Roosevelt led creation of the Panama Canal

panama canal

During the middle of Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, it was obvious that there was no longer a balance of power in eastern Asia. Without it, the United States stood isolated and virtually helpless to maintain the open door policy that Secretary of State John Hay and Roosevelt had hoped to develop in China.

But, a more gratifying record of success was possible in the Western Hemisphere. Here, the United States had a better grasp of the problems and no powerful antagonists to deal with as in eastern Asia.

Since the American Civil War, Great Britain showed more concern for a cordial relationship with the United States than pleading the cause of fishing rights, border quarrels and armament programs. The Brits even agreed to support the construction of a transoceanic canal through Central America.


One can trace the dream of an isthmian canal back to the early explorers of the American continent. As early as Columbus’ time, the attractiveness of a Central American shortcut was apparent. It became more apparent when there was no northwest passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The strategic desirability of a canal through Panama became evident during the Spanish-American War (1898), when the battleship Oregon had to sail around Cape Horn to make the journey from Puget Sound, on the West Coast, to the Cuban war zone. The journey was so long that the “pride of the Navy,” built in 1891, almost missed the “splendid little war” with Spain.

The United States entered the 20th Century with an empire that stretched some 10 thousand miles across the surface of the earth. By virtue of that fact, the United States was forced to concern itself in succeeding years not only with Latin-American affairs but also with the politics of Asia and the balance of power brawls in Europe.

To protect its new outposts of the empire in the two oceans, the United States came to regard the Isthmian Canal as a cardinal necessity. Such a waterway would reduce the ocean trip between San Francisco and New York by almost two-thirds and would thus save precious days in transferring the American fleet from one ocean to the other.


The history of the negotiations for the Canal Zone marks one of the most controversial and colorful episodes in American diplomatic history.

In 1846, not long after the Latin-American countries became independent of Spain, the United States made a treaty with New Granada (now Columbia), guaranteeing the neutrality of the Isthmus of Panama and promise of free transit across the Isthmus by any mode of communication.

The Panama Railroad was built by an American company in 1855 and was used extensively by travelers to California. In 1881, a French company began construction of a canal and after doing a substantial amount of excavation it failed because of financial mismanagement and ravages of yellow fever among its employees.

Meanwhile, an American company throwing dirt in Nicaragua failed for the same reasons. Now it was the American government’s role to play, and it undertook the task of constructing a canal. Unfortunately, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 gave the British equal rights with the United States in any canal to be constructed.


When England was asked to revise the treaty that would enable the United States to build and operate a strictly American canal, the British demurred. But in 1901, the British changed their position and with the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of the year agreed to an all-American canal.

By this action, the British virtually gave the United States a free hand in the Caribbean. With a warlike world developing, England was seeking some dependable friends.

Two possible routes were available for the canal: one through the province of Panama, which was a part of Columbia, where the French company had failed; and the other through Nicaragua.

Roosevelt appointed a committee to study the two sites, and it recommended the Nicaragua path. The House of Representatives agreed, but the Senate and Roosevelt said no. When the Columbia government became difficult to deal with, an active volcano was discovered in Nicaragua and the bankrupt French company wanted compensation, there was suddenly a revolution.


The nationalists in Panama had long separatist ambitions against Columbia. On Nov. 2, 1903, a revolt occurred. The U.S.S. Nashville, in nearby water, was ordered to seize the Panama Railroad and prevent the landing of any armed forces with “hostile intent” within 50 miles of Panama. Three days later, Hay accorded diplomatic recognition to a new country.

On Nov. 18, 1903, the minister of the new Republic of Panama, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, and Hay signed a treaty. In the terms of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla agreement, the United States agreed to pay $410,000,000 cash and an annual sum of $250,000 in return for a canal zone of 10 miles wide that was to be ceded to the United States in perpetuity.


The actual building of the Panama Canal was an engineering feat of extraordinary magnitude. The impossible building of a sea-level canal was soon discovered and a lock canal which would cost less to build was decided upon. Construction began in 1904 and was open to commercial shipping on August 15, 1914, two weeks after World War I began in Europe.

The zone cost $375,000,000 to build under the leadership of Major George W. Goethals, Army Corps of Engineers. The real hero of the project was Colonel William C. Gorgas, a health officer, who made the area a fit place to live and work by eliminating the dreadful yellow fever.


The Panamanian government cooperated with the United States, by various negotiations and treaties, in the defense and operation of the zone through World War II. After Egypt seized the Suez Canal in 1956 from England, the demands of nationalistic groups in Panama agitated for a bigger voice in the operation of the waterway.

Riots occurred in 1959 when a mob attempted to raise the Panamanian flag in the 10-mile-wide Zone.

With the Roosevelt “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine a relic, the needs of the United States Navy drastically changing and the security of the United States moving to other fire points in the world, it was time to unload the protection and upkeep of the Panama Zone. In 1978, the Senate voted to give Panama complete control of the waterway.

On the last day of 1999, the U.S. folded the American flag over the Panama Canal that “Teddy” Roosevelt claimed was his greatest achievement. That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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