A Brief History of the Panama Canal

Ever since Europeans had discovered Central America, the desire to build a canal that would allow easy access from the Atlantic to the Pacific was desired.  16th Century Spaniards desired it, and 19th Century Frenchmen tried to build one, but it was not until the 20th Century that it was accomplished by the United States. But like all thing both wanted and needed, it did not come easily or cheaply.  This paper relates the history of the building of the Panama Canal, from it being first desired to how it is used today.

History of the Panama Canal

The process towards building the Panama Canal started in colonial times.  

Spanish explorers were the first to discover the Isthmus of Panama; in 1501 Rodrigo de Bastidas became the first European to visit Panama, and Balboa was the first to cross the Isthmus of Panama in 1513.  In 1534 Spanish King Charles I asked the governor of Panama to survey the Panama landscape to see if building a canal was feasible.  The Governor had to tell King Charles I that it was impossible.
The relationship between Colombia and Panama since colonial times also led to how the Canal was built. After centuries of being a separate colony, in 1739 Panama was annexed as a province of New strategies Granada, most of which is present-day Colombia.  After the early 1800’s battles for independence from Spain the Republic of New strategies Granada was formed in 1831, consisting of modern-day Colombia and Panama after adjacent former Spanish colonies decided to form their own countries.  In 1840 Panama decided to become its own country, only to rejoin New strategies Granada two years later.  After New strategies Granada established a revised constitution in 1853, Panama decided to once again secede from New strategies Granada in 1857.  In 1863 New strategies Granada created a new strategies constitution and became the Republic of Colombia established.  Later that year Panama decided to rejoin Colombia, and for the next two decades enjoyed a great deal of autonomy while being part of Colombia.  But in 1885 Panama joined other Colombian provinces in an unsuccessful uprising against the “tyrannical and unconstitutional” Colombian President Nunez.  After his victory, Nunez revoked the Constitution of 1863 and eliminated all Panamanian autonomy.  For the next eighteen years Panama would have local insurrections against Colombian rule, with the biggest insurrection starting in 1899. [i]
Not long after the Republic of New strategies Granada was form, the United States looked into building a Central American canal.  In 1835 the United States Senate authorized President Andrew Jackson to enter negotiations with Central American governments, including New strategies Granada, to establish an “open communication between the Atlantic and the Pacific”.[ii]  In 1846 the Bidlack Treaty between New strategies Granada and the Unites States promised that New strategies Granada’s sovereignty over Panama would be defended by the United States.  Then, in1850, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (Convention as to Ship-Canal Connecting Atlantic and Pacific Oceans) was signed by the United States and Great Britain, which promised that both countries would have joint control over any future Central-American canal.  In 1869 President Ulysses Grant ordered further surveys for a potential canal across the Isthmus of Panama; he had crossed it in 1852 as an Army lieutenant and appreciated the need for such a canal.[iii]
The United States was not the only power interested in building a Central American canal.  In 1878 the Geographical Society of Paris decided to finance a canal on the Panama isthmus.  The Society hired Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had built the Suez Canal.  Lesseps envisioned sea-level canal, and the French did their best to build the canal.  However, the topography of the isthmus would not allow a sea-level canal, and tropical diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever, caused 20,000 deaths among the workers.  The French effort came to a temporary end.
            The 1890’s saw an increased interest in American involvement in building a canal.  In 1890 Alfred Mahan wrote The Influence of Sea Power upon History.  In the book, Mahan justified the pursuit of a Central-American canal as necessary for the United States to achieve world-power status.  Then, in 1898, the Spanish-American War strategies took place.  It took a long time to move Navy ships from the Philippines to the Caribbean.  This problem prompted the US to seek a Central American canal.
            The first step in the United States building a canal was the negotiations.  The fact that the United States would have to share control of the canal with Great Britain was a great deterrent.  After negotiations with Great Britain, the British gave up any rights to a Central-American canal, save for use, in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty.[iv]  After the Treaty, the only decision left was whether to build a canal in Nicaragua or Panama.  French citizen Bunau-Varilla was a major stockholder in the French attempt to build a canal, and wanted the United States to choose the Panama route so that the French could sell their efforts to the Americans.  When a volcano erupted in Nicaragua in 1902, Bunau-Varilla made sure that a stamp showing the eruption was on every U.S. senator’s desk.[v]  Thanks to Bunau-Varilla’s efforts, the decision was made to build the canal in Panama.

            Negotiations with Colombia began immediately.  The 1903 Hay-Herrán Convention established these terms:

•         There would be a six-mile-wide canal zone under American control
•         The Americans would receive a 99-year lease.
•         The Columbians would be given $10 million upfront and an additional $250,000 every year of the lease.
However, the Columbians knew strategies that that the Americans desperately wanted the canal, and chose not to approve the Convention, and instead asked for more money.  President Roosevelt called the Columbian government “jackrabbits”.  The New strategies Panama Canal Company persuaded Roosevelt to use US military power to help the Panamanians succeed in their rebellion against Colombia.  In November 1903 the USS Nashville stymied Colombian efforts to stop the rebellion, ensuring the success of Panamanian independence.[vi]
            On the behalf of the Panamanians, Bunau-Varilla negotiated terms in November 1903 on the building of a canal:
•         The Canal Zone would be 10 miles wide.
•         The Panamanians would be given $10 million upfront and an additional $250,000 every year of the lease, the same as initially offered to the Colombians.
•         The United States could act as a sovereign nation in the Canal Zone.
Initially, the building of the canal went slowly until Roosevelt put the US Army in charge of the building.  On August 15, 1914, the Panama was officially opened.[vii]
            Latin American sentiments about the Panama Canal were unfavorable towards the United States.  They saw it as an imperialist attack upon the sovereignty of Colombia.  Roosevelt did not help matters when in 1912 he bragged in his autobiography how he acquired the Canal for the United States.[viii]  When Woodrow Wilson took office as US President, he sought to placate the Colombians.  He led the effort for the United States to give Colombia $25 million and express “sincere regrets” about American actions in Panama’s rebellion.  Roosevelt was outraged and until his death he used his influence to prevent any such compensation to Colombian.  Finally in 1921, two years after Roosevelt’s death, the $25 million was paid to the Colombians, but no apology was given.[ix]
            Even though the building of a Panamanian canal was a fait accompli, efforts for a canal through Nicaragua still took place.  In 1914 the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty allowed for the United States to have exclusive rights in building a future canal through Nicaragua.  The United States signed the treaty mostly to prevent a possible competitor to the Panama Canal.  In 1970 both the United States and Nicaragua decided to abrogate the treaty.[x]
            Even with compensation to Colombia for the canal, Latin Americans still saw the canal as a sign of American imperialism.  In 1922 Argentine writer/intellectual José Ingenieros proposed a “Unión Latino Americana” to defend against American imperialism as seen in the Panama Canal.  Then, in 1926, the Peru-based A.P.R.A. (Popular Revolutionary American Alliance) established the internationalization of the Panama Canal as one of its goals.[xi]
Even within Panama, there was animosity towards American occupation of the canal.  Throughout the 1920’s Panamanian nationalists oppose US control of the canal and rioted because of it.  When the Suez Canal was nationalized in the 1950’s, the desire increased for the canal to be under Panamanian control.  The situation worsened in 1964 during the Balboa High School, when the refusal to fly a Panamanian flag at the US-ran school led to riots.
            In 1954 the US State Department’s George Kennan indicates that the Panama Canal has little defensive purpose in regards to the Cold War.  In 1977 the Panama Canal Treaties allow for Panama to eventually have full control of the Canal, although the United States has the right to use military force to defend it.[xii]  In 1984 Reagan implicates that to protect the Panama Canal from Soviet takeover is a reason to support the Contras in Nicaragua.[xiii]   President Bush in 1989 gave “Protecting the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaty” as justification for Operation: Just Cause.[xiv]
            In 1999 Panama took control of the Canal.

[i]               Hill, Howard.  Roosevelt and the Caribbean
(Russell & Russell, New strategies York, 1965).  p 38.
[ii] Hill 38-39
[iii] Holden 26-27, 34-35
[iv] Holden 83
[v] Longley 116
[vi]              Ayers, Edward.  American Passages: a history of the United States.
                                (Wadsworth/Thomson Learing, Belmont, CA, 2003).  P. 486
[vii]             Ayers 486-487.
[viii] Holden 92-94
[ix] Longley 121
[x] Holden 42, 113-114.
[xi] Holden 123-125, 128-129.
[xii] Holden 286-288
[xiii] Holden 295

[xiv] Holden 321-324

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