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.
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.
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.
█ JUDSON KNIGHT
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 attack—and for this reason, the United States remains committed to the Canal's defense.
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 Canal—which actually follows a route from the northwest to the southeast, rather than east to west—opened 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. interests—interests 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, however—or rather, the lack of events in this regard—have 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.
█ FURTHER READING:
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.
Americas, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions
Carter Adminstration (1977–1981), United States National Security Policy
Clinton Administration (1993–2001), United States National Security Policy
The Central American isthmus of Panama has enjoyed global significance for nearly five centuries, ever since Spain started carrying Peruvian silver overland through Panama en route to Seville in the 1530s. It was not until the early nineteenth century that plans for a canal across the isthmus began to take serious shape. In 1848 they were given huge impetus by the United States's conquest of California from Mexico and by the simultaneous discovery of gold in the newly acquired territory. The distance from New York to San Francisco by what was then the only available sea route, via Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of the Americas, is 13,230 nautical miles; via Panama the voyage is cut to no more than 5,307 miles. The benefit to U.S. shipping of an isthmian canal was thus axiomatic, but it had even more consequence for the world at large.
It was the French, not the Americans, who first acted on this awareness. In the 1880s Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805–1894), the architect of the Suez Canal, began to cut a seaway through Panama, but when the project failed, the U.S. government took up the challenge. After a decade of Herculean construction work its lock canal opened on August 15, 1914. It operated under exclusive U.S. direction, under a 1903 treaty with Panama, granting the United States virtual sovereignty over a canal zone embracing the waterway, as well as tenure in perpetuity. This plenitude of power reflected the cardinal importance which Americans attached to the canal, which not only rendered a massive service to U.S. merchant shipping, but also gave the existing "one-ocean" U.S. Navy the ability to transfer its warships from one coast to the other with relative speed. As such, one U.S. senator, Claude Swanson, praised it to the skies as the most valuable American possession anywhere in the world.
Washington chose to present its command of the canal as a "mandate from civilization," and the Republic of Panama took as its motto "Pro Mundi Beneficio" ("For the Benefit of the World"), which was apt because Panama, like Suez, shrank the earth dramatically and made maritime trade links correspondingly more profitable. London, for instance, also became much closer to San Francisco. But for the 75-year duration of the treaty there was no doubt that U.S. national interest came far ahead of any concern for the canal as an international seaway, just as Britain regarded its control of Suez as paramount.
THE CANAL AS A TRADE ROUTE
The governors of the new canal strove vigorously to enhance its commercial value. By the terms of the canal treaty the commissary of the Panama Railroad, built by a U.S. corporation to transit the isthmus in the early 1850s, had the right to sell any items "necessary and convenient" to zone employees. This made it a thriving business, but General George Washington Goethals, the first governor, had more ambitious plans. In 1912 he secured legislation to allow the commissary to make sales to passing ships and bring in revenue that would help keep tolls down and maximize the advantage of the Panama route. Beyond this he envisioned large warehouse complexes at the Atlantic and Pacific terminals to turn the zone into a vast entrepôt, not simply an area dedicated to the operation of the canal—all this regardless of the interests of Panama, which in 1904 had been given a U.S. guarantee that the zone would not be developed in such a way as to shut Panamanian dealers out of its lucrative trade. Successive Panamanian governments fought strenuously against any expansion of the zone's business activities during further treaty negotiations in the 1920s and 1930s. The result, in the treaty of 1936, was a repeated recognition that the zone must not function at the expense of Panama, and that Panama was entitled to a share of the commercial opportunities created by the canal.
By this time traffic through the waterway was increasing despite the world depression, with annual transits up 18 percent on the previous decade. But the heightening international crisis of the 1930s inevitably accentuated Panama's importance as a strategic artery, not its role as a commercial highway. In 1934 merchant shipping was held up to make way for the passage of the fleet during an imagined crisis with Japan, and in August 1939, on the eve of World War II, Congress authorized a third set of locks to supplement the existing twin-lock chambers; they were to be for the exclusive use of the U.S. Navy. During the 1940s the commercial value of the canal fell into eclipse, with transits well down under the impact of the war and the severe postwar debilitation of world trade, and the tonnage shipped through Panama dropped by 28 percent.
Even though the canal made an incalculable contribution to the war effort in shuttling men and materials from ocean to ocean, it emerged as much less than the matchless prize it once had been. Its central weakness was the lock system, now not only vulnerable to a nuclear strike but far too small to handle the new generation of aircraft carriers. Two conflicting solutions were proposed: the third-locks scheme, which was suspended in 1942, and a sea-level canal. After a long wrangle the sea-level design was turned down on the grounds of unfeasibility, but so too was the third-locks project, deemed redundant by a navy now large enough to operate independently in both Atlantic and Pacific. With the advent of the supertanker in the 1950s, the inadequacy of the existing locks, which had a width of only 110 feet, was pointed up yet again. Though traffic doubled between 1950 and 1960, one senior U.S. government figure, Thomas Mann, drew the conclusion that the canal was "a wasting asset which will become obsolete in a relatively short period of time," (Major, 1993, p. 337) and there was the uneasy sense that it was a technological antique from a bygone era.
THE HANDOVER TO PANAMA
This feeling no doubt underlay the U.S. willingness in 1964 to enter into treaty negotiations to turn the canal over to Panama. The treaty-making process was inordinately protracted in the teeth of diehard congressional opposition, but its subject was a property through which now passed less than 1 percent of the U.S. gross national product. So in 1979 the Panama Canal Zone was liquidated and in 1999 the canal itself came under full Panamanian authority.
Although Panama ceased to be an outstanding emblem of U.S. naval and commercial might, it remained a key thoroughfare of international maritime trade. By the year 2000 the tonnage it shifted had more than tripled since 1960, much of it carried in "Panamax" vessels tailored to the dimensions of the locks. And transit through the canal was a highlight for the growing number of tourists arriving on cruise liners. As the waterway approached its centennial a large program of improvements, notably the widening of the central cut, proclaimed Panama's faith in its long-term future. Indeed, if we remember how much it has transformed seaborne communications in the past ninety years, it is impossible to imagine the world without it.
Conniff, Michael. Panama and the United States: The Forced Alliance. 2nd edition. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
DuVal, Miles. And the Mountains Will Move: The Story of the Building of the Panama Canal. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1947.
McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.
Major, John. Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903–1979. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Richard, Alfred. The Panama Canal in American National Consciousness, 1870–1990. New York: Garland, 1990.
The Panama Canal is a 51-mile ship canal with six pairs of locks that crosses the Isthmus of Panama and allows vessels to transit between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Built between 1904 and 1914, the canal shortened maritime voyages considerably. For its first 85 years the canal was operated exclusively by the United States government as an international maritime passage, according to the 1903 Hay-Buneau-Varilla Treaty and the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Treaty that replaced it. Under the latter treaty, the canal was turned over in 1999 to the Republic of Panama, which has operated it ever since.
One of the world's great engineering projects, the canal was controversial because of the method by which the United States gained the concession (by negotiating a treaty with a French shareholder temporarily representing Panama) and its operation of the utility with little regard to the interests of Panama. Panamanian and other critics pointed out that the United States took unfair advantage of the newly independent republic (separated from Colombia in 1903, with the help of the United States) to impose conditions for near-sovereign ownership; complained that it exceeded its original concession by creating a strategic military complex with fourteen bases and numerous intelligence sites; and asserted that it created a virtual state within a state by establishing public agencies and enterprises in the 500-plus square miles of territory it controlled in the Canal Zone. These controversies were settled by the 1977 treaty, which provided for a twenty-two-year period of U.S. withdrawal and turnover of the canal to Panama.
HISTORY AND DESIGN
The possibility of an interoceanic canal in Central America had been considered since the sixteenth century, but construction had not been feasible until the nineteenth. Ferdinand de Lesseps, organizer of the French company that had built the Suez Canal in the 1860s, gained a concession and undertook to build a canal in Panama in the 1880s, but this effort failed because of design flaws, tropical disease, and mismanagement. The U.S. government began work on a Nicaraguan canal in the 1890s but also desisted. In 1902–1903, however, given the opportunity to build at a more favorable site in Panama, the United States negotiated first with Colombia (of which Panama was a province) and then with Panama for canal rights. The negotiations were unequal and coercive, but guaranteed Panama's independence; the U.S. acquired the rights to build, operate, and protect the canal. This episode confirmed the emergence of U.S. imperialism in the region and helped to project the nation onto the world stage.
Canal construction was carried out by private contractors under the guidance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Overall authority was exercised by the Interoceanic Canal Commission, which eventually became the Panama Canal Commission. After determining that the French sea-level plan was not feasible, the designers settled on a lock canal that would create an artificial lake in the Chagres River Valley some 85 feet above sea level. The river was dammed a few miles from its mouth to create Gatún Lake, which provided water to operate the locks by gravity flow and allowed ships to complete about half the crossing under their own power. Massive excavation was required to cut through the mountains south of the lake and to create approach channels between the locks and the open sea at either end. It was the largest and costliest engineering project undertaken to that time.
The enormous concrete lock chambers, each measuring 1,000 by 110 feet, receive transiting ships, close their steel gates, and fill with water flowing through underground conduits. Highly trained canal pilots are always in control of the ships while they are in the canal. Three pairs of locks at either end of the canal raise and lower ships 85 feet. Due to close quarters and turbulence, locomotives (called mules) tow and control ships during lockages. All the machinery runs by electric power, a new technology in 1914. Ships proceed under their own power through the lake. The entire transit takes about eight hours, not counting the approach and time spent waiting at anchor to enter the canal. Delays and heavy demand can slow down transit time considerably.
During the U.S. period, the canal served mostly U.S.-owned ships (albeit flying other nations' flags of convenience) and transported largely bulk cargo. Since the 1980s, however, an increasing percentage of ships, classified as "Panamax" (Panama Canal maximum)—designed specifically to fit the dimensions of the canal locks—are carrying more high-value cargo, mainly containerized.
TRANSFER OF OWNERSHIP
Most of the transition from U.S. to Panamanian management took place in the 1990s, culminating in the turnover of December 31, 1999. Panamanian employees systematically replaced their U.S. counterparts in preparation. Canal managers carried out major capital improvement projects, including widening and dredging the narrowest sections and renewing the heavy equipment inventory. Under legislation passed in the 1990s, two new agencies of the Panamanian government oversaw policymaking for canal operations and the transfer of properties being vacated by the United States. Most challenging was finding productive uses for the former military bases, some of which were hazardous due to toxic chemical wastes and unexploded ordnance. Much vacant land on both sides of the canal was designated as a national park, to prevent development that could threaten the canal watershed and future operations. As part of a general privatization of public enterprises, operation of the contiguous ports of Balboa, Cristobal, and Coco Solo were contracted to private, mainly Asian corporations, and a U.S. company completely rebuilt the Panama railroad to carry containers.
Since the transfer of ownership, canal traffic and revenues have grown with the rise in world trade. The Panama Canal Authority, an independent public agency, has run the canal efficiently and generates considerable profit for the nation. It has also integrated canal business more fully into the national economy.
After several years of debate, the government held a referendum in 2006 on a giant undertaking to build a new set of locks capable of taking much larger ships, dubbed "post-Panamax." These would include supertankers, container vessels from Asian ports, and vehicle transporters. The project, which was approved with over 60 percent of the votes, is expected to cost over five billion dollars.
See alsoHay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty (1903); Lesseps, Ferdinand Marie, Vicomte de; Nicaragua, Organizations: Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua; Panama Canal Company; Panama Canal Tolls Question; Panama Canal Treaties of 1977.
Castillero Calvo, Alfredo, ed. Historia general de Panamá. Panama: Comité Nacional del Centenario de la República, 2004.
Conniff, Michael L. Panama and the United States: The Forced Alliance. 2nd ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.
Michael L. Conniff
On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened its doors to world commerce, significantly reducing the distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and making it possible for the United States to emerge as a regional and world power. While volumes have been written in praise of the French and the Americans who designed and financed the building of the canal, much less recognition has been awarded to the tens of thousands of West Indians who sacrificed life and limb from the 1880s through 1914 to build the Panama Canal. Neither the United States nor the Republic of Panama has built a significant monument in recognition of the importance of black West Indian labor to the building of the waterway.
However, the story of West Indians and the Panama Canal has been told by several prominent authors. The migration of West Indians to Panama between the years 1850 and 1914 is superbly narrated by Velma Newton of the University of the West Indies in The Silver Men (1984), while Gerstle Mack, David McCullough, George Westerman, and Michael Conniff provide, in separate volumes, valuable information and analysis on the social and economic conditions they faced. In the late 1970s, the Panamanian-born Roman Foster wrote, directed, and produced Diggers, a documentary that speaks eloquently of the cultural life and legacy of West Indians on the isthmus.
Who were these West Indian canal workers? What was life like for them during the construction period, which lasted from 1904 to 1914? What has been their contribution and legacy? According to George Westerman, 45,107 contract laborers were hired to work on the Panama Canal during this period, and 31,071 of these workers immigrated to Panama from the West Indies, the vast majority from Barbados. This figure does not include the many thousands that came to the isthmus during this period without a prior contract, but who nevertheless found work upon arrival. These contract workers, classified as "unskilled," were placed on the "Silver Roll," meaning they were paid in local currency. They were supervised by white Americans (far fewer in number), who were on the "Gold Roll" (they were paid in U.S. dollars). President Theodore Roosevelt sanctioned this arrangement while recognizing the centrality of black Canal workers. For example, in November 1906, on his way home from Panama aboard the Louisiana, he wrote in a letter to his son: "with intense energy men and machines do their task, the white men supervising matters and handling the machines, while the tens of thousands of black men do the rough manual labor where it is not worthwhile to have machines do it." (McCullough, 1977, p. 498). Hence, in what Raymond Davis calls a "split labor market," cheap black labor from the West Indies significantly lowered building costs while increasing the physical and psychological toll paid by these black workers.
Afraid of dying from malaria or yellow fever, whites abandoned the isthmus in droves. Union leaders in the
United States were "opposed (to) any wholesale shipment of men to 'that deathtrap' and particularly after an inspection team from Japan … reported the Isthmus was unsafe to risk the lives of their men" (McCullough, 1977, p. 473). Such work was therefore left to blacks recruited from the West Indies, who were thought to be suited by nature and habit to withstand the punishing isthmian climate.
In spite of Panama's reputation as a "pest hole," thousands of West Indian youth continued to arrive there to work under dangerous and segregated conditions. Their personal histories reveal the enormity of their sacrifices and the nature of their class exploitation and racial oppression. In 1963 the Isthmian Historical Society held an essay competition designed to elicit the personal stories of those who had worked on the Panama Canal prior to 1913. Albert Peters of the Bahamas, the winner of the competition, described the nature of life and work during the construction period.
Peters was born in the Bahamas on February 10, 1885, and like many other Caribbean youngsters affected by economic hardship and eager for adventure, he left for Panama in 1906 at the heights of the canal construction. His parents were against the idea, for they knew of the ravages of yellow fever and malaria in Panama. Peters, like tens of thousands of Caribbean youngsters, disregarded the admonition of parents and friends and sought work and adventure as a "digger" of the Panama Canal. What Peters and the tens of thousands like him found in Panama during the first years of the 1900s, however, was drenching rain, mudslides, yellow fever, malaria, typhoid, bad food, repressive labor conditions, and low pay.
Peters "arrived in Colon 31 August 1906, at twenty-one years of age. [I] was surprised at board walks for streets. My nice clothes and shoes that I brought was not for down here in the heavy rain and mud. I sold my clothes and black derby, took the money and bought high top boots and blue dungaree suits then I started on the job. The pay was fifty cents a day or two balboas. I got malaria after a month" (Foster, 1985). His first time in the hospital, which he says was high on a hill, the man next to him
died. After five days on quinine, he was back to work. But, in "fifteen days I was back in there again for eight days this time. The latter part of November I left Tabernilla for Colon, got a job feeding mules. Got Malaria in Colon too and went to the hospital with a fever 104" (Foster, 1985).
The majority of the diggers who participated in the Isthmian Historical Society competition listed malaria and yellow fever as major threats to life during the construction period. Working conditions, especially during the first years, were especially hard, as the men cleared forests and fumigated against yellow fever and malaria carrying mosquitoes, built or refurbished housing for the laborers, dynamited the earth, and endured police repression (especially those who were charged with vagrancy).
Despite dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, unequal pay, no sick leave or pension, and separate and unequal facilities, West Indian canal workers were central to the building and maintenance of the Panama Canal and to the modernization of Panama. Their story deserves a more prominent part in the histories of the Panama Canal and the Republic of Panama.
See also Colón Man
Conniff, Michael. Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904–1981. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.
Davis, R. A. "West Indian Workers on the Panama Canal: A Split Labor Market Interpretation." Ph.D. diss, Stanford University, 1981.
Foster, Roman, director and producer. Diggers, documentary film, 119 minutes. Roman J. Foster, 1985.
McCullough, David. The Path between the Seas. New York: Touchstone, 1977.
Newton, Velma. The Silver Men: West Indian Labour Migration to Panama, 1850-1914. Mona, Kingston, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1984.
Stuhl, Ruth C., ed. Letters from Isthmian Canal Construction Workers. Balboa Heights, C.Z.: Isthmian Historical Society, 1963.
Westerman, George. Los Inmigrantes Antillanos en Panama. Panama: Instituto Nacional de Cultura, 1980.
george priestley (2005)
Panama Canal Treaty
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.
For years, American naval leaders wanted to build a passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans through Central America. The United States owned territory on both sides of the isthmus (a narrow strip of land that is bordered on two sides by water that connects two larger land areas), so a canal took on even greater importance as it would drastically reduce the amount of shipping and travel time.
Building of the canal across the Isthmus of Panama (then a territory of Colombia) had officially begun in 1878 by Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps (1805–1894), the French engineer who had built the Suez Canal in Egypt. Construction came to a halt when laborers contracted tropical diseases and engineering problems arose. Even so, a French company retained rights to the project, so no one else could continue the construction. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9) offered to buy those rights for $40 million. He also offered to pay $10 million for a 50-mile stretch across the isthmus, but Colombia refused. Roosevelt correctly predicted a revolution in Panama against Columbian rule. He then sent a naval ship and military troops to support Panama's rebellion. When Roosevelt presented the rebels with the $10-million offer, they happily accepted, and the United States had total control of a 10-mile canal zone.
Thousands of workers began digging the canal. For ten years, thirty thousand workers, most from the West Indies, were paid 10 cents an hour for ten-hour shifts. Many died of yellow fever, a disease carried by mosquitoes. Many Americans felt Roosevelt had acted in an unconstitutional manner in obtaining the canal zone. They did not approve of the fact that the president negotiated with rebels and they felt he took advantage of the conflict going on in Panama to get what he wanted. Still, work continued. On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened for business. In addition to building the canal, workers also constructed three railroads and created a man-made lake.
The project cost $400 million and was considered one of the world's greatest engineering projects. By 1925, more than five thousand merchant ships had traveled the Panama Canal. The waterway shortened the trip from San Francisco, California , to New York City by nearly 8,000 miles. Equally as important, the canal became a major military asset that made the United States the dominant power in Central America.
The Panama Canal remained an American asset until December 31, 1999, at which time it (and its surrounding land) was handed over to Panamanian authorities. During his presidency, Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81) had signed a transfer agreement. For the twenty years between the signing of the agreement and the actual transfer, a transitional committee ran the canal. An American leader led the committee during the first decade, followed by a Panamanian leader for the second. Along with the canal, Carter offered Panama his apologies and acknowledged that although Roosevelt's vision was to be praised, the feelings of American colonialism (control by one power over a dependent area or people) in Panama created controversy. The agreement Carter worked out holds that the United States can interfere in the operation of the canal if it loses its neutrality or threatens American interests in any way.
Panama Canal Treaty
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)