses the Continental Divide through Gaillard (formerly Culebra) Cut and is lowered by Pedro Miguel Lock to Miraflores Lake and then by the Miraflores Locks (a set of two) to sea level. The average tidal range on the Atlantic side is less than a foot (.3 m); that on the Pacific side is 12.6 ft (3.8 m).

U.S. Interest in a Canal

Building an interoceanic canal was suggested early in Spanish colonial times. The United States, interested since the late 18th cent. in trading voyages to the coast of the Pacific Northwest, became greatly concerned with plans for a canal after settlers had begun to pour into Oregon and California. Active negotiations led in 1846 to a treaty, by which the republic of New Granada (consisting of present-day Panama and Colombia) granted the United States transit rights across the Isthmus of Panama in return for a guarantee of the neutrality and sovereignty of New Granada.

The isthmus gained more importance after the United States acquired (1848) California and the gold rush began, and the trans-Panama RR was built (1848–55) with U.S. capital. At the same time, interest in an alternate route, the Nicaragua Canal, was strong in both Great Britain and the United States. Rivalry between the two countries was ended by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850), which guaranteed that neither power should have exclusive rights or threaten the neutrality of an interoceanic route. In the 1870s and 80s the United States tried unsuccessfully to induce Great Britain to abrogate or amend the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty.

After the United States acquired territory in the Caribbean and in the Pacific as a result of the Spanish-American War (1899), U.S. control over an isthmian canal seemed imperative. Following protracted negotiations, a U.S.-British agreement (see Hay-Pauncefote Treaties) was made in 1901, giving the United States the right to build, and by implication fortify, an isthmian canal. It was then necessary for Congress to choose between Nicaragua or Panama as the route for the canal.

French Attempts

Meanwhile a concession for building a sea-level canal in Panama (granted 1878) was acquired by a French company under Ferdinand de Lesseps. Work began in 1881, but poor planning, disease among the workers, construction troubles, and inadequate financing drove the company into bankruptcy in 1889. Amid charges of corruption and mismanagement, French courts transferred (1894) the rights and assets to a new company. Although the alternate Nicaragua route was favored by the United States, an American representative of the French company, William Nelson Cromwell, began working vigorously to interest the United States in the Panama route, and Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a leading figure in the new company, devoted himself to the cause. When a U.S. commission recommended a canal through Nicaragua in 1901, Bunau-Varilla persuaded the French directors to reduce the price of the company's rights, gaining the support of Mark Hanna and later of President Theodore Roosevelt. The commission reversed its recommendation, and Congress authorized purchase of the French company's rights and construction of the Panama Canal.

Insurrection against Colombia

The Hay-Herrán Treaty, signed (Jan., 1903) with Colombia, would have given the United States a strip of land across the Isthmus of Panama in return for an initial cash payment of $10 million and an annuity of $250,000, but the Colombian senate refused to ratify it. An insurrection, involving Bunau-Varilla and other proponents of the canal as well as the regional population, was encouraged by the United States. Panama rose in revolt on Nov. 3, 1903, declaring itself independent of Colombia. Invoking the treaty of 1846, the United States sent an American warship to Panama, and its presence prevented Colombian troops from quelling the outbreak. The new republic was formally recognized three days later, and on Nov. 17 the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed, granting to the United States, in return for the same terms offered Colombia, exclusive control of a canal zone in perpetuity, other sites necessary for defense, and sanitary control of Panama City and Colón. Colombia's efforts to secure redress for the loss of Panama later resulted in ratification of a treaty (1921) by which the United States paid Colombia $25 million, and Colombia recognized the independence of Panama.

Construction and Improvements

Construction of a lock canal was decided on in 1906. The first three years were spent in the development of construction facilities, surveys, and disease control. The canal was informally opened Aug. 15, 1914; formal dedication took place on July 12, 1920. The total cost was $336,650,000, and c.240 million cu yd (184 million cu m) of earth were evacuated. Madden Dam, which stores additional water for the locks, was completed in 1935.

In 1939 treaty amendments increased Panama's annuity to $434,000 (retroactive to 1934 to offset dollar devaluation), provided for a transisthmian highway, and (at Panama's insistence) abrogated the U.S. guarantee of the neutrality and sovereignty of Panama. Although in the same year Congress authorized construction of a third set of locks, World War II intervened, and the plans were shelved. In 1955 the annuity was raised to $1,930,000, and the United States undertook to build a high-level bridge (completed 1962) over the Pacific side of the canal. The Gaillard Cut was widened in 1969 to permit two-way traffic. The largest modern merchant and fighting ships, however, cannot pass through the canal.

Panamanian Control

In the 1960s there was increasing agitation in Panama to achieve greater Panamanian control over the canal, resulting in the negotiation of a new treaty (1967) which failed, however, to gain ratification by the Panamanian government. In 1977 negotiations were successful, and a new treaty was signed. It returned the Panama Canal Zone to Panama while setting up joint U.S.-Panamanian control of the canal until the end of 1999, when Panama gained full control. A separate treaty (1979) guarantees the permanent neutrality of the canal. In 0ct., 2006, Panamanian voters approved expanding the canal by adding a third series of locks paralleling the existing locks; the new locks, whose construction was inaugurated in 2007, will be larger, enabling wider, longer vessels with deeper drafts to transit the Isthmus. The plan will utilize the work begun but abandoned on a third series of locks prior to World War II.


See G. W. Goethals, The Panama Canal: An Engineering Treatise (1916); M. P. DuVal, And the Mountains Will Move (1947, repr. 1968); D. G. Payne, The Impossible Dream (1972); J. P. Speller, The Panama Canal (1972); G. H. Summ and T. Kelly, The Good Neighbors: America, Panama, and the 1977 Canal Treaties (1988); A. C. Richard, The Panama Canal in American National Consciousness, 1870–1990 (1990).

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"Panama Canal." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Jan. 2018 <>.

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Panama Canal Treaty


PANAMA CANAL TREATY (1977). In January 1964, twenty-one Panamanians died in severe riots in their home country, where waves of demonstrators were a recurring phenomenon. They demanded U.S. withdrawal from the isthmus where the United States had had the mandate to exercise "all the rights, power, and authority" of a sovereign state since President Theodore Roosevelt orchestrated the 1903 Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty. The Panama Canal Zone, and the Southern Command of U.S. troops there, came to symbolize "yankee" domination of Central America.

In December 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson promised negotiations to abrogate the 1903 treaty, and by June 1967 a draft treaty had been initialed. Strong resistance in both countries doomed its prospects. President Richard Nixon resumed discussions in 1970, and four years later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger signed an agreement of principles with Panamanian foreign minister Juan Antonio Tack. The Watergate scandal and the weak presidency of Gerald Ford jeopardized implementation.

President Jimmy Carter, wanting to foster goodwill in Latin America, resumed negotiations and finalized two treaties based on the 1967 principles. The Canal Treaty prescribed twenty-two years for control to gradually pass to Panama. The Neutrality Treaty required Panama to keep the canal open and accessible. A "statement of understanding" permitted the United States to defend the canal "against any aggression or threat" but not to intervene in Panama's domestic affairs.

The signing ceremony with Panama's ruler, Colonel Omar Torrijos Herrera, was held on 7 September 1977 in the presence of Western Hemisphere leaders. Approval in Panama was secured by a plebiscite on 23 October 1977. In the United States, ratification took two years after strong opposition from the Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, who opposed the closing of the Southern Command, other U.S. bases, and a surrender of territory and influence.

Carter personally secured the requisite two-thirds majority for the 1978 ratification of these treaties in the Senate, both by a 68 to 32 margin. Carter ceded control and sovereignty to Panamanians in an attempt to reverse the legacy of U.S. domination by endorsing equality, self-government, and territorial integrity. DeConcini attached an amendment to the Neutrality Treaty—which was approved on 16 March—that gave the United States the right to use force if necessary to keep the canal open. The Democratic leadership of the Senate introduced an amendment to the Canal Treaty—approved on 18 April—that negated any U.S. right to intervene in Panama's internal affairs. Enabling legislation for the two treaties passed the House and Senate in September 1979, and both treaties went into effect on 1 October 1979.

In the 1980s, Panama's ruler, General Manuel Noriega, a former American ally, became increasingly independent and provocative toward the United States. He was also involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. On 20 December 1989, President George H. W. Bush ordered Operation Just Cause, which restored a duly-elected Panamanian, Guillermo Endara, as president but made the country a de facto American protectorate for several years. The United States ousted and captured Noriega just days before an independent Panamanian, Gilberto Guardia Fabréga, was to oversee the Panama Canal Commission for the first time. Ten years later, at noon on 31 December 1999, the U.S. presence ended in the Canal Zone, and Panama assumed full and total sovereignty.


Rumage, Sarah. "Panama and the Myth of Humanitarian Intervention in U.S. Foreign Policy: Neither Legal Nor Moral, Neither Just Nor Right." Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law 10 (1993): 1–76.


See alsoPanama Canal ; Panama Invasion ; Panama Revolution .

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"Panama Canal Treaty." Dictionary of American History. . 15 Jan. 2018 <>.

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Panama Canal Treaty


On November 18, 1903, the United States and the then new Republic of Panama signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, granting the United States exclusive control over a 10-mile strip across the Isthmus of Panama. This gave the United States control of the Panama Canal, a lock-type man-made channel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the isthmus. The canal is about 51 miles long, from the deep water of the Atlantic to the deep water of the Pacific. The United States paid $10 million and agreed to pay an annuity of $250,000 to Panama, which became a virtual protectorate of the United States. Because Panama had been a part of Colombia prior to its becoming a protectorate of the United States, the United States compensated Colombia for its loss with the signing of the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty in 1914. In 1921 Colombia was paid $25 million when this treaty was finally ratified in Congress. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903 gave the United States the right to build and operate the canal, and it awarded the United States sovereign rights of over five miles of territory on either side of the waterway and area known as the Canal Zone. In 1936 the original treaty was voided by the Hull-Alfaro Treaty, which ended the eminent domain provisions of the original treaty and raised the annual annuity to Panama to $430,000. In 1955 the Eisenhower-Remon Treaty further modified the original treaty to increase the annuity once again and to include building of a bridge over the Canal (finished in 1962). In 1977, because of ongoing rioting in Panama, a final treaty amendment was signed between the United States and Panama. The treaty now stated that control of the canal would revert to the Panamanians by the year 2000, giving Panama exclusive control of all the international ship-traffic passing through the canal yearly, including commercial vessels loaded with cargo.

See also: Panama Canal (Building of)

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"Panama Canal Treaty." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . 15 Jan. 2018 <>.

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Panama Canal

Panama Canal Waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across the Isthmus of Panama. A canal, begun in 1882 by Ferdinand de Lesseps, was subsequently abandoned because of bankruptcy. The US government decided to finance the project to provide a convenient route for its warships. The main construction took about ten years to complete, and the first ship passed through in 1914. The 82-km (51-mi) waterway reduces the sea voyage between San Francisco and New York by about 12,500km (7800mi). Control of the Canal passed from the USA to Panama at the end of 1999.

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"Panama Canal." World Encyclopedia. . 15 Jan. 2018 <>.

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Panama Canal

Panama Canal a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Its construction, begun by Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1881 but abandoned in 1889, was completed by the US between 1904 and 1914. Control of the canal remained with the US until 1999, the date of its reversion to Panama.

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"Panama Canal." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . 15 Jan. 2018 <>.

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