The Panama Canal—one hundred years old this year—is often lauded as one of the greatest achievements of American ingenuity and of a pragmatic President. But the story of the canal’s creation also brings to mind the words of the Wizard of Oz in the musical Wicked:
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities,
So we act as though they don’t exist.
As in the famous but oversimplified palindrome, “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama,” history gives too much credit to Theodore Roosevelt for completing the job with his stubborn, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer persistence. In fact, the history of the project involved financial scandal, world-changing medical advances, shameless imperialism and political double-crossing, racial exploitation, and ground-breaking (if you’ll pardon the expression) engineering.
Writing from the safety of more than sixty years after its completion, David McCullough details the story with eyes wide open to each of these aspects in his 1977 book, The Path Between The Seas.
The monumental beginning of the work made by the French is not forgotten again, though it was largely forgotten at the time because of the financial scandal known as the “Panama Affair.” McCullough says that, because of the affair, “Nobody talked of the hospitals that had been built, the offices, storehouses, and dock facilities, the living quarters and machine shops; the maps, plans, surveys, and hydrographic data that had been assembled; the land that had been acquired or the Panama Railroad. And the fact that more than 50,000,000 cubic meters of earth and rock had been removed from the path of the canal…was virtually forgotten.”
Political shenanigans in Washington eventually determined that the US would continue building the canal in Panama, as the French had begun, rather than in Nicaragua. This led to Roosevelt’s inexcusable and damaging treatment of the Colombian government and the hasty creation of the Republic of Panama as the tenuous owner of the canal. Roosevelt boasted to a university audience years after Panama was annexed from Columbia in order to seize control of the canal zone, “I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.” An American minister in Bogota said later, “By refusing to allow Colombia to uphold her sovereign rights over a territory where she had held dominion for eighty years, the friendship of nearly a century disappeared.” But—as the Wizard might have expected—the American public didn’t mind a bit.
Perhaps the most critical accomplishment of the American phase of the project was the virtual defeat of malaria in the Canal zone by Colonel William Crawford Gorgas. After he became convinced that the disease was transmitted by mosquitoes, he was ultimately able to convince government officials that the work could not be completed without their extermination.
Unprecedented engineering features of the finished canal were many:
- concrete locks a thousand feet long and a hundred ten feet high,
- steel lock gates sixty-five feet wide, forty-seven to sixty-two feet high and seven feet thick,
- 1500 electric motors with all electrical controls to operate the locks with the press of a button or the turning of a switch.
McCullough concluded, “The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.”