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Thursday, February 22, 2007

United States Granted Panama Canal Zone, February 23, 1904

Today in 1904, the United States was granted control of the Panama Canal Zone, a twenty-mile wide strip of land running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific across the newly-formed country of Panama. This marked the culmination of a struggle for control of the tiny strip of land that, in the end, resulted in a canal that would help usher the planet into a new age of commerce and rapid transit.

Panama is an isthmus, a narrow strip of land connecting Central and South America. The idea of building a canal there linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans dates to the early 17th century, but it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that the technology existed for such a task. Between 1850 and 1875, numerous surveys were made of not just Panama, but of Nicaragua as well, for it also offered a possible path for a canal. After French engineers completed the Suez Canal in 1869, it seemed as if it would only be a matter of time before another grand canal would weave its way into history.

In 1878, a French-led international consortium led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who had overseen the building of the Suez Canal, was formed. de Lesseps was a national hero in France and thus had no problem raising money from businesses, wealthy patrons and even average citizens of an amount totaling almost $400 million. The canal would be built at sea level without locks of any kind, just like the Suez. It would be 90 feet wide and 30 feet deep, large enough for the biggest ships of that era. It would also be finished in eight years.

The problem with these magnificent specifications is that they were unrealistic. Panama was not Egypt; whereas the Suez Canal is essentially a giant ditch dug through the flat desert, the Panama Canal would need to travel through hills and past raging rivers. A sea-level canal would have required excavation on a scale that was impossible given the technological limitations of the late 19th century. de Lesseps was not an engineer and neither were most of the people who signed off on the plan. Eight years into the project, nearly $235 million had been spent, over 22,000 people had died of injuries and disease and the canal plan that had been changed to include locks was nowhere near completion. Work was suspended on May 15, 1889.

A new French company was formed five years later, but the project never got off the ground again. By this time, American speculators were beginning to talk about a canal in Nicaragua, which would make the Panama Canal redundant. In June, 1902, the French agreed to sell the project to the United States.

US President Theodore Roosevelt, who had been in office since 1901, thought a canal through Panama was of vital strategic interest to the United States. This would allow battleships to transfer from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice versa almost a month faster than they could by going around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. Roosevelt contacted the Columbian government, which at that time controlled Panama, and sought permission to finish what the French had begun. The Hay-Herran Treaty of 1903 was the result, but it did not pass muster with the Senate in Columbia. The canal once again became a dead issue, at least to the casual observer. Behind closed doors, however, Roosevelt was hard at work.

A significant portion of the Panamanian population wanted to be independent of Columbia. President Roosevelt believed that a successful rebellion would allow him to cut a deal with a newly-independent Panama. Via back channels, the White House let it be known that were open rebellion to ensue in Panama, the US Navy would help the rebels. Independence from Columbia was declared on November 3, 1903, just about the time the gunboat USS Nashville arrived on station in local waters. US troops arrived soon thereafter, and the Republic of Panama was formed.

The US still did not have permission to build a canal in Panama. This was solved on November 18, barely two weeks after Panama became an independent nation, with the signing of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. The treaty gave the United States rights to a canal zone 20 miles wide, for which the United States would pay $10 million up front and $250,000 yearly in rental payments. The treaty also stated that the French would be paid $40 million for their company assets in Panama.

The problem with the treaty was that it was not signed by anyone of Panamanian citizenship. Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, the man who brokered the treaty in Washington, was French and was only connected with Panama in that he was a shareholder in the second French canal company. The Panamanian government eventually accepted the terms of the treaty, although it would remain a bitter dividing point between Panama and the United States for nearly a century.

The Panama Canal opened to traffic in 1914, ten years after the United States began work on it. During that time, 5,000 workers died, making for a total of 27,000 people who died to make a canal linking two oceans a reality. On January 1, 2000, Panama assumed control of the canal as the result of Torrijos-Carter Treaties of 1977.

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