The Man Who Invented Panama

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Philippe Bunau-Varilla, one of the most extraordinary and extraordinarily effective Frenchmen who ever lived, was born in Paris on July 25, 1859, and died there on May 18, 1940, just as Hitler’s Panzer Corps was smashing across the French border. That was three months after my strange night with him, the cold, snowy night when he made his last public utterance.

I have often wondered if the strain of that night hastened his death. If so, it may have been mercy in disguise; had he lived a month longer, he would have watched Nazi troops marching under his windows in the Avenue d’lena. He would have died with a broken heart, in a resurgence of the bitterness he felt toward previous French governments—the one that failed with the Panama Canal, his young heart’s goal; and the one responsible for the false conviction of Captain Dreyfus, with whose final vindication Bunau-Varilla had much to do.

It could be that I was the last American he ever conversed with, and if so, I would take that as a great honor. Had this man not lived it may be doubted that the Canal would exist where it does, or that the United States would control it, or that Panama would be an independent nation. It is not stretching things so terribly far to say that Bunau-Varilla virtually invented Panama. I do not know what Panamanian history books say about this Frenchman. Certainly, there is precious little in American history books about him. If you had heard of him before you began reading this article, you are one American in a million. Indeed, I suspect that even very few Frenchmen today are aware of this countryman of theirs who had much to do with the construction of the Paris subway system, who helped save a French army in World War I, and who invented the technique that purifies the water that millions of French city dwellers now drink.

Bunau-Varilla was a great engineer; he was also, perhaps, the most persuasive one-man lobby that ever harassed and cajoled the Congress of the United States into doing exactly as he desired—and the Western alliance is safer today because of it.

I had not thought of the man for years until I arrived for a dinner party at the French Embassy in Washington one evening in the spring of 1958.1 knew that Ambassador Hervé Alphand had just remarried, but I had not known that his new wife was the former daughter-in-law of Bunau-Varilla. Her two children were present, a remarkably beautiful daughter and a son of about twenty. He was also named Philippe, and his resemblance to his grandfather was extraordinary-the same slim, slight body; the small, fine features; the same widely spaced, grave, and steady eyes. This stirred old memories in me, and when I got back to my Virginia home that night I searched among the records of my Paris wartime days. Among my wife’s effects I found something—a faded calling card. Scrawled above and below the name Philippe Bunau-Varilla, in the slightly shaky script of a very old man, were the words, in French, “Respectful homage to Madame Sevareid, with his gratitude for her gracious hospitality of the morning.” The date was February 17, 1940. On the back of the card, for reasons she cannot recall, my wife had scribbled, “This came with the beautiful box of candy the next day after he called on us from midnight to four A.M. He’s an awfully nice old man, very entertaining and has a wooden leg and lots of money and memories.”

It was his memories that interested me that winter in Paris. A cable from CBS in New York requested me to find out if the Colonel was still alive and if so, to have him make a five-minute broadcast on the Robert Ripley “Believe It or Not” radio program about his role in the Panama Canal. Very much alive in a magnificent apartment near the Etoile, the old gentleman immediately agreed. Clearly, it was an immense pleasure for him to be resurrected on the American scene, if only for five short minutes on the radio. He had his vanity, and he was entitled to it.

I called on him several times to discuss his life story as we would condense it for the broadcast. He would get books down from his shelves, open great albums of photographs, read to me from letters written to him by members of Theodore Roosevelt’s family, U.S. Cabinet members, senators, bankers, writers—all the famous worthies of the turn of the century, it seemed to me. I began to get nervous—I was young and inexperienced, and an eighty-year-old man of intense pride can be difficult to handle in shaping a broadcast.

My nervousness increased when a new cable arrived —"Cut the broadcast down to four minutes.” I broke this news to him, and a deep frown appeared between the steady, penetrating eyes. But he eventually agreed, and the pleasant manner instantly returned.

Another cable arrived—"Cut it to three minutes.” I was panic-stricken and cabled back to New York begging them to leave it at four minutes. The program producer refused; it was three or nothing. The traditional blind rage of the foreign correspondent toward the home office possessed me. My hand was literally shaking when I next pushed the doorbell at the old Colonel’s apartment, and I could scarcely get the words out as I relayed this latest necessity. He exploded. He hopped up and down on his wooden leg and shouted, “Three minutesl To tell the story of the Panama Canall No, no! Impossible! I cannot do it!”