Teddy Roosevelt’s Panama Canal land grab: Did the end justify the means?

While Roosevelt tried to justify his intervention in Panama as a “world necessity,” he never made any bones when he bragged “I took Panama.”

Teddy Roosevelt at the Panama Canal.
Teddy Roosevelt does a little digging himself during Panama Canal construction, circa 1906. (Via Wikipedia)

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, MD, February 17, 2015—I ended the first part of this narration in 1903. The players in the Panama Canal sweepstakes were left in the following relative positions:

* The Colombian senate had rejected the treaty that had been negotiated in Washington. The reason the U.S. believed they did was the fact that the Panama Canal Company would receive a lot more money than Colombia. Colombians  maintained that the reason was that the U.S. and not Colombia would have authority in the Canal Zone;



* Teddy Roosevelt had bet his campaign on building a canal through Panama. Upon rejection of the treaty by the Colombian senate, he had to resort to plan B;

* Philippe Bunau-Varilla and his partner James Cromwell began seeing their $40 million in danger. They held the Panama Canal Company rights to build the canal. The U.S. was willing to pay them $40 million for the rights;

* The Panamanians, who were never too happy with the Central government in Bogotá, were being influenced into taking matters into their own hands.

In the fall of 1903, Bunau-Varilla and Cromwell held multiple meetings with Roosevelt and his
representatives.  While there is no legal record of these meetings , the consensus is that they agreed on a plan to accomplish what the Colombia Senate had thwarted. There is also some evidence that Bunau-Varilla and Cromwell also had contacted the Colombian garrison in Panama and offered them weapons and support in an uprising. The sum of $200,000 has been mentioned as the “support” that was given to the Colombians in Panama in order to rise in arms against the Colombian government.

The Colombian government promptly sent troops to put down the insurrection in Panama. As the troops landed on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus in Colon, American troops were sent to intercept them on their way to Panama City, the capital. The justification was that under the treaty for the Panama railroad, the U.S. had the authority to “protect Americans and American interests.” In other words, Colombia was not to be allowed to exercise its territorial authority because of an unlawful use of a treaty.


Teddy Roosevelt with his favorite globe

As the American troops intercepted the Colombian force, the latter were “dissuaded” into continuing on to Panama City. The fact that several American warships had been positioned near Colon was probably another factor in convincing the Colombian force to turn back. The Colombian force, believing to be in an inferior position, re-embarked and went back to their garrisons in Colombia.

To continue the farce, the newly formed government in Panama promptly named Bunau-Varilla as its representative to the United States government. The final agreement gave the U.S. complete control over the Canal Zone.

As the news of the agreement reached Panama and some citizens showed their displeasure, they were given $25 dollars each to change their minds. It is no wonder that for some time Panama has been known as an international banking center. For many years the drug money from the Colombian cartels was then laundered through Panama.

As the failure to recover Panama was reported in the Colombian senate, one senator was heard saying, “We have lost everything but our honor.” To which someone in the gallery responded, “If that is so, can you tell us where it is?”

In 1921, the U.S. and Colombia signed a treaty to settle the Panama Canal issue. The U.S. paid Colombia $25 million dollars. This act has never been fully accepted by the Colombian public. When I was a grammar school student in Colombia in the late 1940s, I remember that the Colombian map still showed Panama as part of its territory.

Historians have cataloged actions like those in Panama as “Teddy Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.” Not because it was an act of protection of the Americas from European intervention, but because of the belief of the U.S. as the policeman or “right setter” of issues in the hemisphere.

While Roosevelt tried to justify his intervention in Panama as a “world necessity,” he never made any bones when he bragged “I took Panama.” I guess he believed that the end justified the means.

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 – at http://www.commdiginews.com/author/mario-salazar/. Follow Mario on Twitter (@chibcharus), Google+ and Facebook (Mario Salazar).

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