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The Man Who Invented Panama
A distinguished newsman recalls a snowy night in wartime Paris, when a radio network briefly rescued from obscurity “one of the most extraordinary Frenchmen who ever lived”
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
I could only stand there mute and paralyzed through the outburst, which seemed to last an eternity. He sat down, the color of excitement slowly leaving the sharp old face. Then, as suddenly as he had exploded, he said, in a normal voice, “All right. I will do it.” The dream of speaking once more to the American people proved stronger than his sense of humiliation; and, I think, the spectacle of the stricken young man before him, about to fail on an assignment, also had something to do with his reconsideration.
We made all radio broadcasts “live” in those days—recordings were not allowed. The broadcast was scheduled for four in the morning, Paris time, and since my apartment was directly across the street from the French studios, the Colonel would come to me around midnight for a light meal and a rest before going on the air.
In the intervening days I could not help thinking how badly we instruct our young. In school I had specialized in American history and politics, and yet the name of the man who had played an extremely critical role in one of the great episodes of my country’s past was totally unknown to me until the first cable of inquiry had come from New York. So far as I had been aware, Teddy Roosevelt and Goethals had built the Canal between them, taking turns with the shovel, one gathered.
Philippe Bunau-Varilla had been dedicated to the idea of a canal through the Isthmus of Panama from the age of ten, when the immortal Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps had completed the Suez Canal and talk of Panama began to be heard at Paris dinner tables. In 1884, six years after graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique, Bunau-Varilla was hired by De Lesseps for the great enterprise at Panama, just then beginning under French control. So many of his colleagues were being felled by yellow fever, so rapidly, that Bunau-Varilla became chief engineer for the entire project at the age of twenty-six. Morale was sagging, and Bunau-Varilla fired the doubters one after another—simply because of their doubts. To his fiery spirit, doubt was treason. He, too, came within an eyelash of succumbing to the fever, but simply refused to die. In spite of his determination, the French project withered away under the debilitating effects of Paris politics, financial chicanery, and the unsnarlable red tape peculiar to France. Besides, the powers-that-were refused to follow Bunau-Varilla’s repeated suggestions that the canal be made by constructing provisional locks (as American engineers would later do) instead of trying for a sea-level waterway at the start.
The French company failed in 1889, and nearly everyone involved gave up—except Bunau-Varilla. He wrote some twenty books. He travelled all over the world trying to find private backing for a resumption of the effort. He had Czarist Russia committed, as a partner with France, when the French government collapsed and Czar Alexander III was assassinated. England was too busy with the Boer War. The United States was his only hope, but there public opinion favored Nicaragua as the canal site. The Americans wanted to disassociate their effort completely from the French failure at Panama.
Bunau-Varilla argued the case for Panama, speaking in major cities throughout the United States. He argued with President McKinley; he won the powerful support of Senator Mark Hanna and of Charles G. Dawes, Comptroller of the Currency; and finally he won over the commission Congress had created to decide between Panama and Nicaragua. But on January 7, 1902, the House of Representatives voted almost unanimously in favor of Nicaragua, and the desperate, last-inning fight was on, with the Senate the chief target. Bunau-Varilla worked so feverishly that at one juncture the French foreign minister, who happened to be in Washington, wired Bunau-Varilla’s brother in Paris, saying that his activities were highly embarrassing and that his mind was probably unbalanced. The brother, a part owner of Le Matin , rushed to Washington in alarm but soon discovered that the only thing peculiar about Bunau-Varilla was that he fought all the harder when the game seemed lost.
On May 9, 1902, a volcano on the West Indian island of Saint Vincent erupted and killed several thousand people. Two days before, the supposedly dead volcano of Mount Pelée had erupted on the island of Martinique, and thirty thousand people perished (see “Prelude to Doomsday” in the August, 1961, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ). This, Bunau-Varilla later wrote in his autobiography, “was the sensational fact which, in the last quarter hour of the battle, won me the laurels of victory.” For Nicaragua had a history of volcanic disturbances; Panama did not. The Senate vote was coming up, and the cloakroom lobbying became intense.
In spite of the eruptions, all private soundings showed that a majority were still for Nicaragua. Then Bunau-Varilla remembered something. He rushed to a stamp store and found a five-peso Nicaraguan stamp that depicted the smoking volcano of Momotombo. He bought ninety of these, affixed them to letterheads, and typed out above each stamp these words: “An official witness of the volcanic activity of the isthmus of Nicaragua.” A copy of this letter, with the stamp, went to each senator three days before the ballot. The Senate declared for Panama with only eight dissenting votes. There was more jockeying between House and Senate, but by this time the Frenchman had bought up more volcano stamps, and the House was swung over.