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"A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama" Next
Digital History ID 3157


At noon on December 31, 1999, the United States voluntarily gave up the Panama Canal, ending 85 years of control. Prior to the development of the atomic bomb and the landing of astronauts on the moon, the Panama Canal was perhaps this country's signal engineering achievement. Fifty-one miles long, with about $3.5 billion in bases and infrastructure, the canal links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

At the end of the 20th century, the canal was no longer essential to U.S. strategic or economic interests. Aircraft carriers and oil tankers were too large to pass through the canal's locks. Earlier in the century, however, the canal was regarded as a vital national interest. During World War II, the United States stationed 65,000 troops in Panama to protect the canal. A number of U.S. interventions in the Caribbean and Central America were undertaken largely to protect the canal from hostile powers.

The canal's construction was a phenomenal undertaking. In 1850, U.S. interests in Panama built a railroad across the Isthmus to transport '49ers to California. In 1879, the French, fresh from their success in building the Suez Canal, started building the canal. Over the next 20 years, between 16,000 and 22,000 workers died from malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, snake bites, and accidents. Torrential rains averaging 200 inches a year washed away much of the work.

America's 1898 war with Spain made a canal seem essential. During the Spanish American War, the only way for U.S. battleships to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean was to make an 8,000 mile journey around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.

The canal was completed in the face of seemingly insurmountable political, medical, and technological obstacles. The Isthmus of Panama was located in Colombia, which had rejected a U.S. proposal to build a canal. "You could no more make an agreement with them than you could nail currant jelly to a wall," President Theodore Roosevelt said in response to the rejection.

A French adventurer, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, and an American lawyer, Nelson Cromwell, conceived of the idea of creating the Republic of Panama. They persuaded Roosevelt to support a Panama. Bunau-Varilla engineered a revolution and U.S. warships prevented Colombia from stopping Panama's attempt to break away (In 1921, the U.S. paid an indemnity to Colombia in recognition of the U.S. role in the Panamanian revolution). Bunau-Varilla repaid the United States for its assistance by signing a treaty on behalf of the Panamanians, which gave the United States a zone stretching five miles from each bank of the canal in perpetuity. Within the zone, U.S. laws, police, and courts ruled.

Years later, President Roosevelt said that the people of Panama rebelled against Colombia "literally as one man." A senator quipped, "Yes, and the one man was Roosevelt." In 1911, Roosevelt said bluntly, "I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal but to debate me." In 1906, eager to see the greatest accomplishment of his presidency, he became the first president to travel overseas. He went to Panama at the height of the rainy season and took the controls of a 95-ton steam shovel.

During the construction of the canal, William Gorgas, an army physician, tried to reduce the number of deaths caused by disease. He oversaw the massive draining of swamps in order to eliminate mosquitoes that carried yellow fever and malaria.

The French had attempted to build a canal at sea level, but grossly underestimated the difficulty of achieving this goal. To allow ships to travel between the oceans, American engineers designed a system of locks capable of raising and lowering ships 64 feet by using the force of gravity and 40-horsepower motors to move the gates. One set of locks used enough concrete to build a wall 8-feet thick and 12-feet high, stretching between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

At its peak in 1913, the workforce consisted of 44,000 persons. West Indian workers were the canal's unsung heroes. Each day, 200 trainloads of dirt had to be hauled away. More than 25,000 worked as canal diggers--three times the number of Americans who worked on the canal. Between 1904 and 1915, some 5,600 lives were lost to disease and accidents. Most of those who died were from Barbados. The quinine used to treat malaria left many workers deaf. In December 1908, a massive 22 tons of dynamite exploded prematurely, killing 23 workers.

Built at a cost of $387 million over a period of 10 years, the Panama Canal was a declaration of America's coming of age in the world.



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