How Teddy Roosevelt got the Panama Canal (part 1)

Teddy Roosevelt wanted the Panama Canal - this is how he got it

Panama Canal
Panama Canal

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, MD, February 13, 2015 — The acquisition, design and building of the Panama Canal is one of the more interesting stories of early 20th century. Most Americans know of the incredible feat in overcoming the challenges of constructing the canal, but few know how it became ours to build.

In February 1898, the battleship Maine sank in Havana (Cuba) harbor. While the explosion that caused its sinking was never fully attributed, the sentiment in the United States was that Spain had caused it.

Several inquiries through the years would never discover the guilty party. Coincidentally (or maybe not), the Maine had been sent to Havana as the result of political upheaval by wealthy Cubans who wanted to secede from Spain. What resulted from the sinking of the Maine surely helped their cause.

Remember the Maine!

Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Rider 1898
Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Rider 1898

With the yellow press leading the charge with the slogan “Remember the Maine, To Hell with Spain,” it eventually led the United States into war with Spain. We know this event as the “Spanish American War.” Many Americans were sympathetic with the Cubans’ desire to separate from Spain and the war gave them their wishes.

Teddy Roosevelt became an instant hero in this war with his charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill. He soon became governor of New York and in 1901 vice president to William McKinley. When McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo in September 1901, Teddy Roosevelt became president of the United States.

Teddy being fully aware of geo-political issues and especially the logistics of moving strategic assets from the Caribbean and the Pacific saw that a short cut through Central America was imperative. This fact had been simmering since the discovery of gold in California in 1849 and the necessary movement of personnel and gold between the East and West coasts.

This was temporarily obviated with a treaty between Colombia and the United States and the eventual construction of a railroad that breached the isthmus. This would become a factor in the eventual crisis over the treaty to build the canal.

Negotiations Between the U.S. and Colombia

As the 1904 elections became heated, the Republicans led by Roosevelt favored a canal through Panama, while the Democrats believed a better option was to build one through Nicaragua. Some historians have claimed that this was one of the most important international issues of the campaign and that Teddy’s political future was dependent on it.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of Suez Canal

During all this time negotiations had been taking place between the U.S. government and a Colombian envoy on the details of a treaty. Final details were ironed out in 1903, and the proposed treaty was sent to Colombia to be ratified by its senate.

The treaty called for the acquisition of a right-of-way in the Isthmus to be used by the United States for any purpose that would facilitate the movement of cargo and personnel. Its supporters saw this as an improvement that would benefit not only the U.S. but all countries in the world.

Remuneration, that would become important in the final events, provided for $40 million to be given to the company that owned the rights to the canal construction and a much lesser amount to be given to the Republic of Colombia for the right of way. The payment to Colombia included ten million pesos at the ratification of the treaty and 250,000 pesos per year as a royalty.

The rights to the canal had been given to Ferdinand de Lesseps and his company. De Lesseps had been the successful builder of the Suez Canal, giving him both fame and money.

De Lesseps Bows Out After Fiasco

However, his attempts to build a canal through Panama had been a fiasco and after giving up, he sold the rights. The rights ended up the property of a Frenchman and an American. Their names were Philippe J. Bunau-Varilla and William N. Cromwell. This also would become very important in the final course of events.

Meanwhile, Colombia had been engaged in another civil war, one of the many (some claim 89 civil wars were waged) that they had in the nineteenth century.  This particular civil war was the bloodiest and lasted almost three years (the 1000 Day War, Guerra de los mil días).

Peace in Colombia was finally accomplished on June 1, 1903. The Canal treaty arrived in Colombia and was rejected by the Colombian senate. Some writers claim the “senate” had been formed with the sole purpose of rejecting it. While the government of José Manuel Marroquín had actively pursued the treaty, the disparity of the U.S. payments favoring those owing the construction rights was an issue. The Colombian senate believed that if they would delay ratification, they would get a much better deal since the rights given to the Panamá Canal Company (de Lesseps’ company) would expire soon thereafter.

Can you guess what happened next? You don’t have to guess: the final part of this article will be published next week.

(This article was published originally on September 17, 2012)

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, civil engineer, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles – ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket – in 21st Century Pacifist. Follow Mario on Twitter (@chibcharus ), Google+ and Facebook  (Mario Salazar).

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