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Imperialism and The Panama Canal
Transcript of Imperialism and The Panama Canal
Where did the idea come from?
Before the United States considered building a canal to eliminate the nearly 12,000 mile journey around the southern tip of South America, the French had attempted to build a canal in the 1870s through a strip of Panama that was ideal because of its geography. (1) The French were not able to complete this canal due to budgeting problems and disease, but they did leave behind the footprint of their plans. (2) In 1901, when the United States began to consider the idea of building a canal, it made the most sense to try to obtain the rights and land to finish what the French had started. There were only two problems. One: the United States had signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with England in 1850, which forbid neither England nor the United States from building a canal like the one that the French had tried to build. (3) Two: Panama was a state of Colombia, which meant that the United States would have to negotiate with the Colombian government. (4)
obtaining the land
The United States was having trouble negotiating with the Colombian government. It is ambiguous exactly how the US aided Panamanian revolutionaries in freeing Panama from Colombian control, but the most common understanding is that the US placed a naval ship off of the coast of Panama and Colombia, preventing a ship of Colombian troops from landing. Meanwhile, Panamanian revolutionaries were conducting a revolt, which resulted in Panama declaring independence from Colombia on November 4th, 1903. (10) The US was the first country in the world to officially recognize Panama's new government. (11)
was the united states' intervention in panama imperialism?
Many historians will argue that because the United States was using England's situation, Panama's situation, and Colombia's location to eventually build the canal, it was a form of new imperialism. (13) New imperialism is the concept of larger (some would say superior) countries taking control of weaker countries' government and economy for their own personal economic and political gain. The United States did not necessarily take political or economic control of Panama, but they did manipulate the Colombian government, and later the Panamanian government ultimately resulting in the Panama Canal. Because of the conditions of the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty with England, the United States was able to build a canal that would not only serve their own trade routes, but would allow the US to make money off of other ships that wanted to use the canal. These two things combined to give the US both political advantages in Panama and economic control of the region.
Roosevelt's control of the canal and the area beyond
When President Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal in 1906 to oversee the progress that was being made in its construction, he recorded some of his thoughts by creating a message to congress. (15) In this message he states, "In the month of November I visited the Isthmus of Panama, going over the Canal Zone with considerable care; and also visited the cities of Panama and Colon, which are not in the Zone or under the United States flag, but as to which the United States Government, through its agents, exercises control for certain sanitary purposes." (16) The United States was controlling other parts of Panama that did not include the land that was set aside specifically for the building of the canal. (17) Roosevelt claims that the land was being controlled for "sanitary" purposes, but it is easily arguable that the United States took control of these other sections of land in order to create a strong presence in Panama. This message to congress from Roosevelt is a good source of information because it was a message specifically written for the US government, which would make it an unbiased perspective, as it would be important for Roosevelt to report what the US was doing in Panama accurately to Congress. It was also written during and directly after Roosevelt's visit to Panama, which would make it written within the context of the event. The United States was taking advantage of Panama's new government, and using it to control and manipulate more of Panama than was necessary to construct the canal. These actions by the US can easily be defined as imperialism, because the US was taking political and economic control of a country that was less powerful at the time.
The United States first had to negotiate through the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with England before they could start making plans for the canal. England was in a tough position at the time. Foreign relations were unstable in Europe, and England was busy fighting the South African Boer war. (6) Because of these two things, England was making an effort to uphold a good relationship with the United States, so it was easy for Teddy Roosevelt to persuade them to agree to the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty in 1901. (7) This treaty allowed the US to build a canal through Central America as long as they agreed to allow the canal to be open to other countries with minimal fares. In order to get the land in Panama, the US had to go through a process with eventually resulted in Panama revolting against the Colombian government, and declaring itself as a new country. (8)
the us government planned for panama's freedom
On November 5th, 1903, a newspaper article was printed in 'The Call,' which was the local newspaper of San Francisco. (18) The article stated that the US had know that Panama would revolt against Colombia, and had placed a naval ship near the coastline of Panama, which prevented the Colombian ship (the Bogota) from landing in time to stop the revolution. (19) This article is saying that the government knew that they would be able to free Panama from Colombia, and in turn, Panama would feel gratitude towards the US, resulting in Panama doing what ever the US wanted them to do. (20) These actions allowed the US to take indirect political control of Panama. This article is a good source to look at because it was written within the context of the event, therefore it is a primary account of what was happening at the time period. It is also important to note that this was a newspaper article written for the purposes of relaying information to the people, making its primary purpose to relay accurate information that would be pertinent to the people. This would make the information in the article unbiased. A possible limitation of this article could be that it was written by an American newspaper, making the overall tone of the article to be positive towards the intervention of the US in Panama. Overall, this article shows that the US knew that they would be able to free Panama from Colombia, and then use Panama's new and weak government to gain the land to build the canal.
There is ongoing discrepancy between historians as to whether or not the United States' actions in the case of the Panama Canal should be classified as new imperialism. One historian, Anya Van Wagtendonk, claims that the U.S. was using Panama for political and economic gain, making their involvement in Panama new imperialism. (21) Van Wagtendonk quoted Ovidio Diaz-Espino in her article saying, "The canal was a geopolitical strategy to make the United States the most powerful nation on earth." (22) Diaz-Espino is a lawyer that grew up in Panama. (23) Diaz-Espino offers an interesting perspective, as he was born and raised in Panama. It is significant that a native Panamanian is saying that the US's actions in gaining the Panama Canal were a plot to gain political and economic superiority over other nations. This is showing a different voice from the many politicians that have come forward to say that the US was trying to help Panama by aiding their revolution. However, he does present the possibility of bias, as he obviously is strongly associated with Panama.
Another historian, named Walter LaFeber, clearly states in his interview with PBS that he believes that the US and Roosevelt were doing the right thing in helping Panama, not for political or economic reasons, but acting as an "international police power." (24) There is one piece of information that was brought to light by LaFeber in his interview that could contradict his original point. He clearly states that Roosevelt did not sign the rights to the land for the canal with the new Panamanian government, but rather with the French canal company that had originally tried to build the canal. (25) LaFeber never does recognize this as an action that would indicate that Roosevelt had 'freed' Panama from Colombia solely acting as an "international police power." (26)
The Panama Canal is one of many cases of new imperialism on smaller and still developing countries. Panama went through many different stages in their government before they were able to create their own free country. Just because the United States did not take full political power does not mean that they did not use Panama to gain wold political power. Without the Panama Canal, the US would be wasting thousands of dollars and risking many lives every year to clear the southern tip of South America in order to send ships to California. Not only did the canal help to improve the US's domestic economy, but it allowed the US to make money off of other countries that wanted to use the canal to access California and other destinations beyond South America. Overall, the US was able to use another country's vulnerability for political and economic gain, making their involvement in the Panamanian Revolution and the building of the canal to be a form of new imperialism.