After successfully joining the Mediterranean and Red Seas via the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps turned his eyes to the Isthmus of Panama. He became president of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama in 1878, the finance arm for a French-built canal.
Almost 100 years later, 07 September 1977, President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos signed a treaty that would, in 1999, transfer control of the Panama Canal to Panama.
What happened in-between may not have been part of your history lessons.
Both canals provided a shortcut for Northern Hemisphere ships traveling east-west. The Suez Canal made travel between Asia and Europe easier; ships no longer had to skirt the African continent. The Panama Canal did the same for the United States: ships no longer had to circumvent the South American continent. Months of travel time gone like magic: *poof*.
The Suez Canal is a 120- mile sea-level canal (no locks) that consists primarily of shallow lakes. The canal separates most of Egypt from the Sinai Peninsula and took 10 years to build. (Britain and France ruled Egypt at that time.)
Workers excavated sand, in the main; there was some rock, about two to three feet thick. After starting the project with age-old technology (labor), the team turned to “custom-made steam- and coal-powered shovels and dredgers to dig the canal.” About 1,500,000 people worked on that 10-year project, much of it slave labor. Estimated cost: $100 million.
De Lesseps then negotiated with Columbia to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He had estimated the cost of a much shorter canal at $132 million over 12 years.
De Lesseps, who visited Panama once–during the dry season–had disregarded the warnings of men who knew Panama intimately. Now his crew discovered the real Panama–mile upon mile of impassable jungle, day upon day of torrential rain, insects, snakes, swamps, hellish heat, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever and the Chagres River.
According to PBS, the project recorded about 60 deaths from disease in 1881; the number doubled in 1882. In 1883, 420 died.
Lesseps went bankrupt in 1889. The project had blown through $287 million, and as many as 20,000 men had died. Three years later, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a former chief engineer of the canal works, acquired the assets. He wasn’t any more successful.
In the United States, President Teddy Roosevelt was waiting. He wanted that canal. “No single great material work which remains to be undertaken on this continent is as of such consequence to the American people,” he told Congress.
In 1902, Congress gave its okay for Roosevelt to begin negotiations. In 1903, the Hay-Herran Treaty would have provided the U.S. use of territory in Panama in exchange for a yet-to-be-determined amount of money. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty; the Colombian Senate did not.
It was the age of yellow journalism. In the New York Journal, William Randolph Hearst wrote:
“the only way we could secure a satisfactory concession from Colombia would be to go down there, take the contending statesmen by the necks, and hold a batch of them in office long enough to get a contract in mind.”
And so we stacked the deck: we facilitated a coup.
When a faction of Panamanians declared their independence from Colombia on 13 November 1903, the U.S. removed trains from the northern terminus of Colon, which stranded Colombian troops. We also sent the the U.S. warship Nashville.
The acquisition of the Canal Zone by the United States was initially controversial — the New York Times declared the coup a “national disgrace,” and said that if the United States were to follow by building a canal there it would be an act of “dishonorable intrigue and aggression.”
Despite controversy at home, Roosevelt very quickly negotiated a treaty with the new republic. The U.S. retained control over the broad strip of land that cut across the Isthmus of Panama (the 10-mile wide Panama Canal Zone) “in perpetuity.”
The Panama Canal was the most expensive public works project the United States had undertaken at that time. Engineers designed a series of locks that raised ships to the height of Gatum Lake near the middle of the Isthmus of Panama; locks then lowered ships back to sea level.
The canal opened on 15 August 1914. It took almost 10 hours for the first ship to pass through.
Between 1903 and 1914, the U.S. had spent $302 million just on construction.That’s about $6.14 billion in 2021 dollars (U.S. GDP deflator). The U.S. paid the New Panama Canal Company $40 million to purchase its assets; another $10 million went to the Panamanian government. That’s another billion in 2021 dollars: $7,170,000,000.
By the 1960s, anti-American sentiment in Panama was growing.
The Johnson administration and then the Nixon administration talked with Panama about writing a new treaty. But those negotiations had failed to produce an agreement by the time Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977. So it fell to Carter to strike a final deal. Although he had argued against giving control of the canal to Panama earlier in his career, he had come to the conclusion that the canal was no longer vital to U.S. strategic and trade interests and that a failure reach an agreement with Panama would jeopardize America’s political and economic relations with all of Latin America.
… the conservative, pro-canal lobby in the United States… hated the deal. Coming as it did on the heels of the ignominious U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, they charged Carter with appeasement and assailed America’s “retreat” from the world.
A leading voice for the anti-treaty forces was Republican presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan. For the Gipper, the Canal Zone was “sovereign United States territory just the same as Alaska. . . and the states that were carved out of the Louisiana Purchase.” Or as he liked to say in a line in his stump speech that brought his conservative audience to its feet: “We bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we’re going to keep it.” Reagan’s fellow California Republican, Sen. S. I. Hayakawa, had a slightly different take—America had a right to the canal because “we stole it fair and square.”
But we did not own the Panama Canal Zone.
We leased it, making annual payments to Panama.
The proposed treaties were not popular. In September 1977, only 23% of Americans supported them; 50% were opposed.
Carter set out to make the case for the treaties to the public. He gave a major presidential address on the importance of approving them. The Committee of Americans for the Canal Treaties, composed of Cold War luminaries, influential labor leaders, and other opinion shapers, was formed to support passage. Major corporations that worried about what would happen to their investments in Latin America if the treaties didn’t pass, as well as liberal religious groups seeking to wipe away the stain of “colonialism,” also joined the fray.
On 16 March 1978, the U.S. Senate passed the Neutrality Treaty.
The key to the administration’s eventual narrow victory was the passage of two amendments [to the Neutrality Treaty] carefully crafted and shepherded through the upper house by Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee. The first gave the United States explicit rights after the year 2000 to intervene militarily to keep the canal open and for U.S. ships to move to the head of the line in times of crisis. Originally a memorandum of understanding, this amendment was formally incorporated into the treaty after quite extraordinary negotiations between Senator Baker and Torrijos.
Bipartisanship for the win.
Public support for the treaties, however, had not budged.
Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, James M. Lindsay points out that President Carter probably suffered politically:
He may have done the right thing in settling the Panama Canal issue—and the fact that we virtually never talk about the canal suggests he did—but he reaped few political benefits from his victory and more likely hardened the convictions of his opponents to unseat him in 1980.