History of the Panama Canal
In 1825, a group of American businesspeople announced the
formation of a canal building company, with interests in constructing
a canal system across the Isthmus. This project was to take place in
an area now called Panama. The endeavor was filled with controversy.
Though the canal itself was not built until the early 1900's every
step toward the building and ownership, was saturated with difficulty.
Walter LaFeber illustrates the dilemmas in a historical analysis. In
his work he states five questions that address the significance of the
Panama Canal to United States. This paper will discuss the historical
perspective of the book's author, address pertinent three questions
and give a critique of LaFeber's work, The Panama Canal.
For proper historical analysis one must understand the
importance of the Canal. The Panama Canal and the Canal Zone (the
immediate area surrounding the Canal) are important areas used for
trade. Even before the canal was built there were to large ports on
both sides of the Isthmus. Large amounts of cargo passed through the
Isthmus by a railroad that connected the two ports. The most important
cargo was the gold mined in California before the transcontinental
railroad was completed in the United States. It has strategic
significance because of its location, acting as a gateway connecting
the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This allows for rapid naval
deployment between fleets in either ocean. These two facets make the
Panama Canal very important in the region.
LaFeber notes that Panamanian nationalism played a large role
in the creation of the canal and, consequently, the cause for the
area's constant instability. The first expression occurred in the late
1800's with Panamanian struggle for independence from Columbia. The
United States eager to build the canal, and control its operation,
used and backed Panamanian nationalist. During the Roosevelt
administration, not only did the United States manipulate factors
isolating Panama from other world powers through the Monroe Doctrine;
but it committed troops aiding the revolutionaries against another
sovereign state. The reason this is a surprise is because the
Roosevelt administration normally held a position favoring stability.
The United States had no legal right to use force against Columbia.
Nationalism came back to haunt the United States. With the
treaty signed and a 99-year lease given to the United States, the
Canal was built. Since then, the United States has varied on its
stance of ownership and the principles of sovereignty concerning the
Canal. The ever persistent debate of who owns the Canal and who should
have sovereign control over it, has not been solved. The United States
has occasionally attempted to "claim" the Canal zone through various
methods such as military occupation, exclusion of Panamanians for
important jobs in Canal operations and even through the customary
aspect of international law. However, each time the Panamanians have
managed to maintain claim to the Canal despite the United State's
imperialistic posturing to get it.
The most recent and notorious of the United States' attempts
to annex the Canal Zone was during the Reagan administration.
President Reagan said that the Canal Zone could be equated as a
sovereign territory equal to that of Alaska. The question here is, was
he correct? LaFeber points out that, "the United States does not own
the Zone or enjoy all sovereign rights in it." He uses the treaty of
1936 in Article III that states, "The Canal Zone is the territory of
the Republic of Panama under the jurisdiction of the United States."
The entire topic was summed up neatly by Ellsworth Bunker, a
negotiator in the region, when he said, "We bought Louisiana; we
bought Alaska. In Panama we bought not territory, but rights." A
second important question, is the Canal a vital interest to the United
States? LaFeber gives three points suggesting that it is not. First,
the importance of the Canal decreased after 1974, because of the end
of the Vietnam War and all related military traffic ceased. Second, is
the age of the antique machinery dating back to 1914. Inevitably the
machinery will need to be replaced. Lastly, the size of the new
tankers and cargo ships. The capacity of the canal is too small to
handle such a large amount of tonnage. These are viable factors;
however, the first argument is concerning whether a war is taking
place. It is circumstantial in providing a solid reason for increased
traffic through the Zone. This can easily change through and emergence
of a new conflict or trading habits of other countries.
Thirdly, why have the Panamanians insisted on assuming total
control of the Canal. The Panamanians are making millions of dollars
annually and the United States run the Canal efficiently. LaFeber
points in the direction of economics as the principal factor and
nationalism as secondary. The Panamanians fear the amount of reliance
they have on U.S. investments. The fear is enhanced by the large
dependence of their national economy on MNC's, American banks and
mining companies. LaFeber continues saying that Panamanians find it
difficult to cross the Zone because of check points and resent their
country being split in half. Continuing he asserts that perhaps if the
Panamanians were to have complete control the Zone the amount of
revenue would increase. Panamanians could also develop spinoff
industries such as drydocks and ship building creating an increase in
profits. Walter LaFeber develops a persuasive argument for the
interpretation of historical events surrounding the creation of the
Panama Canal. As is consistent with other LaFeber's works, his
research and fact finding technique in The Panama Canal is complete if
not exhaustive. He presents an objective outlook on issues surrounding
the Canal. He uses a historical approach in presenting his
contribution to a subject that is lacking in information and scholarly
examination. In conclusion, this paper has addressed the historical
perspective that the author of the book used. A discussion also
included three important questions concerning the Canal, its
importance and the relationship between the United States and Panama.
Furthermore, this paper examines the effectiveness and usefulness of
LaFeber's, The Panama Canal.